Data In the Hands of Ideologues

I haven’t posted about the Reinhardt-Rogoff fiasco, and its implications for the deficit hawks and austerity fans who relied on this now-tainted study. But Rhiannon Kirkland has the basic info over at Ten Miles Square (along with a related discussion of the IMF’s increasingly negative attitude towards austerity policies). And if you’re really interested, Paul Krugman has a long series of posts on the subject up at his Conscience of a Liberal blog.

All I’d add is a thought or two on the more general subject of whether this incident exposes the fatuity of pundits’ reliance on “empirical data” when they are prone to look only at evidence supporting their pre-established position–an accusation Krugman justly makes in discussing the heavy use of Reinhart-Rogoff.

In a post that’s making the rounds of policy-oriented bloggers, Peter Frase goes further and denounces the whole tribe of “wonk journalists” for lathering their opinions with the false appearance of policy expertise:

The function of the wonk is to translate the empirical findings of experts for the general public. And he is supposed to be distinguished by an immersion in the details of studies and policy papers. But if the wonk wants to cover a wide range of subjects, they will necessarily have far less expertise than the people whose findings are being conveyed. Hence it becomes necessary to make a concealed argument from authority. When Wonkblog presents the findings of Reinhart and Rogoff without comment, they are implicitly telling us, “trust these people—they’re famous academic economists”. This is because they don’t have the ability to do what people like Paul Krugman did, and actually assess the correctness of the famous economists’ claims.

Performing this con on the public is dangerous enough. But insofar as the wonk gets high on his own supply, and starts to trust the findings of congenial academics without verifying, the temptation to take shortcuts can be overpowering.

I don’t think this is fair or even particularly useful, certainly when it comes to one of Frase’s targets, Ezra Klein. Sure, there are bloggers and columnists–and more than a few academics, who are paid for their expertise–who play a game of “I’ve got a chart and you don’t,” and use empirical data (or more often, breezy interpretations of empirical data) as a trump card rather than as supporting evidence for an articulated argument. Does that mean that use of empirical data should be banned on sight as a “con?” Of course not. For one thing, there are accessible forms of empirical data that are by no means the shut-down-the-conversation equivalent of Reinhardt-Rogoff–e.g., census and other public agency data, election returns, compilations of actual events in real life, etc. For another, as the Reinhardt-Rogoff saga itself confirms, when some layman-inpenetrable study gets cited often to support some ideologically predetermined policy argument, odds are high that someone will take a closer look.

Now you can make the argument (many have) that punditry or blogging or opinion journalism generally don’t add a lot to the sum of human knowledge, and that may be true. I personally think my own limited value-added (beyond entertainment and aggregation of news) is to synthesize information from a variety of sources into a form that facilitates insights and helps explode myths, many of them propagated by bloggers, pundits and other opinion journalists. Are you going to become Erasmus by reading WaMo or for that matter Wonkblog? No. But every little bit helps, and certainly does no harm so long as writers are transparent about their underlying principles and motivations, and what sorts of “authorities” they cite.

I’m probably like most of my own tribe in that I’ve formed certain reasonably firm points of view based on a lot of factors, including what I’ve experienced in politics and government, and what I’ve read. It’s good for me (and for my ideology!) to test my preconceptions against empirical evidence, and sometimes they actually do change. Eschewing that rough but essential habit out of the fear that I’m “conning” someone by pretending to know things I don’t strikes me as a high price to pay.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.