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The Washington Post's "Fact Checker" column is at it again, determining that even though Bernie Sanders accurately cited information about medical bankruptcies from a medical journal, he actually fibbed, because some completely different researchers disagree with the methodology of the study Sanders cited. So even though one of the authors of the work said Sanders had correctly cited the article, WaPo gave Sanders "three Pinocchios," apparently for failing to consider alternate methodologies in a dispute between statisticians. That's just one public domain puppet short of a whopper, and translates to "mostly false," says WaPo.

Behold! "Fact checking" doesn't have to be about whether a politician is actually fibbing, because it can also be about aggravated nitpicking. When the "president" can't describe the weather without lying, it's very important to bring balance to the news by turning accurate statements by Democrats into lies. It's what we've come to expect from a column that insists factual statements by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker are just big ol' lies, because you need to find error even in the truth.

(N.B., we will not be getting into Sanders flack David Sirota's contention that this terrible "fact check" in a long line of terrible fact checks proves Jeff Bezos is out to get Bernie Sanders for crimes against millionaires and billionaires, noting instead that the WaPo "Fact Checker" went after Barack Obama, who was the worst socialist ever. By which we mean he wasn't that good at it, except for the massive wealth transfer from rich to poor that was the Affordable Care Act. Continuing on!)


The Sanders statement in question is fairly straightforward. Sanders has frequently said that "500,000 people go bankrupt every year" because they can't afford medical bills. Here's an example on the Twitter machine:

Sanders got that figure from a March editorial from in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH). The editorial looked at a survey of people who filed for bankruptcy, noting that 66.5 percent said they'd gone bankrupt due to either medical debt or lost income due to illness. Extrapolate that to the total number of bankruptcies, the editorial said, and that would be "equivalent to about 530,000 medical bankruptcies annually."

Ah, but WaPo's Salvador Rizzo says Sanders didn't interrogate the editorial's gradations of causation aggressively enough, you see, because that 66.5 percent number aggregates respondents who said their medical costs contributed both "very much" and "somewhat" to the decision to file, and therefore you can't really say medical debt caused all those bankruptcies -- just that it was a contributing factor, you liar.

David Himmelstein, one of the coauthors of the AJPH piece, explained why the editorial didn't attempt to parse the degree to which those factors contributed to the bankruptcy:

"We did not ask about the sole or main reason for bankruptcy, because our past experience indicates that this is a meaningless question," Himmelstein, a professor at CUNY's Hunter College who supports single-payer health care, wrote in an email. "The vast majority of debtors suffer multiple problems that bring them to file, and cannot identify a single problem among them. Thus, if an illness led to lost work time (and hence income) and medical bills, debtors cannot separate out these different problems; they are of a piece."

Well then. Dude supports single-payer, so that's pretty suspect. Hey, so does Bernie Sanders! WaPo also asked whether Sanders had cited his research accurately. (Heck no, Sanders actually rounded down by 30K, so let's give him a Jiminy Cricket and a goldfish for that.)

When we asked Himmelstein whether Sanders was quoting his study accurately, he said yes.

Himmelstein wrote: "37 percent of filers said medical bills 'very much' contributed to their bankruptcy. Even if you use that restricted definition, then Sanders's statement is accurate — or an underestimate. There are about 700,000 bankruptcy filings each year. Many filings are joint husband/wife filings, and based on our past research, we estimate that on average 2.71 persons reside in each debtor's household. So the total number of persons who undergo bankruptcy is about 1.9 million annually.

"37 percent of 1.9 million is a bit over 700,000. Even if you only count the husband and wife in a filing, the number suffering a bankruptcy to which medical bills 'very much' contributed is about 500,000."

That answer became fodder for even more fact wailing. Himmelstein was attempting to place medical bankruptcies in the context of actual people's lives -- even if you restrict the analysis to those who say medical bills "very much" contributed to bankruptcy. All WaPo saw was a single-payer advocate moving the goalposts:

But here, we've moved from the statistic Sanders cited from the AJPH editorial to a different number that relies on separate inferences. We will note that the study refers to "cases," not people.

We didn't know you could hear dismissive sniffing through text on a screen. So Sanders made a claim about medical bankruptcy, accurately cited an academic source for it, and even the co-author of the AJPH study says Sanders was on the nose. Or in WaPo Land, "mostly false."

Because, you see, there are OTHER researchers who looked at different stats and came up with a much lower total for bankruptcies -- although the study WaPo places against the AJPH editorial looked only at debt involving hospitalizations, which seems like a different animal altogether. Rather than getting into the weeds of that academic dispute, we'll go with this critique of the whole sorry exercise by Tim Dickinson at Rolling Stone.

Despite his pageant of pedantry, the fact checker doesn't get to the bottom of anything. He doesn't prove that one side in this ivory tower debate is in fact right, while the other is actually wrong. More important, he doesn't offer any evidence that Sanders was aware of this teapot tempest or that he in any way set out to deceive voters. Instead author proudly presents the unholy tangle he, himself, created to conclude: "The omissions and twists are significant enough to merit Three Pinocchios for Sanders."

The process by which the Post fact checker transmogrified a basically true statement into a ruling of "mostly false" is a case study in the uselessness of the political fact-check as it is often practiced.

Gee, that sounds awfully familiar! This isn't fact-checking, it's grasping for excuses to call an accurate statement misleading. And as Dickinson notes, the ephemera of the web even adds to the chaos: While the reality is that academics argue over the degree to which medical bills "cause" bankruptcy, the text displayed when you mouse over the story on your browser oversimplifies far worse, transforming Sanders's accurate use of a (disputed) figure into an outright lie: "Bernie Sanders's false claim on 500,000 bankruptcies."

Well that sucker should get at least three Pinocchios, two George Costanzas, and a Harcourt Fenton Mudd.

[WaPo / Rolling Stone]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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