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The Trouble With Anecdotes

A lot of people remember President Obama’s moving story about how his mother spent her last days battling both her cancer and her health insurance provider. Obama, however, apparently did not remember the story quite as well.

A recent book by Janny Scott, “A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother,” reveals that his mother was, in fact, fighting with her disability insurance company, not her health insurance provider. The discovery was based on correspondence between Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, and the insurance company, Cigna.

Obama publicly mentioned his mother’s insurance problems at least twice, once during his second presidential debate with Sen. John McCain and once at a town hall meeting in August 2009, when the debate over health care reform was in full swing. On both occasions, he said the issue was whether treatments would be covered, implying that the problem was related to health insurance, not disability benefits.

For Obama, the anecdote provided a personal tie-in for one of his key arguments about health insurance: that limitations on coverage for pre-existing conditions cause people to go without coverage when they need it most. At the town hall meeting, he said, “I will never forget my own mother, as she fought cancer in her final months, having to worry about whether her insurance would refuse to pay for her treatment.” Obama claimed that his mother’s cancer was not actually pre-existing, which makes her story a particularly compelling one.

Under the Affordable Care Act, denial of coverage based on pre-existing conditions was banned for children under 19 starting last September, and will become illegal for adults beginning in 2014. Disability insurance, which protects against lost income rather than actual medical expenses, was never part of the debate, and was not affected by the Affordable Care Act.

Personal anecdotes are a staple of political rhetoric. As the presidential campaign gears up, we can expect to learn a lot more about the candidates’ lives, their families, and people they’ve met in restaurants and at campaign stops. This information will all be delivered in the form of pithy sound bites with easily extractable political morals. We have no assurance, however, that all of these convenient tales will be true.

Obama is not the only politician to tailor elements of his personal life to serve political purposes. Last year, Connecticut, it came to light that Attorney General Richard Blumenthal had invented an entire tour of military service in Vietnam. In a speech in 2008, he said, “We have learned something important since the days that I served in Vietnam.” In reality, however, while others served in Vietnam, Blumenthal was busy obtaining five military deferments and finally securing a spot in the Marine Forces Reserve, which allowed him to avoid active duty.

On the surface, it might seem that statistics offer a way to tether politicians to the truth. Numbers, however, have a funny way of simply morphing into more stories. In April, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., delivered the startling news that more than 90 percent of Planned Parenthood funding goes to pay for abortions. When informed that the actual figure is closer to 3 percent, Kyl’s office responded that the claim “was not intended to be a factual statement” but was instead meant simply to “to illustrate that Planned Parenthood, a[n] organization that receives millions of dollars in taxpayer funding, does subsidize abortions.”

Like Obama and Blumenthal, Kyl started with the point he wanted to make and then customized his facts to “illustrate” that point. Rather than using individual case studies or quantitative research findings to form their opinions and to subsequently build the case for those opinions, these three gentlemen, like many others in politics (and elsewhere), chose their positions first and found their facts to suit.

Accurate anecdotes and statistics are certainly better than false ones, but they can still be distorted when they are presented, without context, in service of an already established position.

Even if Obama’s mother had, in fact, fought with her health insurance provider, the story would not tell us how frequently people are wrongly denied coverage for conditions that were not actually pre-existing. It also would not address insurers’ protests that allowing people to seek coverage only after they need it will sharply raise premiums for everyone. True or false, the anecdote arouses listeners’ emotions without getting mired in substance or nuance.

Similarly, rather than prompting people to think about the implications of Planned Parenthood’s budget, Kyl’s 90 percent statistic simply seeks to evoke outrage. Even if the figure were true, more information would be required to draw any well-founded conclusions about its meaning. We would need to know what fraction of Planned Parenthood’s funding comes from federal support and whether the high spending on abortion-related care was the result of a high number of abortions performed or of high costs per abortion.

Anecdotes and statistics are useful, of course. They allow us to quickly illustrate concepts and to make points. I have a quarter-century of experience as a financial planner, and I often use that experience, in the form of anecdotes, to help clients understand otherwise abstract financial lessons. I try to use my stories as complements to hard facts, however, not as substitutes for them.

Politics is about persuasion, and if anecdotes and cheap statistics offer the quickest path to voters’ minds and hearts, that’s the route that candidates will take. It is up to the rest of us, not just to fact-check stories and numbers, but to think about what the rhetoric leaves out.

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