Thursday, March 7, 2013


This article from Time Magazine, of all places, is good, and really worth a read.  But please, dear god, make the journalists stop writing sentences like this:

we spend more on health care than the next 10 biggest spenders combined: Japan, Germany, France, China, the U.K., Italy, Canada, Brazil, Spain and Australia. 

What kind of an irrelevant factoid is this?  How hard is it to simply write that we spend twice the amount PER CAPITA as everyone else?  When I see  statements like this I just shut down immediately, even when I already agree with the point.  On the other hand, it seems to me that most people are drawn to striking images like this, regardless of whether they present meaningful data.  But this means that you can convince these people of anything as long as you give them some striking but irrelevant factoid.  We should all be very scared when people agree with us for the wrong reasons.


Alex said...

Come on, you know better! The journalist is trying to anchor the figures (for which people have a hard time grasping the magnitude of) to something that people have SOME familiarity with. "Hey these are all pretty big countries, I think. How can we be spending more than them?"

Per Capita, etc, are really not things most people deal with -- so saying "the next 10 countries" gives people a way to compare spending without breaking it down on a per person basis. This isn't talking down, either, it's just translating things from less-common to more-common.

Clark said...

Hey Alex,

Well, of course you're right, the idea is to translate the numbers into something the average person is impressed by, and clearly this guy knows more about doing that than I do. So it's wrong to call it an "irrelevant factoid"; it's perfectly relevant to his goal, which in this case is to make people see how f**ed up US healthcare is.

But, if I used stories like this as an investor, without asking questions like, "how much is that per capita?", I would quickly get my ass handed to me. So I still think that these rhetorical strategies can be dangerous in practice, because now people have had some image impressed on their brains that is useful for one purpose but could be dangerous in another because it contains a fundamental error.

Krugman is always complaining about zombie ideas and "facts" that some basic googling and clear thinking about statistics can quickly disprove, yet that nevertheless never die and even end up having a real effect on political debates and policy choices. These things get their start somehow, and I think there is often some rhetorical slight of hand involved.