Fact-Checking POLITIFACT

The political fact-checking website can’t help giving a boost to Bernie Sanders

I often read websites like POLITIFACT, Snopes, and FactCheck.org to help sort through the news and lend a more critical eye to what I read on the Internet. After all, every news site is loaded with bias and misrepresentation these days. So I was surprised when I read this article at POLITIFACT rating a recent statement by 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as “Mostly True”. The POLITIFACT writers couldn’t help doing their own editorializing to give a boost to the candidate.

Sanders’ statement concerned the gap in average life expectancy in McDowell County, West Virginia vs Fairfax County, Virginia, implying the disparity in wealth was to blame for the disparity in health. In a speech at George Washington University on June 12, he said:

“In 2014, for example, in McDowell County, W.Va., one of the poorest counties in the nation, life expectancy for men was 64 years. In Fairfax County, Va., a wealthy county, just 350 miles away, life expectancy was nearly 82 years, an 18-year differential. The life expectancy gap for women in the two counties was 12 years.”

Bernie Sanders at George Washington University

POLITIFACT pointed out that the two counties were on opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to income. McDowell County has a median household income of $25,595 and Fairfax County has a median household income of $117,515. The median household income is the point at which half of households earn less than that amount and half earn more.

POLITIFACT dinged Sanders when it came to his statistics. Sanders claimed male life expectancy in McDowell County is 64 years, when in fact it was 67 in 2014 (the latest data). Also, there’s an 11-year gap rather than a 12-year gap when it comes to female life expectancy.

However, the POLITIFACT writers showed their bias when it came to the statistics. Citing a graph from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington, they concluded “It’s easy to see the trend lines going in opposite directions.” Except it’s not.

Though there is a clear gap, and average life expectancy is increasing in Fairfax County, the trend lines aren’t “going in opposite directions”. The average total life expectancy in McDowell County increased from 69.2 in 1980 to 70.26 in 2014.

While that is only a slight increase, and perhaps could be described as stagnant, it’s certainly not “going in the opposite direction.” That would indicate a sharp decrease in life expectancy. No such decline has taken place. (The decrease in female life expectancy in McDowell County was by less than one year over 34 years).

Typically, Bernie Sanders attributes the difference in average life expectancy to the difference in income, which is simplistic to say the least. But isn’t it weird for a fact-checking website to do the same? Correlation does not prove causation. Just because median income in Fairfax County is higher doesn’t automatically explain why life expectancy is higher.

Life expectancy for folks in Fairfax County was already higher in 1980. Was it one of the wealthiest counties in America at that time? The article doesn’t say. The population of Fairfax County has almost doubled since 1980, while the population of McDowell County has been cut in half. That’s a lot of change in over 30 years.

Could the types of jobs worked by the people living in these counties, or their lifestyle choices (obesity, alcohol and tobacco consumption, drug use, etc), contribute to the discrepancy in longevity? In 2015, McDowell County had the highest rate of drug-induced deaths of any county in the United States.

I find it odd to just assume income is the sole cause, especially in a fact checking article. I’m sure wealth plays a role, but I don’t think POLITIFACT’s writers did a very good job being objective in their analysis of Sanders’ statement.

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Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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