Thursday, March 13, 2008

Bulletin Editorial Page Clobbers a Straw Man

At the bottom of the front page of The Bulletin's Local section this morning there's a news story headlined "Study: 350 Oregonians die each year

Posted By on Thu, Mar 13, 2008 at 9:10 AM

At the bottom of the front page of The Bulletin's Local section this morning there's a news story headlined "Study: 350 Oregonians die each year due to no insurance."

The story describes a report by a group called Families USA which estimates - please underline that word: estimates - that 350 adult Oregonians die each year because they don't have health insurance and therefore delay diagnosis and treatment of serious diseases.

On the inside of the Local section, The Bulletin devotes its entire editorial column - more than 800 words - to trashing the report and its "bogus body count."

"What is it about body counts that some people just can't resist?" says the editorial in that classic sneering Bulletin tone we have all come to know, if not exactly love. "On Wednesday, an organization called Families USA touted a new report alleging that about 350 working-age Oregonians died in 2006 for lack of health insurance. The report, breathlessly titled 'Dying for Coverage in Oregon,' 'highlights how our inadequate system of health coverage condemns a great number of Oregonians to an early death,' said Families USA Executive Director Ron Pollack.

"That's very dramatic, but is the body count accurate? Not particularly."

Okay, as a "body count" it may not be accurate - but it isn't a "body count," and nobody claimed it was.

Throughout its report and the press release announcing it, Families USA consistently describes the 350 number as an estimate. The EYE's dictionary defines "estimate" as "a rough or approximate calculation" or "a numerical value obtained from a statistical sample and assigned to a population parameter."

And that's exactly what Families USA's number is. It was based on a 2002 study by the Institutes of Medicine which found that uninsured adults nationwide are 25% more likely to die prematurely than people who have private health insurance. It was pretty simple and straightforward - and quite legitimate - to extrapolate from those findings to reach an estimate of 350 deaths annually among uninsured people in Oregon.

The Bulletin's editorial writers employed (not for the first time) the rhetorical trick known as "beating a straw man" - setting up a bogus target and knocking it down rather than taking on the real substance of the opposition argument. But why did they feel the need to go all snarky about the Families USA report?

The EYE, of course, is not privy to the deliberations of the Bulletin editorial board and can only speculate. It could be that the paper bears a grudge against Families USA for vigorously attacking George Bush on health care issues. Or maybe there's something about cheap sophistry that some editorial writers just can't resist.

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