Bryan Caplan  

Self-Parody: Pessimistic Bias in the Media

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I while back I argued that it's easy to detect media bias from headlines alone. A recent NYT piece on life expectancy makes my point for me better than I ever could. The facts: U.S. life expectancy for all income levels rose. The headline: "Gap in Life Expectancy Widens for the Nation."

What's next: "Glass is Half Empty, Experts Say"?

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The author at Health Care BS in a related article titled LONGEVITY STUDY: ANOTHER LAME RESPONSE writes:
    Last week, I predicted that the recent Harvard study on life expectancy would produce all manner of disingenuous stories in the establishment media and the blogosphere. While this prediction didn’t exactly require the prescience of Nostradamu... [Tracked on April 29, 2008 6:58 AM]
COMMENTS (22 to date)
Scott Scheule writes:

I guess it is a pessimistic slant on the issue, but it's also perfectly true. The alternative would be what? To ignore the disparity? Wouldn't that be an optimistic bias?

Bryan Caplan writes:

I think it's crazy that the headline wasn't "Life Expectancy Rises for All Income Levels." That's the big story everyone should care about. But if the author wants to mention a few paragraphs down that it rose more for the rich, fine by me.

Steve Miller writes:

Pessimistic bias is the worst in my judgement because it fuels the other three. "Since we all agree the world is going to hell in a handbasket..." seems to be a starting point for policies that are anti-market, make-work, and anti-foreign.

8 writes:

An emerging scientific consensus agrees that while white males continue to have half-full glasses, women and minorities can only afford half-empty ones.

Jim writes:

If your point is that everyone will want to live as long as possible, I don't see why you're surprised about the fact that poverty will probably shorten your life being news. Surely this is relevant to people that care about equality of opportunity? If you don't, I think you're in a minority.

This is a Leftist bias. What they object to is the fact that the wealthier people got more of an increase in life expectancy than the poor. It's not good news to them because it wasn't distributed "fairly" according to their warped view of fairness.

Fabio Franco writes:

Remember that the people in the media are but, as Hayek said, "second-hand dealers in ideas". They only repeat the ideas that are circulating, usually from some dead economist. The fact is that the dominant ideas in the US propagated by the "intellectuals" are welfare-statist (in reality euphimisms for socialism). This is what will be regurgitated in the media, who has taken up the job of dispersing useless knowledge in society.

Big-government conservatism has smothered small-government conservatism. Libertarians are a tiny fraction of society. The overwhelming majority of university faculty and artists are neosocialists. All these people, whether with good intentions or not (I think not), are propagating the same old lies in bold and bright new packaging.

We need someone to take Hayek's torch and repeal the ideas that undermine our society and lead us in precisely the direction we wanted to avoid. We need another "Road to Serfdom". Any candidates for recent books which carry some of that same force? (How about Jonah Goldberg's "Liberal Fascism"?).

Scott Scheule writes:


Me too. But if I had a different set of priorities--equality for instance--I wouldn't find it crazy. I guess you can call that some sort of bias, but there's no reason those on the opposite side couldn't say we're suffering from some "non-equality" bias or something.

That's a minor point--but it's all I'm making.

David Lee writes:

But shouldn't it be much more difficult to extend the lives of the wealthy, who already have access to the best medical care, than the poor? I would assume that extending the lives of those who already live the longest would be more difficult (requiring investment in new technologies, etc) than extending the lives of those with shorter lifespans (which might only require ensuring access to existing medical care and technology).

Isn't a distributional problem implied when the most costly incremental gains are being obtained, while lower cost (and perhaps lower profit) [easy to obtain] gains are not.

Erich Schwarz writes:

"Life Expectancy Rises: Women, Minorities Hardest Hit."

Thomas writes:

Camplin: Leftist bias? Warped view of 'fairness'? Tell that to someone who will live less long because they are poor and cannot get the health care that they need in the U.S.A..

The fact is, rising life expectancy is and has been the norm. The headline merely emphasizes the fact that there is yet another measure, and in this case a dire one, showing the increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots in this country.

Radord Neal writes:

Notice this from the article...

He and another researcher... developed an index to measure social and economic conditions in every county, using census data on education, income, poverty, housing and other factors. Counties were then classified into 10 groups of equal population size.

So this is not data on actual people, but on counties. What it actually means is anyone's guess. (Many people of course move from one county to another...) Most likely, it means nothing at all, at least without substantial additional information to make sense of it.

