On Friday, PolitiFact released its candidates for the most anticipated fact checking event of the year: 2014’s Lie of the Year. As always, there are some good candidates, and there are a few rather unconvincing entries.
President Barack Obama’s assertions that his “position hasn’t changed” on implementing immigration reform via executive order and his claim that the Islamic State is merely al-Qaeda’s jayvee team made the list. Rep. Duncan Hunter’s (R-CA) unsubstantiated assertion that 10 ISIS fighters had been apprehended at the Mexican border while attempting to infiltrate the United States also merited a mention.
There are others, however, which probably do not deserve to have made it onto this roster of the greatest lies of the year. The claim that “President Barack Obama has issued upwards of 1,000 executive orders, more than any modern president” which PolitiFact noted has been propagated by a “chain email” is perhaps unworthy of the scrutiny of this institution’s auditors. There are likely more than a few dubious claims promulgated by your paranoid Uncle Max the fact-checkers at PolitiFact could busy themselves reviewing. Even they would agree that this wouldn’t be a particularly productive use of their time.
But the most undeserving of entries upon which PolitiFact has asked their audience to vote is a claim attributed to the syndicated columnist George Will. That claim stems from an October 18 appearance on Fox News Sunday in which Will criticized the members of the Obama administration for their hubristic early statements assuring the country that the Ebola outbreak in Africa was contained to that continent.
“The problem is the original assumption, said with great certitude if not certainty, was that you need to have direct contact, meaning with bodily fluids from someone because it’s not airborne,” Will said of the deadly African hemorrhagic fever. “There are doctors who are saying that in a sneeze or some cough, some of the airborne particles can be infectious.”
Will later added that the Ebola virus is understood by some medical professionals to survive outside the body on dry surfaces for “a number of days.” At this point, he was cut off by host Chris Wallace and asked for his sources. Will attributed this claim to researchers at the University of Minnesota.
In mid-September, the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy posted a commentary from two University of Illinois professors.
The commentary, co-written by Lisa Brosseau and Rachel Jones, argued that health care workers treating patients with Ebola should wear respirators. Face masks, they said, are not enough.
We asked Brosseau if Will had correctly relayed her work. Brosseau said her views had nothing to do with Ebola spreading among the public at large. The focus was on health care workers treating people in the isolation wards.
PolitiFact rated Will’s claim “False.”
Just one second. While there is no evidence to suggest that Ebola could survive outside the body for hours let alone days, there is some evidence that transmission of this disease can occur outside the body. What is the source for this claim? The Centers for Disease Control.
“If you are sniffling and sneezing, you produce microorganisms that can get on stuff in a room. If people touch them, they could be” infected, said Dr. Meryl Nass, of the Institute for Public Accuracy in Washington, DC.
Nass pointed to a poster the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quietly released on its Web site saying the deadly virus can be spread through “droplets.”
“Droplet spread happens when germs traveling inside droplets that are coughed or sneezed from a sick person enter the eyes, nose or mouth of another person,” the poster states.
Nass slammed the contradiction.
“The CDC said it doesn’t spread at all by air, then Friday they came out with this poster,” she said. “They admit that these particles or droplets may land on objects such as doorknobs and that Ebola can be transmitted that way.”
While this form of transmission does not meet the clinical definition of an airborne pathogen, that certainly doesn’t matter to the hypothetical individual who becomes infected with the disease after never having direct contact with an Ebola patient.
We are now engaged in a semantic argument about whether or not expectorated fluid particles infected with the virus represents airborne transmission. Well, PolitiFact proceeded to have that very semantic argument.
“As the CDC says, Ebola can only be spread through direct contact. Airborne suggests a sneeze or a cough a few plane rows away, or across the school room,” PunditFact’s Aaron Sharockman wrote in PolitiFact’s defense. “That’s wrong and an overreach.”
Stephen Gire, a research scientist with Sabeti Lab at Harvard University, observed that an infectious individual could spread the disease via particulate if a susceptible host were sitting in close proximity. “It’s important to note that this form of transmission does not constitute ‘airborne,'” Gire told the researchers at PolitiFact. “This is still a form of direct contact.”
So, we’re now talking about the distance away from which one has to be in order to not contract this disease via projectile transmission and the accuracy of the clinical jargon to which Will appealed? The columnist may have improperly cited some research on Ebola, but does this make for the Lie of the Year? It would be the height of intellectual dishonesty if it did.
That is also a reason a dubious distinction like the Lie of the Year should not be submitted to partisan audiences for review.
An earlier version of this post identified Rep. Hunter as (D-CA)