Skip to main content

Anatomy of a Fact: When Facts Have Expiration Dates

Anatomy of a Fact is a recurring series exposing how the Pacific Standard research and fact-checking process works.

That things are always changing is one of our most trite platitudes: the very type of claim that deserves to be fact-checked wherever it appears. Nonetheless, one negotiation checkers always have to make is figuring out exactly how long accurately compiled data and figures stay relevant. The problem, or challenge, is that—far from being unimpeachable truths—facts, like milk and summer flings, have expiration dates.

To offer a salient example, about milk no less: Writing an article in 1980, it would have been correct—by no small margin—to claim that whole milk was the choice dairy beverage of Americans. That same claim written in 1990, however, would have been abjectly, and to almost the same degree, false. (It's unlikely American palettes changed much in a decade, but in 1985 the Department of Agriculture recommended low-fat milk over whole milk, and by 1988 skim was more popular.)

This, in a roundabout way, brings us back to the grizzly, the taxonomical close cousin of milk in my somewhat strange analogy. In his cover article about efforts to reintroduce the grizzly bear to California (available here for PS Premium members), Jeremy Miller was often reporting as various research groups were compiling their data. The dominant theories of the early-to-mid 20th century bear experts—e.g. that California grizzlies were their own distinct subspecies—had long since succumbed to genetic evidence to the contrary. But theories about what California grizzlies ate, where they lived, and how they interacted with ecological systems, from literature even just five years old, were quickly becoming obsolete. For specific numbers, checking was easy: it took no more than asking, say, that the reported total number of deaths from grizzly attacks in Yellowstone history—eight—was qualified with a date—"as of March." But bigger assumptions and theories required talking to experts, often ones who weren't themselves quoted or used as sources for the piece.

The so-called "lifespan" of a fact is also subject to one final complication in our post-truth era, with our current presidential administration. Late-breaking announcements and orders that contradict prior policy could have always blindsided you as a checker, but now there's a built-in expectation they will. And not even the grizzly bear is inoculated against the rapidly changing—often inconsistent—policies of our federal government.

When Jeremy first reported his article, it seemed clear that the Trump administration would be opposed to grizzly reintroduction efforts in California should the issue ever come to their attention: In 2017, the United States Department of the Interior delisted grizzlies as an endangered species in Yellowstone; the president's proposed 2019 budget stands to cut all grant funding to states for endangered species conservation; and the conservative apparatus tends to dislike federal spending on all ecological issues (see Jimmy Tobias' story from this same issue, on saving plants species from extinction, for a good example of this). And yet, shortly before we were set to finalize the article, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced his support for grizzly reintroduction in Washington's North Cascades National Park, stunning environmentalists and conservationists. There's ample reason to doubt whether they will materially support such measures. And, even if they do, there remains good reason to doubt the administration's intentions: Shortly after the Department of the Interior delisted grizzlies from the endangered species list in Yellowstone, for example, wildlife managers in Wyoming moved to reinstate grizzly hunting. But the late-breaking announcement did necessitate a small reworking of the text which yet again demonstrates a key component of the job: A fact-check is never a static process of crossing out lines. As with smelling milk even after its printed expiration date, it demands continual recalibration as new evidence comes in.

Anatomy of a Fact is a recurring series exposing how the Pacific Standard research and fact-checking process works.