I’m ashamed to admit that, recently on Facebook, I failed as a skeptic.
Here’s how it went down: I logged onto Facebook as I do, checking my feed to see if anything interesting had been posted. And I saw the following image:
Without stopping to think about it, I hit the button to share the image. Yes, I have certain political leanings that may be safely inferred from that statement. Relax. This isn’t about those political leanings, and I’m not trying to turn this site into a soapbox for any specific political agenda. This is about a failure in critical thinking. Because I failed to think critically, when I shared that image. Because there’s a single, important question I should have asked first.
What is that question? Simply put, this:
“Do Senators and Representatives have ‘fully free, taxpayer-funded’ healthcare plans?”
I didn’t ask that. I just accepted the statement as fact, because it happened to fit into my world view, and repeated it without question. It was nearly three days later, after I happened to see a comment from a family member who has a different political viewpoint, that I questioned my assumption. Which, frankly, annoys me in retrospect. Because the answer was easy to locate online, and comes in the form of a Congressional Research Service paper from 2015 titled “Health Benefits for Members of Congress and Designated Congressional Staff.”
If you read the paper, you learn that they don’t have a “fully free, taxpayer-funded healthcare plan,” except in the sense that their salaries and benefits are paid for by the Federal government, which funds itself through taxes. “The federal government, as an employer, also offers health benefits to its employees and retirees. The federal government offers employer-sponsored health insurance and contributes toward the cost of that coverage through the Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) Program, administered by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM).” Members of Congress and congressional staff are eligible to participate in health plans that “are either created under the ACA or offered through an exchange established under the ACA.” Their participation is not free, but is paid for through a combination of paycheck deductions and employer contributions.
Members and staff are able to receive an employer contribution toward coverage purchased through the DC SHOP. The employer contribution is calculated using the statutory formula for health plans offered under FEHB. The percentage of premiums paid by the federal government is calculated separately for individual and family coverage, but each uses the same formula. According to the formula, the employer contribution is set at 72% of the weighted average of all FEHB plan premiums, not to exceed 75% of any given plan’s premium.
I could go on (and on, and on) here, but this isn’t the point. The point of this article is not the kind of health benefits that elected officials receive in the United States. It’s about the uncritical acceptance of a statement that, with just a few minutes of research, can be demonstrated to be completely and factually wrong.
We see this sort of thing discussed all the time in the skeptical community. “How,” we ask, “could someone still believe that vaccines cause autism?” “Why would someone believe that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, and that dinosaurs were in the Garden of Eden?” “Thermite wasn’t used to bring down Tower Seven. Where do they get this stuff from?” We pick holes in the claims, point people towards evidence, and scratch our heads in confusion. And then we turn around thoughtlessly share a Facebook post, or make an assertion, or repeat a “fact” that is factually incorrect.
This sort of behavior happens every day. We all do it. We all have blind spots, beliefs and assumptions about The Way Things Are that we just don’t question because they seem self-evident. And we don’t challenge them, because we don’t even think about it or because that might make us question our beliefs. Why should we? After all, we are right!
In other words, we are all subject to confirmation bias. There’s no shame in that fact. We’re human, and it’s part of our nature. When we believe something is true, we want it to be true. So our reflex is to ignore or attack anything that opposes that belief, and cherish and defend anything that supports the belief. It doesn’t matter what that belief is: anthropogenic global warming, evolution, universal health care, or vaccine denialism. All that matters is whether we believe or disbelieve.
As skeptics, we don’t have the luxury of indulging confirmation bias. It’s true that you shouldn’t question everything. But, if you consider yourself a skeptic, you should never uncritically accept anything. Look for the evidence. Find the reasons. Understand your own beliefs, and your own blind spots. Be curious.
Who knows? Maybe you’ll learn something.