Television audiences throughout North America and beyond have been riveted by the recent opening to talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel’s program. Having missed an entire week without the network providing an explanation, Kimmel returned to the air to say that he had been at the bedside of his newborn son, Billy, who had almost died of heart disease right out of the womb.
Kimmel assured his audience that the story has a happy ending, and baby Billy has indeed survived his brush with death thanks to fine work by two Los Angeles hospitals. So far, so good.
Then Kimmel made his larger point: according to the alternative health insurance plan supported by the new Congress and Trump administration, his needy son might not qualify for health insurance later in life because of a “pre-existing condition”—that is, the health problem he needed fixing on the first day of his life.
There is much to say about how health care should be funded in the United States, as well as up here in Canada—neither system currently providing excellent care to every one of its citizens. But today, let’s focus, as Jimmy Kimmel did, not on “systems” or “plans” or “proposals,” but on a single newborn, struggling for life.
Baby Billy was shown in two photographs on the program. In one, he is hooked up to machines on what appears to be every available square inch of his tiny body. In the other, he is grinning at the camera. Both pictures, in their respective ways, are heart-breaking.
And that’s the point.
Talking about health-care insurance options can be done bloodlessly, blithely, in the abstract. Whose heart breaks over charts and graphs and tables?
The implications of those numbers, however, are anything but abstract. Baby Billy helped Americans focus on one of the key issues: Does this little boy deserve to have insurers say no to him the rest of his life? Must parents be forced to choose between saving their child and saving for their retirement?
Six million Jews seems like a horrible thing, but also a vague and distant thing…until you read the diary of Anne Frank.
Syrian refugees were a problem far away and far from our thoughts …until “the boy on the beach,” Aylan Kurdi, turned up on our screens and in our conversations. Only then did we start to get it, and our governments start to respond.
Relief agencies understand this principle, which is why sponsoring a single child is simultaneously less efficient and more effective in fund-raising.
Politicians do, too, which is why negative advertisements point to a single individual, such as Willie Horton, or even a stereotype, such as a “welfare queen” (even as determining the effectiveness of such campaigns is complex.)
In his bestselling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman warns us about the powerful little story and the arresting image. When we think about difficult subjects, he says, most of us resist “statistical thinking”—that is, evidence-based conclusions, such as how safe it is to fly rather than drive. We’re moved instead by the single vivid impression.
Sometimes, however, we do need those stories. As the grim saying goes, “a single death is a tragedy, while a million deaths is a statistic.”
When it comes to health insurance and a dozen other vexed issues, the numbers matter. But so does Billy Kimmel. And heaven will not smile on us if we ignore one for the other.
The Good Shepherd himself, after all, cared for the whole flock—but did not count even ninety-nine per cent as success (Matthew 18:12-13).