Our 2013 Top 10 rulings
By Tim Murphy
Published on Sunday, December 29th, 2013 at 12:01 a.m.
In the past year, PolitiFact Rhode Island has published nearly 100 Truth-O-Meter rulings on such weighty issues as gun control, same-sex marriage and climate change.
Not surprisingly, all of those topics were represented in our Top 10 rulings of 2013, along with some subjects that were, shall we say, slightly less serious.
We thought we’d look back on our most popular items of the year, based on our website traffic.
Of course, none came close to our most popular item ever, which continues to attract readers from around the country, nearly two years after it first appeared. Hint: it’s about Congress -- and baboons.
We’ll get to that unlikely pairing shortly.
But first, our 2013 Top 10:
10. In July, the website BuzzFeed, which specializes in provocative lists of "facts" and celebrity gossip, posted "11 Awesome Facts You Never Knew About Rhode Island," an ad-sponsored compilation that we couldn’t resist checking.
We picked "fact" 11, a claim that, in Providence, "it’s illegal to sell toothpaste and a toothbrush to the same customer on a Sunday." We scoured Rhode Island statutes and Providence ordinances, searching for the oral hygiene ordinance. Amazingly, it doesn’t exist. Our ruling: Pants on Fire.
(After our ruling, the BuzzFeed claim was modified to acknowledge that "some believe it is an urban myth.")
9. In January, the Central Falls Police Department sent out a news release announcing a grant to help low-income pet owners pay for spaying and neutering their cats. "Statistics show one male cat can father 420,000 kittens in five years," the release said.
Turns out, this claim has more than nine lives; variations of it have appeared on websites and in stories for 20 years. After a little work with a calculator and conversations with veterinarians, we quickly ruled this claim Pants on Fire.
8. Less than a month after the Boston Marathon bombings, talk-show host John DePetro weighed in on bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, killed in a shootout with the police. DePetro said it was insulting that Tsarnaev’s grave, in Doswell, Va., was "not far" from President John F. Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery.
We checked the distance between the two graves: 74 miles, about the distance from the tip of Narragansett to the Marathon bombing site. Our ruling: Pants on Fire.
7. During a July 1 General Assembly hearing, state Rep. Teresa Tanzi, D-South Kingstown, spoke in favor of a bill to ban the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. "We have no idea what is contained in that vapor," she said, referring to what users of the battery-powered nicotine products inhale.
We ruled her claim False after we found a 2010 academic paper in the peer-reviewed Journal of Public Health Policy that reviewed 16 other studies on the vapor components -- primarily propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin and nicotine.
6. State Rep. Charlene Lima, D-Cranston, made a surprising claim on the floor of the House in June. Because Rhode Island never ratified the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, she said, "Rhode Island doesn’t even have to pay federal income taxes."
There were two big problems with this claim. First, the federal income tax was created by the 16th amendment, not the 13th. Second, the amendment was ratified by 42 of the 48 states then in existence, meaning everyone in the United States is bound by it. Yes, another Pants on Fire. Her response to our ruling, posted July 11 on The Providence Journal’s YouTube.com channel, was a classic.
5. During an April television interview, U.S. Rep. David N. Cicilline, D-R.I., said that gun dealers who lose their licenses for misconduct can sell their inventories without requiring background checks from buyers.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, confirmed what we had been told by other sources: Cicilline’s claim was True. (However, some states, including Rhode Island, have laws requiring background checks in that circumstance.)
4. After the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., the Providence City Council passed a resolution calling for a ban on sale, use and possession of semiautomatic firearms within the city. The preamble stated, among other things, that semiautomatic weapons "were designed for use by the military on the battlefield."
We ruled that claim False after several military and firearms experts told us such weapons were developed for hunting, self-defense and other civilian use and weren’t adopted by the military for more than two decades.
3. During the contentious debate that preceded the legalization of same-sex marriage in Rhode Island, Susan Yoshihara, of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, said the latest research had "shattered" claims that it makes no difference whether children were raised by same-sex or heterosexual parents.
Yoshihara cited two studies that were widely criticized by academics, prompting a backlash from other researchers who supported them. We concluded that, with such controversy, the two studies had hardly "shattered" previous research. Our ruling: False.
2. As the same-sex marriage debate raged, the National Organization for Marriage-Rhode Island said in a newspaper ad that "Religious groups like Knights of Columbus have been forced to allow same-sex marriage ceremonies in their facilities, against their beliefs."
NOM cited disputes in Canada, Maryland and New Jersey. We examined all of them and found that none supported NOM’s claim. Pants on Fire.
1. Our most-read 2013 ruling was based on a claim Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse made in one of his more than 50 speeches on the U.S. Senate floor warning about climate change.
In his Nov. 13 speech, Whitehouse said that a poll had found that 53 percent of young Republican voters said they would describe climate change "deniers" as "ignorant," "out of touch" or "crazy."
After determining that he had cited the poll numbers accurately but left out some important context, we ruled his claim Mostly True.
And now, back to Congress and baboons.
On Jan. 2, 2012, we had some fun with a chain email that had discussed collective nouns, such as a "flock" of sheep or a "school" of fish.
"Now consider a group of baboons," the email said. "They are the loudest, most dangerous, most obnoxious, most viciously aggressive and least intelligent of all primates. And what is the proper collective noun for a group of baboons? Believe it or not ... a Congress!"
We checked numerous dictionaries, consulted a lexicographer and anthropologists who study baboons. All agreed that a group of baboons is called a "troop," not a "Congress."
We ruled the claim Pants on Fire.
Nearly two years later, the item continues to get read, shared, posted and debated. Given the abysmal approval ratings of the current Congress, perhaps it’s not surprising.
If you hear a claim you’d like us to check, email us at email@example.com. And follow us on Twitter: @politifactri.
Researchers: Tim Murphy
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