The Atlantic’s Contrarian Problem

I’ve subscribed to The Atlantic for over 15 years. Some of the best things I’ve read have appeared in that periodical. I’ve learned a lot from it, or so I thought. But the recent article by Megan McArdle on the relationship between insurance and mortality begs the question whether I’ve actually learned anything (related posts).

Because it’s in an area related to my own work, it is clear to me and should be to any health economist or health care researcher that McArdle’s scholarship was not up to snuff. The narrow slice of the literature she cited supported her conclusion but was not representative of the whole, which paints a completely different picture. And from that misleading and narrow slice her absurd conclusion followed–that we should have known more about the insurance-mortality relationship before we considered health reform.

[Read about McArdle’s update of her thinking on this here.]

One need only take an expansive look at the literature to reach the established conclusion that insurance improves health and reduces mortality. Michael McWilliams has done that thorough examination, on this blog, in his original published and peer reviewed work, and in a comprehensive literature survey. Stan Dorn has provided another blog-length literature review. McArdle’s falls fall short by comparison.

McArdle’s piece is typical of a subset of articles in The Atlantic, the ones in which a journalist takes a look at a few papers, perhaps talks to a small number of researchers (or maybe not) and then spins a contrarian story. Such pieces have the veneer of legitimacy and seem to have the hallmarks of good scholarship. But in reality they posses neither.

The next time I read such a piece in The Atlantic, can I believe it? If I didn’t know better I’d have believed McArdle’s. Perhaps many readers do or will. That may be a victory for McArdle and The Atlantic, but it is a defeat for truth and honesty.

What’s the point of articles that cherry-pick research to support contrarian conclusions? They may be provocative, but a misleadingly narrow review of a body of research often can be. Being provocative is not necessarily bad, but doing so in a manner that misrepresents a body of work is an insult to science and does readers a disservice. In what way is that useful, unless your goal is to be misinformed and misled (as a reader) or to support otherwise unjustified policy conclusions (as an author)?

I may have been an Atlantic subscriber for a long time, but if they print more pieces like McArdle’s I won’t be one for much longer.

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