The Norms of Politics: Ferguson and Ehrlich

If we broaden the frame from mathiness narrowly defined and look for academics who are guided by the norms of politics instead of the norms of science, it is not hard to find examples from both ends of the political spectrum. No matter which end they come from, they can bring science to a halt. If you ever want to reach a scientific consensus about anything–whether wage growth in the UK has been positive or negative, whether England even exists–you will not want to invite either Niall Ferguson or Paul Ehrlich into the discussion.

Niall Ferguson

In a recent op-ed in the Financial Times, Niall Ferguson wrote that in the UK:

Weekly earnings are up by more than 8 per cent; in the private sector, the figure is above 10 per cent. Inflation is below 2 per cent and falling.

These remarks triggered an appeal to an internal adjudication process at the FT. The adjudicator found that the words that Ferguson used could be misleading. He ruled that the FT should publish this clarification:

8% weekly earnings growth in 2010-2014 was nominal, not inflation-­adjusted. Real wage growth was negative for most of that period, becoming positive again in September 2014, largely due to falling inflation.

Ferguson chose not to apologize or acknowledge any error, or even to admit to any lack of clarity in what he had written. In the article he wrote in response to this decision, he attacks the person who brought the complaint, the adjudicator, fact checking in general, and concludes:

If two true statements can now be represented as an ‘error’ requiring clarification, the word ‘error’ has lost its meaning.

This response seems to be a clear indication that Ferguson is not concerned about whether he will be judged by peers who still care about academic integrity. Peers will not be fooled by a “bait-and-switch” strategy that swaps the finding–that his words were so ambiguous that they could mislead–for a finding of error that was never made. His peers will also recognize that it is possible to make statements that admit a construal that makes them true, but which nevertheless convey an impression that is false.

Overlap with the Discussion of Mathiness

Ferguson claims that is a victory that the adjudicator did not find that he had an intent to mislead, but asking for proof of intent sets a standard that is impossible to meet. It is also irrelevant. Whether words are misleading is a question of fact, not intent, and should be treated as such.

As I emphasized in my discussion of the quote by Lucas about growth theory and books, it would be very easy to run an experiment with a group of readers and see whether or not they take away from any passage the meaning that the author invokes to show that the words are not false.

I’ve had at least one reporter acknowledge that this is an open secret in their business that you can do what Ferguson did, put together statements that will pass fact checking as being true but will mislead nevertheless. An editor I spoke to (from a publication that does have a good reputation for journalistic integrity) rejected outright my suggestion that this strategy could succeed in the news business. My interpretation was that he meant that it can’t happen at his paper because editors there will not allow it. Editors of scholarly journals should adopt the same stance.

The time and effort that was wasted at the FT over a single sentence that purports to be about changes in real wages gives an indication of the damage that can ensue if the strategic use of ambiguity is accepted as part of business as usual in scholarly writing.

This is why I am so critical of the type of mathiness that I point to in Lucas quote about books. It is particularly damaging if, as in that case, it turns out conveniently to obfuscate a critical weakness of a model.

Economists need to protect our conversations from strategic ambiguity insertions. Whether or not words are ambiguous or misleading is a matter of fact. Unless the words are demonstrably unambiguous they should not be allowed into a discussion. If the words are found later to be misleading, the author should be held accountable, without inquiring into intent.

One way to make sure that words are unambiguous is to link them tightly to math that is transparent and easy to interpret. In true mathematical theory, the math clarifies the words, not vice versa.

But the problem extends beyond theory. As Ferguson shows, a strategic ambiguity insertion can also skew the interpretation of a simple statistic.

Paul Ehrlich

A recent New York Times article noted how radically off the mark were the predictions offered by Paul Ehrlich in his 1968 book, The Population Bomb:

Dr. Ehrlich’s opening statement was the verbal equivalent of a punch to the gut: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.” He later went on to forecast that hundreds of millions would starve to death in the 1970s, that 65 million of them would be Americans, that crowded India was essentially doomed, that odds were fair “England will not exist in the year 2000.” Dr. Ehrlich was so sure of himself that he warned in 1970 that “sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come.” By “the end,” he meant “an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.”

Hundreds of millions of deaths by starvation in the 1970s? England will not exist by 2000? Those predictions sound like misses to me. The article (from the section in the paper called the Retro Report) continues:

After the passage of 47 years, Dr. Ehrlich offers little in the way of a mea culpa. Quite the contrary. Timetables for disaster like those he once offered have no significance, he told Retro Report, because to someone in his field they mean something “very, very different” from what they do to the average person. The end is still nigh, he asserted, and he stood unflinchingly by his 1960s insistence that population control was required, preferably through voluntary methods.

Ehrlich’s comment about what words mean to people in the field as opposed to the average person sound just like the rationalization one hears from political operatives. The closing paragraph of the article comes even closer to offering an explicit acknowledgement that his game is politics, not science:

But Dr. Ehrlich, now 83, is not retreating from his bleak prophesies. He would not echo everything that he once wrote, he says. But his intention back then was to raise awareness of a menacing situation, he says, and he accomplished that. He remains convinced that doom lurks around the corner, not some distant prospect for the year 2525 and beyond. What he wrote in the 1960s was comparatively mild, he suggested, telling Retro Report: “My language would be even more apocalyptic today.”