An alert reader just sent me, via “Media Matters”, the single dumbest real-life
video clip that I have ever seen. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Bill O’Reilly is
a conservative radio and TV talk-show host. He’s known for doing a lot of really obnoxious
things, ranging from sexually harassing at least one female employee, to sending some of
his employees to stalk people who he doesn’t like, to shutting off the microphones of
guests on his show if he’s losing an argument. In short, he’s a loudmouthed asshole who
gets off on bullying people.
But that’s just background. As a conservative commentator, he’s been going off on
the evils of Obama’s supposedly socialist healthcare reform. That’s frequently
taken the form of talking about how horrible medical care is under Canada’s
socialized health system. One of his viewers wrote in to him about this. And
the insanity follows.
The question came from a viewer named Peter from Victoria, BC, who asked: “Has anyone noticed
that life expectancy in Canada under our health system is higher than the USA?”
Bill’s response:” Well, that’s to be expected Peter, because we have 10 times
as many people as you do. That translates to 10 times as many accidents,
crimes, down the line.” Delivered, of course, in BillO’s trademark patronizing
You know, you can, intelligently, make arguments against the Canadian
health system. For example, in many parts of Canada, there are serious
problems due to a shortage of medical professionals – Doctors, nurses, even
pharmacists are in short supply. You could make the argument that
that’s caused by the Canadian health system, because by eliminating the
profit motive, there’s no motivation for a newly minted professional to
set up an office in the middle of nowhere. That’s a reasonable argument.
But when it comes the stuff spewing from the pie-holes of people like
BillO, we don’t hear the intelligent arguments. Instead, we hear idiocy
like this mind-killing bullshit. I’ve really got to wonder whether he’s
dumb enough to actually believe that that makes sense. I’ve always thought
that he was evil, rather than dumb. But watching this, I’ve really got to
wonder – who does he think he’s fooling? Does he really think so little
of his viewers? Or does he actually believe that this argument makes sense?
Unfortunately, I think he probably does actually believe this.
Based on other things I’ve heard him say, I think
that while he’s not actually stupid, he is incredibly, willfully ignorant, and
absolutely determined to stay that way. I think that he doesn’t actually
understand what “life expectancy” means, and given his usual “If I don’t
know it, it’s not worth knowing” attitude, actually looking at a definition
to see if it means what he thinks it means is beneath him.
See, if you were talking about a statistic that was “number of deaths
per year”, then his argument would make sense. Death rates are pretty much
constant; the number of deaths is roughly proportional to the population size. So ten times more people implies
ten times more people dying per year.
But that’s not what life expectancy means. Life expectancy is the
mean age of death calculated over a population.
Suppose that you’ve got a population of 50 people, of uniformly
distributed ages. Over time, 20 of them die. Their ages at death are
1/4, 2, 9, 17, 18, 18, 19, 27, 34, 35, 40, 49, 58, 58, 59,
60, 63, 64, 80, 98. In the remaining 30 people, you’d say that their
life expectancy was around 40 years.
Now, suppose you’ve got 100 people, of uniformly distributed ages.
Over time, 40 of them die, with the same age distribution as the
example above. What’s the life expectancy of the people in the larger
group? Exactly the same.
Let’s look at it a different way. Suppose that the average
life expectancy of people was significantly dependent on
population. What would that mean? In increasing order of
- People living in NYC (population 8.3 million people as of 2007) would
have dramatically lower life expectancies than people living in
Toledo Ohio (population around 700,000 in 2007).
- People living in the suburbs have drastically different
life expectancies, depending on whether you count them as part
of the population of a cities metropolitan area, or as populations of
separate towns that just happen to be close to the city.
- If you calculated the life expectancies of people in the US, Canada,
and Mexico separately, and then calculated the life expectancy
of people in North America (excluding Central America), the life expectancy
of people in North America would be lower than the life expectancy of any
of the individual countries.
Sure, there are some ways of dying that become more likely in a
densely populated area. NYC has a higher per-capita crime rate than East Podunk, NY.
And that does have some effect. High population areas tend to have more pollution,
which can lead to reduced life expectancies. But on the other hand, high-population
areas tend to have better hospitals, more skilled doctors, and shorter time-to-hospital
in emergencies, which can all have the opposite effect – increasing life expectancy.
As usual in things like this, working out the total effects of population size on
life expectancy isn’t at all straightforward. In fact, if you look at
a map of life expectancy in cities of different sizes in developed countries, you’ll find that
there’s no strong relationship. (For example, in NYC in the year 2000, the average life expectancy
was 78.6 years – 6 years longer than the overall American average. Population
certainly isn’t hurting NYC. But if you look at life expectancy over time in NYC,
plotted against population, you’ll see a mess with no correlation.)
Of course, people like BillO don’t like it when things are complicated. Much
better to just make shit up, spout nonsensical garbage, and shout really loud
whenever anyone tries to tell you that you’re wrong.