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Artificial Sweetener: Rachel Maddow’s Sugar-Free Statistics

Posted on September 18 2009 1:00 pm
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Our friend and colleague David Swindle wrote that Rachel Maddow is the Mary Poppins of the left–pleasant and reasonable-sounding enough that she comes off as more reasonable than her actual stance might be. Mary Poppins used a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, but Maddow’s sweetener of choice is something different. Hers is pure fiction–a calorie-and-truth-free artificial sweetener to help the leftist ideology go down. And (with apologies to diet soda aficionados) like most artificial sweeteners something about it tastes wrong, it’s a poor substitute for the real thing, consuming too much can give you a headache, and prolonged exposure can lead to cancer. OK, so that last part of the analogy doesn’t really hold. But observe the artificial truth flavoring her latest show.

rachel-maddow-08-widecMaddow, desperate to smear lawmakers taking a stand against ObamaCare, trotted out some health care statistics that claim to show that states these lawmakers are from—South Carolina and Mississippi have the “worst” health care in the nation. In fact, she calls health care in these states a “disaster.” There’s only one problem—she either can’t be bothered to look beneath the surface of her statistics, or deliberately ignores relevant facts. So its no surprise she comes to an altogether wrong conclusion, and one that (at least by the dubious standards of Jimmy Carter which Maddow herself embraces) might be called racist.

For the purposes of demonstrating her errors, we will focus on South Carolina, the state she routinely denigrates, and Massachusetts, one of the states to which she compares her targets in order to judge them lacking. Maddow cites three main statistics as measures of the supposedly terrible health care in South Carolina—the percentage of babies with low birth weight, the percentage of babies born prematurely, and the infant mortality rate.

First off, the three statistics are not really separate statistics at all, but inextricably linked. Babies born premature are far more likely to be low birth weight and are more likely to die due to complications from an early birth. Obviously not all low birth weight babies are premature, but the statistics reinforce each other more often than they prove separate points.

Maddow shows a map which highlights the states with over 15% premature birth rate (South Carolina’s is 15.4%), lowest birth weight (South Carolina’s percentage of low birth weight babies is 10.1%), and highest infant mortality rate (South Carolina’s is 9.4%). By comparison, Massachusetts’ numbers are 11.3%, 7.9%, and 5.2%, respectively.

Yes, South Carolina does rate worse in these categories. So what are the probable causes of these statistics? Maddow would say it’s because the states are run by Republicans, specifically Republicans against health care reform. But let’s look at the factors behind low birth weight and premature birth.

According to the March of Dimes, “black women and women under 17 and over 35 years of age also are at increased risk” for low birth weight babies. So ethnicity and teen pregnancy play a large role in premature and low birth weight births. Teens who are pregnant are also significantly less likely to seek health care for their babies, regardless of its availability. And minority teens are even less likely to do so. Indeed, the statistics bear out that this is a contributing factor to the different between South Carolina (a teen birth rate of 53.0 per 1,000 population) and Massachusetts (a teen birth rate of 21.3 per 1,000 population). But who are these teens who are getting pregnant?

Well, here you can find a breakdown of teenage pregnancy by ethnicity. Turns out the rates are 11% for whites, 21% for Native Americans, 24% for African-Americans, and 34% for Hispanics. But do the statistics bear out that the differences between South Carolina and Massachusetts are due to ethnic and demographic issues? Well, if you look at the statistical breakdowns, yes. For example, looking at percentage of low birthweight births, the rates for whites in South Carolina and Massachusetts are statistically quite similar (7.8% to 7.2%), and the rates for blacks are not so dissimilar either ( 15.1% to 12.1%). The rate for Hispanics is actually better in South Carolina (6.4% to 8.4%).

So what accounts for South Carolina’s overall poor scores? Is it a higher percentage of minorities in the population? Well, Masachusetts is 86.2% white. South Carolina is only 68.7% white. So is that what she’s really saying? Is Maddow in such a rush to mock conservatives for their stances that she ends up making fun of southern states for having larger minority populations? Is she using code words to mock minorities for the statistically greater probability of trouble in pregnancy and childbirth? Is she making a racial argument holding up lily-white Masachusetts (and even-white Rhode Island and New Hampshire) as the ideal state? By the standard to which she routinely holds those who don’t agree with her, yes. If she were consistent, she would point out “sinister” and “frightening” racial element to her show. But of course she won’t.

And of course, neither will we. You see, we don’t actually think Maddow was being racist when she used these statistics. After all, we don’t think she bothered to look into her information deeply enough to grasp the implications of what she was saying. And we don’t subscribe to the ridiculous “you’re racist because we say your racist” standard that she routinely applies to conservatives. Besides, the reasons for increased minority teen pregnancy rates go beyond simply because they are minorities. To think otherwise would be bigoted in and of itself.

For example, we could also point out that Massachusetts might have a low rate of premature and low birth weight births since in that state “fifty percent or more of teenage pregnancies end in abortion.” And as we’ve already shown, these are the pregnancies most likely to become part of these sorts of statistics. There are clearly cultural factors at work here as well.

So what is our point, then? Perhaps it should be that you can say anything you want to say with statistics, as long as you frame them the right way, leave out pertinent facts, and only highlight what seems, on the surface, to back up your argument. Well, as Disraeli said and Mark Twain popularized, there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. And that would mean there are three kinds of liars: liars, damned liars, and Rachel Maddow.

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