Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

PunditFact fact-checks the July 27 news shows

The Sunday shows discussed the situation in Gaza.
The Sunday shows discussed the situation in Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended military operations in Gaza on Sunday, while U.S. officials debated what should be done in Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists continue to cause turmoil.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., appeared on CNN’s State of the Union and criticized President Barack Obama’s handling of the situation in Ukraine and the Malaysia Airlines flight 17 crash.

Europe, Graham said, is a dysfunctional political organization. "And without American leadership organizing Europe and the world, you see people like (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, who has an economy the size of Italy -- he’s playing a poker game with a pair of 2s and winning," Graham said.

Historically, the former Soviet Union has been a counterweight to the United States. So we were struck by Graham’s claim that it has the economic buying power of Italy.

The numbers say he’s largely right. We rate Graham’s statement Mostly True.

Russia and Italy are very close to each other in terms of nominal gross domestic product, which is the standard unit used to measure the size of a country’s economy. Russia’s 2013 nominal GDP -- which is the total cost of all goods and services produced or sold in a country --- was $2.1 trillion; Italy’s was $2.07 trillion, according to the World Bank.

That places Russia as the No. 8 economy in the world. The United States is No. 1.

If you run the numbers a different way and measure purchasing power parity, Russia's economy is larger than Italy's. Also, Russia’s economic importance today is about the same it was when the Soviet Union fell in 1992. And Russia’s economic standing among other countries has been on the rise in recent years, data show. One likely reason for their growth is rising oil prices, which have quadrupled since 2002. Oil and natural gas make up nearly 70 percent of Russia’s exports.

On the domestic front, a Meet the Press panel discussed a New York Times Sunday editorial saying that the federal government should lift a ban on marijuana use in the country and let states decide for themselves.

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus said she was okay with letting states experiment, but said she was against letting states "go the full legalization route." Her main concern with state’s loosening the rules had to do with teenagers.

"It is a vast social experiment," Marcus said. "We do not know the outcome except that the best evidence is that you lose -- if you use marijuana as a teenager regularly -- eight IQ points."

Marcus is citing a 2012 study from Duke University researchers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The Duke team led by Madeline Meier studied nearly every child born in the New Zealand town of Dunedin born in the early 1970s. By the time they turned 13, the children took their first IQ tests. Follow-up interviews as they grew older determined if they were using marijuana, alcohol or other drugs. They took another battery of IQ tests when they turned 38.

The Duke researchers screened out those who had problems with hard drugs, alcohol or schizophrenia. They controlled for the kids who dropped out of school. What they found was the people who began smoking pot weekly before they turned 18 showed an average drop of about eight IQ points. Some lost more and some lost less, but all lost at least a bit.

"Impairment was concentrated among adolescent-onset cannabis users, with more persistent use associated with greater decline," the researchers wrote.

The study didn’t say this proved that that early and long-term use caused the drop in IQ results. Researchers acknowledged that some unknown variable might be responsible. At the same time, they said it was plausible that pot could be disrupting brain development in teenagers.

Case closed?

Not quite. About a year later, another analysis emerged, again published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This one came from Ole Rogeberg, a Norwegian economist, who said he could get the same results as Meier by factoring in socioeconomic status. In short, Rogeberg said the kids from poorer households would lose ground on IQ tests over time because they tended to end up doing work that was less mentally demanding.

"The causal effects estimated in Meier et al. are likely to be overestimates and the true effect could be zero," Rogeberg wrote. "Although it would be too strong to say that the results have been discredited, the methodology is flawed and the causal inference drawn from the results premature."

Put simply, a scientific consensus has yet to emerge, and Marcus ignored the ongoing debate. As such, we rate her claim Half True.

Jon Greenberg contributed to this report.