Losing credibility with one quick answer

When you’re an Expert, it helps to know your facts. Especially if they’re Facts people might not want to hear.

And it doesn’t help to make up Facts on the spot.

This is just a little rant. Sorry. You can skip it if you want.

On my way to and from the library today (the public library, and yes, it was busy, as it always is), I was listening to small chunks of a conversation involving some doctor (didn’t catch the name) who’s clearly an Expert on food and health, with lots of books and lots of advice–eat lots of soy, don’t eat anything processed, avoid fructose, lots of cooked Asian mushrooms but no raw or American mushrooms, do this, don’t do that. [Possibly worth noting: this was on a PBS station.]

And the interviewer mentioned a local attempt to tax soft drinks at one cent per ounce, an attempt that went down to defeat.

At which point, the Expert made a pat, convenient statement:

If we taxed soft drinks at one cent per ounce, we’d raise enough money to pay for health care for everybody.

Fortunately, I held on to the wheel tightly as I said “That can’t be true.” Now, I’ll admit, my wife and I are outliers: Neither of us drinks soda at all (except that my wife occasionally uses a little ginger ale to try to clear out her throat–maybe two ounces in a day).

But still…

So I came home and did a little investigation.

I wasn’t aware that American consumption of soft drinks has been declining for some years, but that’s a different issue. I took the current figure (2011 consumption) that I could find repeated by more than one apparently authoritative body and a much higher figure (date not given) reported by an Alarmist You’re All Going to Die Fat organization.

Here’s what I found:

  • If you take the Alarmist number, a one cent tax per ounce would raise $72 per person per year.
  • If you take the apparent 2011 figure, that tax would raise $57 per person per year.

I don’t know about your health care costs, but I’m guessing the general average is just a wee bit higher than $57 to $72 per year.

Just a wee bit as in two orders of magnitude.

Those per capita numbers add up to between $18 billion and $23 billion. That’s billion with a B: 315 million Americans times $57 to $72.

Health care expenditures in the US appear to be on the order of $2.5 trillion. That’s trillion with a T.

Yes, health care expenditures in the U.S. are way too high–but even if we managed to get them down to $1.8 trillion, a 28% cut, that would still be 100 times as much as the more probable figure for “one cent per ounce.”

Here’s the thing…

The Expert was saying provocative things. I found some of them annoying and more than a little preachy, but hey, he’s an Expert: Maybe I should look into them further.

And then he popped out that line.

And I thought: Why should I believe anything else he says, given that he’ll make something up on the spot that’s so wildly wrong? (He’s a doctor. Either he really believes that most people drink, what, ten gallons of soda a day–which would still only be $12.80 per capita per day in soda tax, not close to enough to pay for health care–or he’s terrible with numbers.)

Credibility: Lost. Just that easy.

2 Responses to “Losing credibility with one quick answer”

  1. Angel says:

    The sad thing is a lot of people will not even ask the question, let alone do some of the homework you did to get at the right answer. This made me think because now in my work much of the teaching we do emphasizes relevance to the students. One way we do this is to teach some “real world” examples, and I think your situation makes a good one right there. What if some “expert” says X on Oprah, or NPR, or PBS or wherever, how do you know it’s true/accurate?

    I am glad you held on to that steering wheel.

    Best, and keep on blogging.

  2. waltcrawford says:

    Getting people–even well-educated people–to think about what they’re hearing or reading is frequently difficult. I don’t claim to be any better in this regard. What’s sad: I’ve seen lots of folks equate skepticism with cynicism and think that being skeptical is somehow destructive.

    I’m thinking about writing a longish essay about [public] libraries and the significance of “average,” and part of me almost thinks that a book-length discussion of what “facts” and numbers do and don’t mean, aimed at librarians, might be worthwhile. Or it might be ignored.