“There is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, No. 4 in labor force and No. 4 in exports.”
—”Will McAvoy,” fictional news anchor from the HBO series “The Newsroom”
Why fact check a statement from a fictional character? We check it for the same reason we fact check other statements: To determine whether they’re true or not and how they might mislead people. The Will McAvoy speech from the first episode of HBO’s “The Newsroom” created some buzz. It was used in advertisements for the show to generate interest. A year later, some are circulating the clip as “The most honest three and a half minutes of television, ever” and the like. Clips of the speech on sites like YouTube have been played millions of times.
Will McAvoy delivers his speech after a student asks the three-person panel why each thinks the United States is the greatest county in the world. McAvoy avoids the question at first, but after pressure from the moderator delivers a speech that includes the following:
There is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number four in labor force and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories. Number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined. Twenty-five of whom are allies.
The speech contains a number of statements apparently intended as factual statements. As the first season of “The Newsroom” features real-life news events borrowed from the 2010 real world, such as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we can test the claims against figures in use in 2010.
“Seventh in literacy”
The CIA’s World Factbook has literacy estimates for the nations of the world. Wikipedia presents those statistics in a form that allows for easy interpretation. The literacy estimates actually put the U.S. back in the pack numerically, but taking ties into account allows for putting the U.S. at No. 7. The nations in the top 40 are all pretty close, well above 95 percent literate. Andorra, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg all report 100 percent literacy.
“Twenty-second in science”
McAvoy’s speech offers few clues about what measure backed this claim. Scimago Lab ranks the U.S. a clear No. 1 in peer-reviewed science publishing. A study released in 2010 dealing with 15-year-old students from 65 nations placed the U.S. at No. 22 in scholastic science achievement.
“Forty-ninth in life expectancy”
The 2010 CIA World Fact Book ranks the U.S. at No. 49 in life expectancy—if the “European Union” is counted as a country separate from EU members like Germany and Italy. Puerto Rico came in at No. 43, including the EU.
The World Bank, using a variety of data sources, ranks the U.S. at No. 39 for both 2009 and 2010.
“One hundred seventy-eighth in infant mortality”
The New York Post’s Kyle Smith had a look at this statistic back in June of 2012 and concluded that somebody read the list from the CIA World Factbook upside-down.
We found McAvoy’s exact statistic at a website run by the Center for Youth Studies. The site refers readers to the CIA World Factbook for more information. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel published a story based on the infant mortality rankings from the 2010 version of the World Factbook, and the numbers confirm Smith’s finding that the inverted ranking is 176, not 178, and the list ranks the U.S. at No. 46 when properly read.
“Third in median household income”
Wikipedia’s presentation of the 2010 numbers from the OECD places the U.S. at No. 4 for median household income. That’s from a list of 35 countries.
“No. 4 in labor force”
Photius.com shows the U.S. at No. 4 in labor force for 2010, showing the CIA World Factbook for 2010 as its source. The European Union beats out the U.S. for third place on the list.
“No. 4 in exports”
Photius.com also agrees with McAvoy’s claim about export ranking, placing the U.S. at No. 4, right after Germany, in 2010.
“We lead the world in only three categories.”
The U.S. leads the world in quite a few categories, including defense spending, largest economy, highest number of annual immigrants, and best higher-education system.
“Number of incarcerated citizens per capita”
Allcountries.com, using information from the United Nations Development Program, ranked the U.S. No. 1 in incarcerations per capita. The list carried the disclaimer “Because of differences in legal definitions, data are not strictly comparable across countries.”
“Number of adults who believe angels are real”
We located poll data for only a handful of countries available in 2010. We also located a number of polls showing that strong majorities in the U.S. believe in angels. The various polls showed the U.S. ahead of Canada, Australia and Great Britain in belief in angels. The contest with Italy, relying on data from a scholarly paper by Franz Hollinger, was too close to call, while that same study showed the U.S. trailing Brazil.
“Defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined. Twenty-five of whom are allies.”
In 2009, The Economist reported that U.S. military spending was highest in the world for 2008, higher than “the next 14 biggest spenders combined.”
For the following year, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute rated the U.S. the top military spender for 2009. By our calculations, the U.S. spent more than the next 20 biggest spenders combined, but less than the next 21 biggest spenders combined.
SIPRI had not published its rankings of military spending for 2010 during the 2010 calendar year, but for 2010 the numbers again fail to match McAvoy’s claim, with U.S. military spending exceeding that of the next highest 14 nations appearing on the list.
As both China and Russia consistently appear on the lists of biggest military spenders, apparently at least one of them counts as an ally in the reality of “The Newsroom,” considering McAvoy’s claim that 25 of the 26 nations immediately behind the U.S. are allies. The U.S. has no military alliance with either China or Russia.
Analyzing the Rhetoric
We see that McAvoy’s numbers have an imperfect relationship with reality, and in evaluating their rhetorical value we tip our hat to Lamont Colucci, whose op-ed for U.S. News & World Report helped blaze the trail we follow:
This television tirade would be of no matter had it stayed in the dystopic universe that is Hollywood, but alas, the [I]nternet has pushed the statement across borders and time. The temptation to go line by line and deconstruct this outburst will be resisted, and would do little but add credence to the inanity. It is, naturally, what is not said that is more important, more enlightening, and more reasonable.
Colucci warns of a trap we’ve mentioned before: It’s a common rhetorical trick to use a true fact to fallaciously support an argument.
What’s McAvoy’s argument? That the United States is not the greatest nation in the world. He tries to support that argument with a set of rankings that place the U.S. somewhere other than No. 1. But is that a reasonable way to disqualify a country from being considered the greatest among its peers?
The right approach
Statistically judging the greatest nation ought to involve looking for a nation that ranks consistently high in favorable categories and consistently low in unfavorable categories, with each category weighted as to relative importance. Important categories might include the size of the economy, worker productivity, quality of the education system, contributions to scientific research, charitable contributions, economic freedom and median income.
The U.S. ranks highly in each of those categories, even ones mentioned by McAvoy. And the U.S. ranks No. 1 in another category that speaks to the U.S. standing among the nations: net migration. More people come to the U.S. than to any other country.
We won’t seek to make the case that the U.S. is the greatest nation in the world. But McAvoy said, among other things, that no evidence supports the claim that the U.S. is the greatest nation in the world. To the contrary, the U.S. consistently ranks high in desirable national statistics and consistently low in undesirable ones. One can easily make a reasonable case for ranking the United States No. 1.
It’s worth emphasizing that the data we have ranking nations one against another often represent flawed comparisons. Life expectancy has much to do with diet and behavior. Nations use different methods to track statistics such as infant mortality. Military spending lists that do not rank militarized nations like North Korea and Iran don’t tell a complete story. Ranking the belief in angels while using a tiny subset of data that omits nations culturally dominated by Islam makes little sense. Such examples abound on McAvoy’s list of supposed American failures.
McAvoy’s argument gets some numbers wrong and misuses some of the right numbers. Overall, the argument is incoherent.
“There is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world.”
Addendum July 28, 2013
For those interested in more fact checks of “The Newsroom,” check out Brian William Waddell’s “The Newsroom Fact Check.”
Update Dec. 29, 2014
While checking outgoing link data, we found our link to the .pdf file on the study of belief in angels no longer works. We were unable to fix that problem, but discovered some new data at Pew Research that effectively shows that the claim from “The Newsroom” relies on incomplete survey data. For the general population, for example, Pew reports belief in angels at 84 percent in Brazil, 84 percent in Colombia and 86 percent in Venezuela. Each of those figures exceeds the 77 percent in the United States who believe in angels according to a 2011 CBS poll.
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