Monday, May 5, 2014

Worthless Information

Facts are facts, but sometimes we get information that is incomplete and, as such, does us no good at all.  These facts don’t make us smarter or better informed.  They just sit there on the page begging for further information that never arrives.

Take this example from last week.  The writer talks about the number of people who have signed up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act.  She states a number of statistics including which plan was most popular, how many young people enrolled in private plans and the total number covered by Medicaid.  These facts are based on the new data released by the Department of Health and Human Services.

A couple of paragraphs into the article data about the distribution by race are given.  “The new data showed that 54% of those enrolling in insurance were women, while 63% of all enrollees were white. Of the remaining enrollees, the HHS report showed, 17% were African American, 11% Hispanic, 8% Asian, 1% multiracial, 0.3% American Indian/Alaska native and 0.1% native Hawaiian/Pacific islander.  This is the part that makes no sense without further explanation, yet none is given.  The percentages just hang there giving the impression that white women most benefited from the law.  In at least one newspaper, a secondary headline emphasized these numbers.  The question that should come to mind in reading this is:  what numbers should we use to compare?

Of the people eligible, what percent were white women or Hispanic or multiracial?  Are these numbers representative; do they show what was expected or is there some surprise there?  Nowhere is this answered.  They just sit on the page looking like important information.

Since the expected numbers are not available, the percent of the total population could make a little sense.  Those numbers are: white 79.96%, black 12.85%, Asian 4.43%, Amerindian and Alaska native 0.97%, native Hawaiian and other Pacific islander 0.18%, two or more races 1.61%... the US Census Bureau considers Hispanic to mean persons of Spanish/Hispanic/Latino origin…who may be of any race or ethnic group.”  Despite the disclaimer, this source shows Hispanics as 15.1%.  Possibly HHS uses different definitions from the US Census Bureau.  Even with this as a reference, the original percentages are not very helpful.

The lesson here is that even when journalists and government agencies think they are being helpful and informative by releasing and printing facts, they often are not.  It’s just ink on a page and not useful at all.  They don’t seem to realize it, so we must be ever on the alert for useless information and always prepared to ignore it.

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