Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Thomas Herndon and austerity's spreadsheet error

I've already blogged about this one, too, on Monday, but I like how Stephen Colbert does it (as I like most of his stuff). Plus, he has an interview with Thomas Herndon, which is kind of fun.

And there are a couple of things about this I didn't know - for one, that the original paper hadn't been peer-reviewed. Peer-review is designed to catch these things before publication. This is a good example of why it's necessary.

Frankly, this is an example of the right-wing jumping all over a paper which was not peer-reviewed, just because it seemed to justify what they wanted to do already. Now, that's human nature, true, but it should be a cautionary tale for us all, not just the right-wing. (And I'll admit right now that I'm doing much the same thing here.)

But the other thing I didn't know is that Reinhart and Rogoff are sticking with their conclusions, despite admitting that the data doesn't back them up (or, at least, admitting to the spreadsheet error - I don't know about the rest of it). Well, they've got a lot riding on this. They've become rather famous in right-wing circles, with everyone citing their paper.

And this is just human nature, too. Social scientists - and physical scientists, as well - are still human beings. But in both cases, the consensus is what matters. No human being likes to be wrong, so we tend to be reluctant to admit being wrong. Luckily, none of us have any qualms about demonstrating that someone else was wrong, and that's what happens in both science and economics.

Herndon has made a name for himself - while still just a graduate student! - by demonstrating that Reinhart and Rogoff were wrong. Assuming he's right, that's really going to give his career a boost. Whether Reinhart and Rogoff change their mind or not isn't important, not really. What's important is the consensus of the experts.

Compare this to religion. Imagine how a priest would fare after demonstrating that the Pope was wrong! Each religion already claims to know the truth (although they can't agree on what that truth is), and heretics aren't ever welcome. In science - and in the social sciences - successful heretics are the heroes of their fields of expertise. In religion, they'd be lucky if they were just excommunicated.

1 comment:

Gregg Garthright said...

Best line: "If the can't use Excel, I doubt if they can send an email attachment" Colbert, explaining why the paper wasn't peer reviewed.