The Death of Snopes

snopes-no-guns

Oh Snopes… how I will miss you.

When it came to reminding my friends on Facebook that publishing a chain e-mail to your timeline would not actually exempt you from the Facebook Terms of Service, or debunking various internet urban legends you were my go to source. However, those days are over.

With a shakeup of ownership in 2014, and new writers coming onto the site, it looks like Snopes.com is rapidly loosing trust. With people already calling the site “biased against Trump“, this recent controversy might very well end up being the death knell of the site, at least in terms of its status as a trusted, unbiased, resource.

It’s one thing to attack a misinformed, incomplete, and unbiased article, it is another to so poorly critique a paper that the paper’s co-author writes an open letter accusing you of not even reading the paper. But that’s what Snopes has done.

In a recent post on drgo.us Gary Mauser, Ph.D. publishes his request to take down an article on Snopes.com saying –

Dr. Gary Mauser, Ph.D. and Professor emeritus, Simon Fraser University.
Dr. Gary Mauser, Ph.D. and Professor emeritus, Simon Fraser University.

I am writing to request that Snopes.com retract “Harvard Flaw Review,” by Kim LaCapria. This review makes numerous errors in discussing a paper that Don Kates and I wrote: “Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide?” published by the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. It is doubtful that the reviewer read our paper. 

Her review of our paper is demonstrably biased. She merely reiterated a single, biased source, David Hemenway. Had she read papers by well-respected academic researchers Gary Kleck or John Lott she would have encountered scholarly opinions that differ from the usual public health advocacy. It is difficult to understand why Snopes.com would assign her as a Fact Checker.

LaCapria displays her biases in describing the lead author of our article, Don Kates, only as a “gun rights enthusiast.” She should have acknowledged that Don B. Kates is a highly respected scholar. He wrote the classic paper, “Handgun Prohibition and the Original Meaning of the Second Amendment,” which was the first modern article in a major law review arguing for the individual-rights view of the Second Amendment. Since then he wrote or co-wrote over 15 more law review articles, as well as writing, co-writing or editing four books. The scholarship of Don B. Kates was the catalyst for the legal briefs filed before the Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller, the 2008 case that reaffirmed the individual right to arms. Based on his publications in law reviews, Kates became an advisor to the plaintiff’s counsel in the Heller case, Alan Gura.

Dr. Mauser goes on, siting a number of issues with the attack on his paper. First, “her critique avoids coming to grips with the factual arguments in our paper and largely focuses on reports instead”. As he stated in the letter, if the facts were wrong why not demonstrate that?

He goes on to say, “her comments are drawn virtually holus bolus from comments made by anti-gun campaigner David Hemenway in 2009” and “Third, following Hemenway, LaCapria claims our paper “didn’t constitute a study.” Our paper is a legal brief, not a scientific analysis, which is just as much a “study” as is a scientific experiment. Our paper is a factual analysis intended to inform public policy development.”

Yet, the strikes against LaCapria’s article continue, she attempted to exaggerate the ideological bent of Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, even going so far as to say that the paper is not an actual Harvard study, when it was published in a Harvard University law review journal. Something does not simply stop being a “Harvard study” simply because you say it is not one.

Finally, “LaCapria errs when she claims, “the paper disingenuously misrepresented extant research to draw its conclusions.”

We did not. It is incorrect to claim we commit the fallacy of asserting that lack of evidence of effectiveness is proof of ineffectiveness. In our paper we state clearly that the body of research has “failed to identify any gun control that had reduced violent crime, suicide or gun accidents.” This does not differ in any important aspect from the conclusions drawn by the papers we cited. For instance: “The Task Force found insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws or combinations of laws reviewed on violent outcomes.”

At the time of the writing Dr. Mauser and his co-author are still waiting on a response from Snopes.com and it’s editorial staff.

I fear that when it comes to political issues Snopes.com has probably tarnished its reputation beyond repair. I for one will have a hard time taking anything they write seriously after this. If you’d like to read the open letter in full you can do so here.

What are your thoughts on this issue and the downfall of Snopes.com? Sound off in the comments below.