Wednesday, March 23, 2011

How to Recognize and Disprove a Crappy Article

There are enough articles on the web that anyone can find a number of articles to back up almost any viewpoint, no matter how blatantly false. The dilemma one has is separating the good from the bad. However, even articles that write about the truth can fail to hold any water when they provide nothing to back up their claims.

Here are the six types of crappy articles I most often see:

  1. The contents of the article don't back up the title (or worse, contradict it).
  2. Easily discredited falsehoods or hearsay used to back up claim.
  3. Uses assumptions with no attempt to back up claim.
  4. Limited and irrelevant data used to back up a broad claim.
  5. Science doesn't back up the claim.
  6. History doesn't back up the claim.

Examples of Crappy Articles

Example 1:

This article comments on a feud going on between other journalists over the Affordable Care Act.

The line it uses to try to prove its point says that the person in question, an Ezra Klein, “fully admitted it [the ACA] could result in less generous insurance.”

Let's examine this statement. If someone says that something could possibly happen as a result of a law, that isn't the same as saying that the possible event was the actual goal of the law. Walker provides a link to Ezra Klein's article; however, an article is required to stand on its own to at least some degree. If an article's own text contradicts the claim of the title, it's a crappy article.

However, the beginning of the article is no better. The article quotes Ezra Klein where he is saying that the law wouldn't make Johnson's health insurance less generous. The article then goes on to make the statement which contradicts the article's title as I showed in the prior paragraph. That Klein admits that the law could make someone's insurance less generous would seem to support at least one thing in this article. Sadly, this isn't the case. This is because Klein's quote which is being used against him is being taken out of context (or is provided with no context, take your pick).

In Klein's article (and in the ACA), it states that health care premiums over $21,000 for families, and $8,000 for individuals, get a 40 percent surtax. This article by Jon Walker fails to determine (or share) whether Johnson's health care premiums meet this requirement. For all I, the reader, know, Johnson's premiums are exempt, and from the text of this article, it appears Jon Walker doesn't know either. One thing that is known, according to Klein's article, is that very few premiums will meet that requirement.

Therefore, this article uses assumptions (Crappy Article Type #3) and the contents contradict the title (Crappy Article Type #1).

Going by the contents of Klein's article which was linked to in Walker's article, it seems much more logical to assert as follows:
  1. The ACA was designed to decrease the cost of health care.
  2. The excise tax was designed to make health insurance more affordable by providing a disincentive to charging excessive money for health insurance.
  3. When the cost of health care decreases, charging an excessive amount for the insurance should be discouraged by a tax.
If I were to write an article claiming the above, I would cite sources revealing creators of the ACA saying that they designed the ACA to achieve those specific goals. Otherwise, I would have to assert that the law is only likely to cause those three events and provide reasons that those events would occur.

That Fire Dog Lake would even host an article that only backs up its claim by hoping that the reader won't notice there is no supporting material shows that it has the same journalistic integrity as Fox News. This doesn't seem surprising from a website that seems to be home for liberals that hate liberals. At least, that's my opinion.

Example 2:

The gist of this article is that private schools cost less and provide better test scores than public schools.

First, he asserts that the Wisconsin teachers were protesting because they didn't want to pay more of a percentage of their pensions. However, the teachers had agreed to pay more of their pensions and were protesting the removal of their ability to collectively bargain. So far, this article hasn't even gotten a secondary piece of information correct.

Second, Jeffrey claims private schools test better than public schools. For this, he only compares Catholic schools to public schools. This bogus comparison doesn't compare all private schools to all public schools. The difference in test scores is also marginal. He compares the test scores of public versus private eighth-graders where there is an average 17 point difference out of 500 points (or a 3% difference). Interestingly, he mentions that Wisconsin public schools are better than the national average. This should rather deflate his attack on Wisconsin public schools. Instead, he goes on to claim that only 30 percent of public school eighth-graders received a "proficient" or better rating in reading. It must be noted that he fails to list how well private schools did. Like all good propagandists, the author is good at removing context.

