The fact checker who didn’t even look into the claim he was fact checking

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From Trust, yet verify

The title of this Newsweek fact check caught my attention:

Fact check: Did Greta Thunberg Delete Claim That Humanity Will End by 2023?

As most of you would probably already know, Thunberg posted a tweet in 2018 with a short-term prediction and deleted it when its end date approached. This resulted in quite some reactions, putting forward that this deletion again shows that her alarmist claims are weak and unsubstantiated, therefor not worth paying attention to.

The Newsweek fact check starts by listing three examples criticizing the deletion of the tweet, stating that they all refer to screenshots of this deleted tweet, but no such screenshot was provided in the fact check, only the text of the tweet was given:

A top climate scientist is warning that climate change will wipe out all of humanity unless we stop using fossil fuels over the next five years.

The author of the fact check, Tom Norton, didn’t seem to acknowledge that the tweet existed. He presented the tweet throughout the fact check as being “allegedly posted” or “allegedly deleted”. I found this odd and I became curious whether some proof of its existence could be found online. There is indeed an archived version of that tweet on (version of May 20, 2021):

That tweet links to an article with a url that begins with “…”. Okay, now I can imagine why Norton wouldn’t want to show an image of the tweet in his fact check and just provided the text.

Luckily, the fact check provided a link to the archived version of that gritpost on (the original article also doesn’t exist anymore). That article was written by Scott Alden and the top climate scientist he referred to is Harvard professor James Anderson (from the discovery of the Ozone Hole fame).

Reading that gritpost article, it quickly became clear that Thunberg didn’t made up her claim. The message of her tweet is a verbatim copy of the first sentence of the gritpost article, in which Alden supposedly paraphrased what Anderson said in a speech at the University of Chicago on January 2018. So, that claim in the tweet is not a misinterpretation by Thunberg of the gritpost article, it comes directly from the article itself, hence the double quotes in her tweet.

Then the fact check took an unexpected turn. The fact checker declared that the gritpost article didn’t accurately summarize Anderson’s claims and that an Earth article and a Forbes article “quoted Anderson’s comments more closely to what he was quoted as saying”. That doesn’t make sense. The text of Anderson’s speech is not available (as Norton himself admitted) and he clearly wasn’t there during Anderson’s speech (otherwise we would be looking at a completely different fact check), yet he somehow knows that the Earth article and the Forbes article are closer to what Anderson was saying?!

Whether or not that turning point makes sense, the fact checker only referred to the Forbes article from that moment on until the end of the fact check, totally ignoring Thunberg’s tweet and the article that she linked to. Besides their brief introduction, the tweet and the gritpost article are not mentioned anywhere else in the fact check…

The final rating of the fact check is “False”:

This rating was based on three conclusions. This is the first one:

The tweet that Thunberg allegedly sent referenced an article that did not say the world would end by 2023.

That is puzzling. The text of Thunberg’s tweet is the very first sentence of the referenced article, so whatever claim is in that sentence is also the claim that Thunberg tweeted. It is also not relevant to the fact check. The subject of the fact check is whether Thunberg deleted the claim that humanity will end by 2023, not whether the gritpost article made the claim that the humanity would end by 2023.

Things didn’t improve in the second conclusion:

The article, which is no longer online, did inaccurately reference quotes from climate expert Professor James Anderson, who said in 2018 that unless the world stopped using fossil fuels by 2023, the effect on the polar ice caps would be irreversible.

That may or may not be true, but it is not relevant to this fact check. The subject of the fact check is whether Thunberg deleted the claim that humanity would end by 2023, not whether Anderson was accurately quoted in the gritpost article that Thunberg’s tweet linked to.

And finally the third conclusion:

While none of Anderson’s quotes (at least those online) state that humanity would be wiped out, it is also inaccurate to claim that Thunberg’s tweet or the article she referenced said the world was going to end this year.

It is entirely possible that Anderson never ever make the claim that humanity would be wiped out, but that is again not relevant to the claim that is being fact checked. The subject of the fact check is whether Thunberg deleted the claim that humanity would end by 2023, not whether Anderson ever made the claim that humanity would be wiped out.

These are pretty weird conclusions for a fact check with the subject “Did Thunberg deleted the claim that humanity will end in 2023?”. In what world would these conclusions justify “False” as the final rating?

In the end, do I think that Thunberg deleted the claim that humanity will end by 2023? There are two parts to this claim:

  1. Did Thunberg delete the tweet? I surely think she did. There is an archived version of that tweet on and going to that tweet currently gives the message that the page doesn’t exist anymore, so yes, it looks like it was deleted.
  2. Did Thunberg tweet the claim that “humanity would end by 2023”? Personally, I don’t think so. Just looking at the message of the tweet, those “next five years” are related to the period in which we would need to stop using fossil fuels in order to prevent reaching a tipping point, not to the period by when all of humanity would be wiped out.

Granted, she didn’t tweet that humanity would end by 2023, but that, unless we stopped using fossil fuels by now, climate change will wipe out all of humanity somewhere in the undefined future. That is still a pretty strong claim tough, so I can somehow understand why the fact checker tried to divert the attention away from it as much as possible in his fact check.