Last week, Megan McArdle dug into a bankruptcy study by Harvard professor (and TARP overseer) Elizabeth Warren and exposed some rot under the floorboards. Warren’s study trumpeted the fact that the percentage of bankruptcies due to medical bills had risen since 2001, but it failed to note that bankruptcies overall had fallen by half over the same period of time — meaning there are actually fewer medical bankruptcies today than there were then. In one of her posts on the subject, McArdle pointed out that few journalists were willing or able to do the same digging:
Read a sampling of the stories about this study on Google News. It’s clear that none of the authors of the stories I’ve read understand that we’re talking about a smaller absolute number of medical bankruptcies, representing a larger proportion of a much smaller overall number: that this increase in the proportion could at least as easily have been driven by less need for non-medical bankruptcy, than by bigger, scarier medical bills. Indeed, many of the stories indicate that medical bankruptcies have risen since 2001, which is not true even according to Warren’s figures.
I submit that the study is designed to get that result from journalists.
When an academic study conforms to a journalist’s pre-existing biases, its thesis is usually presented uncritically, even if it rests on rickety foundations. Here’s another example of this phenomenon at work.