Inside the Meter

Guest column: What to do when facts don't tell the entire story

Editor's note: Jason Altmire is PolitiFact's Democratic guest columnist and a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives serving Pennsylvania’s 4th congressional district from 2007-13. Read more about the guest columnist position here.

In this critique, Altmire is writing about a fact-check of a claim made by Texas state Rep. Jason Isaac, which you can read here. His post has been edited only for style and grammar.

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Facts aren’t always entirely black or white. Sometimes they are in dispute. On some issues, especially hot button social issues driven more by personal beliefs than definitive statistics, there are justifiable views held by partisans on both sides. In these cases, fact-checking organizations like PolitiFact have a responsibility to acknowledge the gray area and make clear that legitimate differences of opinion exist, not just on the merits of the issue but on the facts themselves. 

In answering a question about his views on abortion, Texas state Rep. Jason Isaac is quoted in a March 2018 voters guide as saying abortion "is the leading killer of black Americans and kills as many as 1,000 black children every day." PolitiFact ruled that claim Mostly False, largely because the Centers for Disease Control does not consider abortion to be a cause of death. The CDC lists heart disease as the nation’s leading cause of death for black Americans. 

It is worth noting that as part of its fact-check on Rep. Isaac’s statement, PolitiFact researched several different credible estimates of the number of abortions sought by black women in America. Estimates ranged from 626 per day to 888 per day, falling short of the representative’s estimate of 1,000 per day. On that point alone, Issac’s claim would have been ruled to be at least partly false.
But the larger issue rests with the dispute about whether or not abortion should be classified as a cause of death. If it were, the representative would have been correct on that point. The number of black Americans who die annually of heart disease is three to four times less than the number of abortions sought annually by black woman. 

Predictably, social media erupted after the PolitiFact ruling, with pro-life advocates charging PolitiFact with bias because the organization failed to recognize abortion as a cause of death. But that determination is not PolitiFact’s to make. It is true that the CDC does not consider abortion to be a cause of death, and PolitiFact was justifiably making its ruling based upon that fact. This does not mollify conservative critics who disagree with CDC’s position based upon an honest and heartfelt belief that abortion terminates a life and is therefore by definition a cause of death, regardless of what CDC says. PolitiFact does not have an obligation to referee this philosophical dispute or to make an independent determination on such a controversial debate. But, in my opinion, PolitiFact does have an obligation to recognize that there is a strong difference of opinion on this issue, with valid arguments and legitimate views held on both sides. In failing to recognize the deeply held beliefs of those in the pro-life movement, PolitiFact in this case missed an opportunity to take a deeper look at the cultural underpinnings of the point Representative Isaac was trying to make. He did not reference CDC statistics in his answer; he was making a point about which there is a legitimate difference of opinion and which goes beyond routine political disagreement.

A similar circumstance occurred in April 2016 when PolitiFact fact-checked a Sen. Ted Cruz statement about Donald Trump’s position on transgender bathrooms. In its original post explaining its ruling on the much narrower issue of whether Cruz was accurately characterizing Trump’s position (he wasn’t), PolitiFact inadvertently opened an enormous can of worms by underestimating the intensity of a difference of opinion based upon moral beliefs rather than statistical fact. PolitiFact responded to the outcry by issuing a correction and editing its post to clarify that there are differing points of view about how gender is defined. 

In the case of both the abortion and transgender issues, the disagreements go beyond politics and are not provable by facts or statistics. The validity and public acceptance of PolitiFact’s Cruz and Issac fact-checks were undermined because they failed to address the moral and philosophical disagreements that drive public opinion on those key hot button issues.
In both cases, I believe PolitiFact came to the proper conclusion and offered the correct ruling. However, in these times of near-historic political polarization, an effort should be made to recognize cases where some gray area exists and indisputable factual conclusions are impossible. This is the only way we can begin to bridge the partisan divide.