Real Science Is with the Critics
Science is becoming ever more politicized. Or perhaps it always was, but we’re only now finding out thanks to hyper communication via the Internet. In either case, it makes it necessary for a consumer of ostensibly true (or at least fact-based) reporting to have a critical mind and be careful about the source of a claim or “fact.” Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to get a balanced view from someone else, so one must figure some kind of short hand for finding truth. This is vital when consuming debates with political implications (or even claims), and a lot of what is written nowadays is just that.
I propose that one should, as a rule of thumb, listen more carefully to the critics, not the supporters. Why do I say this? Simply for this fact: the real scientific contribution is stressed by critics – it is seldom even considered by supporters.
I realize this may sound unfair, but it appears to be true at a read the critics to get an idea of the claim.as worth. But do not read commentary by supporters, since they will hardly ever discuss the scientific worth of an argument, but the advantage of the politics derived from it.
Let’s look at two somewhat recent examples, which happen to be progressive/leftist books but needn’t be: Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century and Ha-Joon Chang’s Kicking Away the Ladder. Both have been widely celebrated (and still are) by supporters while criticized by others, and the two “camps” seem to completely talk past each other. In fact, the former don’t even recognize the existence of the critiques and just carry on as though nothing happened. Yet in both cases the criticism has been (what should be noted as) devastating.
In the case of Kicking Away the Ladder, which won some prestigious political-left prizes, we need only go to the author’s Wikipedia page. Two reviews of this book are quoted – one by a “critic” and another by a supporter – and they illustrate very well why one should always, as a rule of thumb, listen to the critics. The critic writes:
Chang only looks at countries that developed during the nineteenth century and a small number of the policies they pursued. He did not examine countries that failed to develop in the nineteenth century and see if they pursued the same heterodox policies only more intensively. This is a poor scientific and historical method. Suppose a doctor studied people with long lives and found that some smoked tobacco, but did not study people with shorter lives to see if smoking was even more prevalent. Any conclusions drawn only from the observed relationship would be quite misleading.
The supporter, on the other hand, writes:
Ha-Joon Chang has examined a large body of historical material to reach some very interesting and important conclusions about institutions and economic development. Not only is the historical picture re-examined, but Chang uses this to argue the need for a changing attitude to the institutions desired in today’s developing nations. Both as historical reinterpretation and policy advocacy, “Kicking Away the Ladder?” deserves a wide audience among economists, historians, and members of the policy establishment.
Two things are notable here. One is the fact that these two quotes were carefully selected as representative and subsequently have been approved by those editing Wikipedia. While it is possible that not be the “best” reviews of this book ever published, it is hard to think that they are unrepresentative or uncharacteristically bad.
The other, which is much more important and in line with the argument in this post, is what these quotes convey. The critic makes a methodological point and notes how Chang’s argument cannot be taken seriously because the method is subpar. It is a scientific and scholarly assessment of Chang’s work. The supporter talks about the implications, which (obviously) he agrees with.
If we look to the rather fierce debate on inequality following the translation of Thomas Piketty’s book, the pattern is similar if not exactly the same. Supporters discuss the political implications and tend to continue the logic of Piketty by asserting the latter’s claim as truth and then continuing on whatever tangent they find most attractive. This is why for example Salon.com has published a myriad posts on the Piketty book and its implication, none of which addresses any problems or even hesitancy toward the book’s argument, the data, or the analysis. Instead, we read posts with titles such as “Thomas Piketty terrifies Paul Ryan: Behind the right’s desperate, laughable need to destroy an economist.”
Maybe Paul Ryan and republicans are in fact “terrified,” as Salon.com claims, but I couldn’t care less. And neither should you. These kinds of comments have nothing at all to do with what Piketty actually claimed, how he argued for it, or whether he did a good job in scientific terms. Politics, in contrast, isn’t about truth or truthfulness, but about establishing lies as apparent truths – so that the next election can be won.
So what did the critics say? Well, the majority don’t just outrightly dismiss Piketty’s findings (in contrast to how supporters treat the book) but address… what? Yes, you guessed it – methodology, theory, scientific worth. The first critique that attracted attention was a report in the Financial Times that claimed that there’s something strange going on in how Piketty has selected and used data. Other critiques, such as from Bob Murphy, focus on Piketty’s lack of a capital theory (a rather obvious Austrian critique of mainstreamers) and, like Tyler Cowen, provides a list of issues with Piketty’s treatise that makes it overall unpersuasive.
This pattern seems to be pretty much universal. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, and they are primarily on the side of the critics (mainly in the form of dismissive rants). What’s interesting, however, is not that people pro and against rant about political implications – that’s expected. What is interesting is the almost complete lack of supporters discussing substantive issues. Believe it or not, but it is possible to agree with a conclusion without necessarily thinking the argument made is the best possible. And it may actually be wise to state that opinion. A scholar should do so.
But perhaps this is in fact the core issue – scholarship. It is used politically whenever it fits with one’s own political conviction as “support” or “evidence” for one’s opinion – and is dismissed whenever it is not. From the point of view of scholarship, the critics necessarily have a first say about the argument by pointing out any shortcomings, possible mistakes, and so forth. Only thereafter can scholars debate the meaning and implications of these potential shortcomings or mistakes. But by then the political debate has since long moved on.
Whenever there is a huge splash, which was the case with Piketty’s book (but not with Chang’s), the scholarly discussion catches up (or perhaps the political debate lingers and thereby inadvertently allows scholars to find time to enter). So with Piketty’s book, we actually have an interesting discussion about his scholarship. Interestingly enough, no one in this discussion sides with Salon.com’s laughable “analysis” of the situation. Even more interestingly, scholars – whether they support or don’t support the claim or implications – agree on many of the problems with Piketty’s analysis, and discuss what they mean for his conclusions. This is an interesting discussion that is highly educational, but most who are not fulltime scholars have already lost interest (or can’t afford taking more time off to follow the thousands of pages of text produced about Piketty).
But this is exactly why it is wise to always first listen to the critics: that’s where the real and substantive assessment is. Supporters generally produce only political rants. They may be entertaining, but we cannot learn much (anything?) from them.
Structured, rational thinking about community, cooperation, and the market