When he compares costs, he compares all public schools of Wisconsin against only a few Catholic schools belonging to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. He is also comparing the “money spent on each student by public schools” against the amounts charged for tuition in Catholic schools. Those are two different things. If you are comparing tuition, you need to ask how much taxpayers are paying for public schools, not the amount spent on each student.

At no point does he provide any reason to think that it is the teachers in these schools that cause the marginal test score improvement. Whereas, it is likely that students with parents that pay out of pocket are more likely to be more involved.

  • All the parents (or at least one parent or guardian) of students at private schools are paying for their kids to attend that school. So, these parents are already involved in their kid's education just by paying the bill.
  • Pitting only students whose parents are involved and can afford a private education against a wide range of students, some of which are poor and who may have parents who don't care about their education, is not a fair comparison when the only factors being blamed for poor performance are the teachers and the school.

Many believe that teachers are not as important in test scores as are students and parents. However, this is not conclusive. Jeffrey fails to even address this issue. He also fails to address whether public teachers are overpaid. Should teachers willing to teach difficult students in bad neighborhoods be paid less than private teachers who mostly teach better behaved students from well-to-do families? Who has the more difficult job? Frankly, the cushy job is less demanding.

So, it becomes apparent, by his own admission, that his main desire is for kids to be indoctrinated into the religion that he prefers. To try to prove his claim, he uses comparisons which pit a broad selection of the schools he dislikes against a narrow selection of the schools which he prefers, meaning that the reader has no idea whether he is comparing averages against averages. In fact, pretty much all of his comparisons are apples to oranges.

This crappy article, which is an example of Crappy Article Types #3 and #4, is hosted on which is home to numerous such articles. After all, is where conservatives preach to other conservatives who have already made up their minds to believe whatever has to say with no critical thinking. Lack of critical thinking on the part of the reader is harmful to the reader no matter what is being read. It is especially important with articles such as this one which give the illusion that it provides useful data.


  1. I disagree with your criticism of the Jon Walker article. While the article itself is of course no great shakes, (a) its statement that the excise tax would cause employers to be less generous in their health insurance benefits is obviously true, and (b) it references previous articles which do reference other sources for the point, although it is a pretty self evident point.

    I think you are taking a short article, and analyzing it out of context. Which I consider unfair.

  2. Here's why I think my criticism is fair.

    I'll respond to your points:

    (a) “excise tax would cause employers to be less generous in their health insurance “
    This is a broad statement that is only true in limited situations. It is also not what Walker claims in the article. He claims that making employer health insurance less generous was the goal of the excise tax. “Could possibly cause” and “designed to cause” are two different things. His statement also indicates that the excise tax applies to all employer-provided insurance whereas it would actually only apply to a few very expensive plans. This is a standard tactic of propaganda. It would be the same as criticizing a President for raising taxes on Americans because of a bill that raises taxes on income over a million dollars. It makes all Americans believe they will be affected when, in fact, only a very small number will be affected. So, Walker's article spreads misinformation about the Affordable Care Act's excise tax.

    (b) As for context, it's plainly visible that I took nothing out of context, and the articles he referenced don't support his claims.

    It is my sincere hope that these writers I criticize will take heed and improve their writing. These problems are not isolated only to them but are quite widespread.

    I will also say that the excise tax is certainly not above criticism; however, articles such as Walker's which say nothing do nothing for anyone except misinform.

    The excise tax could be said to be a measure to prevent overcharging for health insurance because as health care becomes cheaper due to the ACA, health insurance should also become cheaper. However, the ACA mandates that a specific amount of health insurance spent on premiums be spent on health care so that should prevent overcharging for health insurance. While having a second-line of defense against overcharging for health insurance is not a bad idea (though perhaps unnecessary), the excise tax doesn't take into account that all costs can increase over time due to inflation. Therefore, it could eventually (but not certainly) hit all insurance premiums. If it were a tax on a variable amount that changed with inflation, it would be more sensible.

  3. OK well you're entitled to your opinion, and I'm entitled to mine. And Walker is entitled to his. And you're entitled to criticize him.