But You Should Question Some Things…

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:

Wait! Come back! I promise this isn’t about politics!

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.

About Richard Gant

Richard Gant is a husband, a father, and a huge nerd with a deep love of science, science fiction, and fantasy. He works for a brokerage firm he won't name here in order to keep his Compliance department happy, and frequently talks to inanimate objects as if they can understand him. He also has a difficult time writing seriously about himself in the third person.
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19 Responses to But You Should Question Some Things…

  1. Thank you for this post. We’re all guilty of this but at least you realized it. It’s easy to get caught up in it with all that’s going on. But now is important to think critically.
    Occupy Democrats tends to have often have misinformation, even when I agree with their overall point of what they’re trying to say.

  2. Steven Gelfond says:

    Well said. Emotions, social environment and peer pressure can and will influence our actions. It’s not easy to take a step back and consider every detail and nuance of everything we hear and see.

    Social media can eventually do more good than harm; that’s a faith that I’m not sure can be easily fact-checked

    Keep up the good fight. We all let our guard down at times.

  3. Linda Ryan says:

    Great point! You could even have questioned the concept of “free”. My employer pays for my health benefits in full. I don’t consider it a freebie because it’s part of my compensation package. I work for it. He could just give me the money and let me buy it myself but he has greater buying power than I do so I get more for my money this way. But it’s not “free”.

  4. Caermon Durgae says:

    Excellent post. I see too many skeptics lose their skepticism once they leave the scientific arena. We should be skeptical in all things.

  5. 1-Ton says:

    As a skeptic, and also a person who values my own sanity and free-time, I stay away from Facebook.

  6. The Church Lady says:

    I usually just get all indigent, forward stuff off, and regret it later ……… *sigh*

    • JIMJFOX says:

      “indigent–“Poor & needy?
      Possibly you mean ‘indignant’? Or am I indulging in confirmation bias?

  7. Paul Carter Block says:

    How you managed to write this excellent and questioning article on the subject of blatant lies being peddled as truth – the post-truth syndrome – without once mentioning the new chief executive of the United States is beyond me. Such self-control is admirable and something I have not the forbearance to countenance. But thanks for leaving that important space between the lines.

    • Graham says:

      I think the key point the author is making is that this issue is universal, not just confined to the current US Administration.

      I tend to avoid Facebook and Social Media sites precisely because they encourage snap judgements, acting without thinking and slacktivism.

    • tom welsh says:

      You miss the point! It’s not ABOUT any particular political agenda or person….did you read the first paragraph following the image?

  8. Bill Kowalski says:

    It’s a very good program, one which I enjoyed as a Federal employee in the Department of Labor. The Feds have massive clout in determining what they will pay for coverage and the government employees pay a share of some pretty low premiums compared to what the employees of private companies pay. Plus, the Feds’ system allows the employee to choose plans from a very nice assortment of carriers and plan options. My current employer? One carrier, one plan, take it or leave it.

    What would be interesting would be if the Feds allowed private employers to get in on the deal. What if private companies could enroll their employees at the same premium as long as the employer and employees paid the full premium? And what if private citizens and their employers were similarly allowed to purchase Medicaid coverage as their healthcare plan? I suspect it would be a sweet deal for the taxpayers and the private sector (for-profit health insurance carriers, multi-millionaire healthcare CEO’s and pharmaceutical barons excluded).

    However, our politicians have carefully steered the conversation away from ANYTHING that would materially reduce the profits of healthcare insurance carriers, hospitals, doctors, and pharmaceutical companies. Why? The lobbyists make sure they protect the profits of healthcare insurance carriers, hospitals, doctors, and pharmaceutical companies, above the greater interests of the people of the USA.

    Full disclosure, I work in this business.

  9. Stephen Connell says:

    Oh so human and courageous to admit your mistake and correct it . Well done Richard. If there were dinosaurs in Eden then I feel sorry for the person who cleaned up after them.

    • Deanne Charlton says:

      The cleaner would have been Eve, ne c’est pas? She must be the one who coined the phrase, “‘Twas ever thus.”

  10. CatLA says:

    So, going by the quotation, Congress has (roughly) 72-75% tax-payer funded health insurance. The 25-28% employee contribution is, as you said, also tax-payer funded, indirectly. I guess that statement does make less of an impact. But just how much of a difference is there, really?

    For people who may be going to have 0% tax-payer funded health insurance, having just started to receive (in theory) 100% tax-payer funded health insurance because they earn so little—like my cleaning lady—, I don’t think they’d care very much. (I said ‘in theory’ because there are large deductibles, and only the most basic dental care.) For her, and those like her, the change would still mean they’d have 0% health insurance. She and people like her will start going to those one-day-a-month free clinics again, and the ER, of course. And, yes, my cleaning lady is a US citizen.

  11. letuno says:

    Politics are some times a gray matter, but so can science be. Data must be interpreted.

  12. richard1941 says:

    I believe that the excellent health care plan provided to members of congress should be extended to ALL white male Christian republicans over the age of 60.

  13. Tessa says:

    Good one richard1941,hope that it was a joke!?! I’m the only sceptic in my very large family full of myths and anti-vaxxers,I wonder where all the population came from? I also stay off social media, I’m sure one of them is sending me light right now,hope that works for a magical health plan

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