Sunday, April 28, 2013

Selective Attention To Data

Caption: Richard Dawkins during a reading from his latest book, The Greatest Show On Earth at the University of Washington, October 8, 2009. I don't remember it, but he must have mentioned flying horses, since it's now widely known that he's obsessed with people who believe in them.

Image credit: Cujo359

As it did last year, Al Jazeera managed to bring some of Dan Hind's foolishness to my attention by publishing it. From the title alone, I figured this would be nonsense, with the promise of equating all sorts of things that not only aren't the same, but aren't even close. You know, like people who rail against bigots are bigots themselves, that sort of thing. Sure enough, he starts by getting it wrong regarding Richard Dawkins:

Richard Dawkins is having a busy time of it. Last weekend, he tweeted: "Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist." His many supporters saw this latest contribution as part of his brave campaign against irrational beliefs. The devout were infuriated, which, I suspect, only encourages him.

Varieties of Unreason

[unless otherwise noted, all links and italics are from original articles. See the attribution links to validate, since I transcribed them by hand.]

Hind continually cherry-picks information throughout this column. This is the first instance, and if one were to check the second link in that quote above, which is also the second link in the article, one would find that Hind is, so to speak, talking out his butt:

Yesterday, on Twitter, I wrote of the British journalist Mehdi Hasan’s belief that the Prophet Muhamed flew to Heaven on a winged horse. It is a belief at least as silly as [Arthur Conan] Doyle’s belief in fairies, and it merits the same “It’s a rum do comment on the paradox that Mehdi Hasan is simultaneously a very good journalist and political editor, who writes penetrating and sensible articles on current affairs and world politics. That such an effective critical intellect should simultaneously be capable of believing in winged horses seemed to me to merit some sort of wry comment, comment of the “It’s a rum do” variety: isn’t it odd, what a paradox, like Conan Doyle or Dowding and the fairies.

Away With The Fairies

[link added for the benefit of those who aren't British]

As Dawkins mentions in that essay, it's hard to express yourself in 140 characters so that everyone will understand, particularly if you're in a hurry. He'd written as much in later Twitter message on the subject, evidence that Hind also apparently chose to ignore.

Sadly, it gets worse. After giving that subject the once-over, Hind moves on to another subject he clearly didn't want to look at very much:

Let us turn now to another story, which might, at first glance, seem unconnected. In January 2010, Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff published "Growth in a Time of Debt". The paper seemed to show that countries with debt in excess of 90 percent of GDP grew far more slowly than those with lower debt burdens. Though they immediately faced criticism from other economists, politicians around the world seized on their findings to justify cuts in public spending. For example, a month after Rogoff and Reinhart announced their findings, George Osborne, the British Chancellor, told an audience that "the latest research suggests that once debt reaches more than about 90 percent of GDP, the risks of a large negative impact on long-term growth become highly significant".


So things stood until a graduate student, Thomas Herndon, went through Rogoff and Reinhart's figures and found that there were some worrying gaps.

Varieties of Unreason

Once again, we have an extremely selective view of events posing as a history. Here's what economics Professor Paul Krugman wrote on the subject in a recent New York Times column:

Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna on “expansionary austerity” and Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff on the dangerous debt “threshold” at 90 percent of G.D.P. — faced withering criticism [(PDF)] almost as soon as they came out.

And the studies did not hold up under scrutiny. By late 2010, the International Monetary Fund had reworked Alesina-Ardagna with better data and reversed their findings, while many economists raised fundamental questions about Reinhart-Rogoff long before we knew about the famous Excel error. Meanwhile, real-world events — stagnation in Ireland, the original poster child for austerity, falling interest rates in the United States, which was supposed to be facing an imminent fiscal crisis — quickly made nonsense of austerian predictions.

The 1 Percent’s Solution

Caption: The infamous Excel spreadsheet that was the basis for the Reinhart-Rogoff paper. Turns out, if you ignore the right data, and completely forget ideas about cause and effect, the paper made sense.

Image credit: Mike Konczal

One of the reasons that it's taken this long to discover the "Excel error" Krugman mentions, and the paper Hind refers to as the start of criticism of Reinhart-Rogoff (R&R), is that R&R initially refused to publish their data. This is the opposite of good science, and they were roundly criticized for that, too. Nevertheless, as Krugman mentions, there was plenty of criticism of the paper at the time, which should have left anyone who is even mildly intellectually honest with the notion that there were serious doubts among economists at the time. It should not have been the basis for any policy, based on the criticisms leveled on it at the time. This didn't stop politicians and pundits from quoting the paper, though, for reasons economist Dean Baker correctly diagnosed:

The discrediting of the R&R paper raises important questions for economic policy. This work was central to the argument against measures designed to boost the economy. Now that it has been discredited, one of the major intellectual pillars of the drive for austerity has been removed. In principle this should lead to a rethinking of economic policy.

Unfortunately that does not seem likely to be an outcome. The policy of austerity has produced winners and losers, and the winners seem to have considerably more power. The high unemployment and weak labor markets of the last five years leaves workers with little bargaining power.

Crashing the 90 Percent Club: The Importance of the Reinhart-Rogoff Error

Yet Hind pretends otherwise, as did many politicians and pundits at the time. A paper with dubious conclusions based on unpublished data isn't the basis of a serious intellectual discussion of economics, much less national economic policy. The politicians and pundits took it as a matter of faith, because they wanted to believe it, just as the reporter Dawkins referred to wanted to believe in a flying horse.

Which makes Hind's conclusion all the more ridiculous:

When properly accredited experts say things that the powerful want to hear, their word becomes a kind of gospel. It is immune to serious challenge unless it is shown to be grossly inept. Even when it is debunked, the people who own and run the world carry on doing what they want, confident that another plausible-sounding justification will surface soon. Meanwhile, the self-declared champions of reason and truth are too busy worrying about flying horses to notice.

Varieties of Unreason

Whether R&R's results were due merely to incompetence, or to deliberate fraud, their "accreditation" had more to do with accepting orthodoxy, no matter how absurd, and less to do with what Hind refers to as people obsessing about flying horses. The people who debunked R&R were people who compared that paper's dubious conclusions with reality, and found it wanting. The people "worrying about flying horses" are the ones who noticed this, not someone who doesn't think it's right (or in this case, helpful) to question certain things. R&R's effect on public policy has a lot more to do with self-serving attention to facts than it does with science.

And selective attention to facts is exactly what Hind is guilty of. To label Dawkins, a scientist with a long and distinguished career, as a "professional atheist" as Hind does in his article, who only pays attention to stories about flying horses and the like, is absurd to a degree even Glenn Beck might have trouble matching.

Dan Hind is the reigning answer to the question "How much of a moron can you be and still be published at Al Jazeera?" As bad as this and that previous article have been, I hope no one unseats him.


Expat said...

"Those who cannot be bothered to know economics,
are destined to feel the lash of slavery,
until they do"

Cujo359 said...

As R & R, among others, have demonstrated many times, if you have a convenient opinion, it's not all that important to actually know anything about economics.

Had fun looking up that quote, though. Bill Black's been a busy boy lately.