Fact Checker Gets 3 Pinocchios for Semantic Tricks

Provisions of Obamacare began taking effect in 2010. Don’t say the law took effect in 2010 though. If you do, Washington Post’s fact checker Glenn Kessler will accuse you of making things up.

It’s actually a bit more complicated. Kessler recently wrote an article in which he condemned United States House of Representative member Tim Huelskamp for saying:

It’s hard to get accurate numbers on anything. But the numbers we see today is that — as I understand them — we believe there are more people uninsured today in Kansas than there were before the president’s health-care plan went into effect. And I thought the goal was to bring more people into insurance.

The article went to press without data from Huelskamp to support his argument. The conclusion of the article could hardly be more damning:

Huelskamp can be as big as critic of the law as he wants, but he’s not entitled to conjure phony facts out of thin air.

A criticism as damning as that must be supported by the strongest of arguments. Instead, Kessler supports it with semantic tricks. The first trick is to ignore the fact the data shows what Huelskamp says it seems to show. From the article:

2008: 341,000 14.2 percent

2009: 350,000 14.4 percent

2010: 381,000 15.5 percent

2011: 353,000 14.3 percent

2012: 357,000 14.5 percent

Brunner said the difference between 2011 and 2012 is so small that it effectively could stem from sampling error. He also noted that the percentage of the uninsured is the more relevant number over time, as it could account for any increase in the raw numbers that resulted from population growth.

Huelskamp said his understanding is the number of uninsured people in Kansas has gone up since Obamacare took effect. The values Kessler cited support such an understanding. It’s fine to point out uncertainty in the data means we can’t be sure that increase reflects reality, but we need to acknowledge the numbers Huelskamp thinks went up appear to have gone up.

Similarly, it is fine to argue the “percentage of the uninsured is the more relevant number.” Huelskamp has since pointed to data which shows an increase of ~8,000 uninsured people. At the same time, it shows an increase in population of ~65,000 people. Both values went up by ~2% so the percentage of the uninsured remained constant.

That undermines Huelskamp’s viewpoint. One cannot criticize Obamacare for causing more people in Kansas to become uninsured if all that happened is the population of Kansas increased. Still, Huelskamp did not say “the percentage of people uninsured in Kansas has increased.” He said “there are more people uninsured in Kansas.” The data suggests that is technically true.

It would be right to criticize Huelskamp for using data in misleading ways, but it is inappropriate to say he “conjure[d] phony facts out of thin air.” It is understandable a person looking at the data available would believe what Huelskamp clearly stated was his belief.

That’s not enough to give Kessler three Pinocchios though. If that’s all there was to it, I’d have only given him two. Actually, I’d have not written this post at all. However, when I suggested Kessler change his article to tone down his conclusion, he told me:

This is his second trick. While he now claims this is “the issue,” his post barely focused on it. His post didn’t even say it was wrong to compare data from before 2013. It certainly didn’t say that is “the issue.” Even if it had, Kessler does not get to decide what “the issue” is. That decision was made by Huelskamp when he spoke. Huelskamp spoke about:

before the president’s health-care plan went into effect

Notice the difference between Huelskamp’s and Kessler’s wording. Huelskamp referred to before the law “went into effect.” Kessler referred to before the law “fully went into effect.” The first provisions of Obamacare went into effect in 2010. The last went into effect in 2013. Kessler insists we must focus on the 2013 date.

Why? Why should people assume Huelskamp was referring to when the last provisions of Obamacare took effect? Different parts of laws can come into effect over a long period of time. We don’t need to wait until the last provision activates to say the law has taken effect.

But in case there was any doubt, Huelskamp released a statement explaining what he meant:

Fact #1: Obama’s own Census Bureau reports that in 2010, 349,745 persons were uninsured in Kansas. The same report, for the last year they provide data, admits 358,399 were uninsured. This is an increase of approximately 8,000 uninsured Kansans.

Huelskamp clearly shows he is looking at effects from before 2013. This means he was not looking at what Kessler claims is “the issue.” He was looking at something else. Kessler is defending his damning criticism of Huelskamp by simply misrepresenting what Huelskamp said.

Tim Huelskamp’s statements were misleading. His beliefs are poorly supported. However, there are facts which could lead a reasonable person to believe as says he believes. That, combined with the fact Huelskamp clearly qualified his statements as beliefs, not facts, means it was inappropriate for Glenn Kessler to accuse him of “conjur[ing] phony facts out of thin air.”

Kessler’s decision to defend his exaggerated criticism by misrepresenting what Huelskamp argued earns him three Pinocchios.


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