Political Animal


April 17, 2013 4:27 PM Data In the Hands of Ideologues

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on April 17, 2013 4:44 PM:

    The problem is, I think the P-T-B (Powers-that-be) were looking for something they could point to for the austerity they wanted to inflict, and R&R provided them that.

    Now, besides giving R&R some R&R, we need to find out whether the "mistakes" were accidental, or on purpose? And if they were a mistakes, why did it take so long to discovered them?

    I think the biggest problem our Plutocrats have, is that Michelle Rhee and her willing and able eraser squad aren't able to "correct" the EXCEL program more to their liking, now that the cat's out of the bag - in other words, their original (desired) conclusions, which gave statistical cover for taking and shifting even more money from the poor and middle classes, on up.

  • Bluecrab on April 17, 2013 5:02 PM:

    I think it's high time that people begin calling out Ezra Klein as an unreliable source of information about macroeconomics. It's obvious from his writings on the subject that what he knows about it could be written on the back of a postage stamp (but then, what would he have learned about the subject while pursuing a BA in PoliSci?). He's the left's equivalent of Paul Ryan: a smarmy pseudo-wonk on economics with a vastly overblown reputation.

  • Raoul on April 17, 2013 5:15 PM:

    Bluecrab wildly overstates Klein's 'unreliability.'

    But I think he should pause to consider how he might be using a concealed argument from authority at times in his blogging.

    I'm not as bothered when I come to a place like Political Animal. I don't think Ed makes any pretense about preferring liberal and democratic outcomes, and hence the policies that align.

    Klein at least nominally should be less ideological in his thrust as a blogger.

    All that said, plenty on the right do a bang-up job of cherry picking, arguing from authority (with few links or sources, even) so nany-nany both sides do it.


  • Doug on April 17, 2013 6:06 PM:

    I've seen better research, with greater substantiation from the contributors on the Richard III group I belong to, all but one of whom are amateurs, than what R&R passed off as a "scientific study"!
    Master of Charts Steve Benen provided a spectacular graph at TRMS blog yesterday that, had it been provided with the original "study", would have caused even me to doubt the findings. There were four vertical graphs showing debt/GDP %s of less than 30%, less than 60%, less than 90% and greater than 90%. Even in the un-corrected versions, until one hits the greater than 90% column, there's *still* economic growth.
    Then suddenly, seemingly at 90.01%, positive growth of just under 3% becomes negative? And R&R could think of no questions to ask? Really?
    I do wonder why it took so long for a proper peer review?

  • NealB on April 18, 2013 12:32 AM:

    ubsitypo fettered (that's the captcha I see I'll need to "pass" before this post is accepted)

    How's that for testing preconceptions against empirical evidence? Not very good. But it's good enough and I suppose it does something to cut down on the chatter. Stultifying, certainly, but it does prove something. So, good.

    Likewise math, in general. And Excel. No one could have imagined that results calculated in an Excel workbook would be wrong, right?

    This is, truly, why communism, after all, isn't it? And after all, even given general, widespread idiocy-as-the-norm, there's not much difference between wonks without and the rest of us with common sense.

    Somewhere along the way, Ezra Klein lost his. Idiots don't give him the time of day, and they're right not to, because he's a charlatan.

    You media guys, and most of the women too, are charlatans too. Razzle-dazzle day after day; whatever crap sells. Whip it up.

  • Anonymous on April 18, 2013 11:16 AM:

    You know who is highly interested in the inside baseball details of wonks and pundits' profession? Navel-gazing wonks and pundits.