Home > Journalism and Economics > To Be Critical, Not Just Lazy and Skeptical, Do the Math

To Be Critical, Not Just Lazy and Skeptical, Do the Math

critical thinking

Many students confuse thinking critically with thinking skeptically.

They are not the same.

Blind, reflexive skepticism is not critical thinking at all. In fact, in some ways, it’s the opposite of critical thinking: instead of taking an argument seriously, you just reject it because you “can’t be fooled” or because you “don’t believe anyone or anything.”

Students can often gain better insight into the thinking behind an article or story by using some basic analytic skills.

For example, this article on enrollments in Obamacare:

Another strong month of sign-ups in new health insurance policies created under President Barack Obama’s health care law pushed Illinois’ total enrollment to 88,602 through Feb. 1, bringing the state on target with initial federal projections.

Nationwide, more than 1.1 million Americans selected a private plan in the past month, bringing the total number enrolled in coverage since the marketplaces opened in October to nearly 3.3 million, according to federal data released Wednesday….

Despite the surge of sign-ups, the disastrous launch of the Affordable Care Act’s open-enrollment period in October leaves the nationwide figures short of the administration’s goal to have 4.4 million people signed up by the end of January, according to a September Department of Health and Human Services memo.

There are plenty of numbers to work with here. How does the journalist get from a fact–“strong month of sign-ups…pushed Illinois’ total enrollment to 88,602”–to an interpretation–“bringing the state on target with initial federal projections”?

The target of 4.4 million is a straightforward fact, too. The numbers of U.S. states is, as well: 50. Just for fun, divide 4.4 million by 50….voila, you get 88,000. That’s awfully close to the number of Illinois enrollments.

But. The population of Illinois is not 1/50th (2%) of the U.S. It’s about 13 million. The U.S. population is 313 million. That makes Illinois 4%, not 2%, of the U.S. population. And 4% of 4.4 million projected enrollments is 176,000–twice the total Illinois enrollments. Illinois is definitely not “on target.”

The reporter–in the first paragraph of the story–got the facts right but didn’t do good basic analysis to interpret the facts. He should have written something like, “Illinois is still running at just half the projected enrollments projected by the administration by the end of January, even after a relatively strong month.”

The Chicago Tribune is a fine newspaper and this reporter is probably smart and professional.

All the more reason to think critically when you read things that sound authoritative. Don’t dismiss them outright. But check the math, at least.

(Hat tip to James Taranto’s Best of the Web.)

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