Dr. T writes:
But shouldn't it be much more difficult to extend the lives of the wealthy, who already have access to the best medical care, than the poor?
You are making the unwarranted and incorrect assumption that spending more money on healthcare is the primary reason why the wealthy live longer than the poor. That is only a minor factor. Two major factors: 1. Intelligence and education correlate with improved health (as independent variables and because educated people make better decisions related to health), and wealthy people usually are smarter and better educated than poor people. 2. Chronic stress worsens health and decreases longevity. Wealthy people tend to have less chronic stress than poor people.

The continual attempts by the media, left-wing spokespersons, and some politicians to instigate class envy or class warfare infuriates me. The standard of living of our single parent welfare families is greater than that of most persons on the planet. Instead of recognizing that, we hear only renewed complaints of unfairness. The only way that our poor will live as well as our rich is if these leftist idiots get their way and make all of us equally poor.

Renato Drumond writes:

Thomas wrote:

"The fact is, rising life expectancy is and has been the norm."

The problem is to naturalize what is mere historical contingence. We are so acostumed to observe rise in life expectancy over the last two centuries that we simply ignore that, for most part of human history, it was quite stable. And forget to discuss what contributed to this rise.

liberty writes:

I like this line "The gaps have been increasing despite efforts by the federal government to reduce them."

I would revise it to say "The gaps have been increasing despite, or perhaps due to, efforts by the federal government to reduce them."

Gavin Andresen writes:

The headline for that article could have also been:

"Poor women live longer than rich men."

There's a nice graph in the article showing that factoid, but somehow the reporter fails to point that out.

These days, whenever I see an article talking about second-order effects ("gaps" or "rates of increase/decrease" or even "increase/decrease in rate of increase/decrease") my skeptical hackles go up.

My extended family is poor, and my wife's family is poor. My extended family don't drink for religious reasons, but most of my wife's family drink quite a bit. Both families smoke like chimneys. You won't find a lot of fruits and vegetables other than beans and potatoes -- though my wife's family does eat a lot of avocados. You will find a lot of fried food and especially junk food. Both our families eat constantly, and the stuff they eat is junk. Throw in their sendentary lifestyles in front of their TV's, and is it any wonder they don't live as long as wealthier people? The gains have been made by wealthier people because they tend to exercise more and eat healthier food. Further, they have been at the forefront of anti-smoking campaigns, while the poor keep on smoking. Throw in the fact that poor people -- especialyl the urban poor -- are more likely to join gangs and get killed and use hard drugs from questionable dealers, and it's no wonder they've lagged behind.

In the U.S. poverty is a mentality, a state of mind, which needs to be overcome. The Left's policies are immoral precisely because they perpetuate these problems.

Floccina writes:

David Lee and Thomas you might want to look at these:

In Iraq, life expectancy is 67. Minutes from Glasgow city centre, it's 54In deprived inner city area of Calton, the chance of surviving to old age is lowest in UK

Disparities in mortality across the eight Americas, each consisting of millions or tens of millions of Americans, are enormous by all international standards. The observed disparities in life expectancy cannot be explained by race, income, or basic health-care access and utilization alone.

America 2 consists of northland (Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, Montana, and Nebraska) low-income rural white populations, with income and education below the national average. America 3 is Middle America, the large fraction of the US population that has slightly above-average per capita income and education.

Strangely enough the fact that rural low income white out live the average may indicate that a lack of access to healthcare improves health. Though that is probably not true it is interesting to think about considering that The Rand health insurance study showed no benfits from medical care beyond the really cheap basics of vaccinations and antibiotics.

Floccina writes:

Oh BTW another quote from the Eight Americas study:

Crude self-reported health-care utilization, however, was slightly higher for the more disadvantaged populations.

Ted Craig writes:

The real problem with these articles is they focus on factors such as smoking and obesity, but here's the real reason life expectancy is up:

The accidental injury death rate of children 14 and under has declined by 45 percent in the United States since 1987, according to a new report released by Safe
Kids USA.

RL writes:

Bryan: I think to make your point the headline would have to be "Glass 10% EMPTY, Experts Say"

But as far as the public is concerned, there's no doubt in my mind that it's the ignorant 99% that spoil it for all of us.

I saw more pessimistic bias on the front page of the NYT. After months of predicting a recession, the headline announcing that the first quarter actually showed growth is: "Lower Spending Is Taking a Toll On the Economy: Growth Held to 0.6%." Now, considering that everyone expected there to be "negative growth" in the 1st quarter, one would expect this to be good news. Not on the NYT front page.

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