Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

A handy guide to manipulating science

Jonathan Chait piece in The New Republic on the work of economist Alan Reynolds, and his efforts to challenge claims that income disparity between rich and poor has increased. Chait argues that there’s a clear strategic pattern between his work, the rhetorical battles of the intelligence design movement, and global warming skeptics. Reynolds’ role is to get “newspapers treat the question as a matter of dispute rather than a settled fact.”

If this sounds like the conservative stance on global warming or evolution, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Like those two issues, the existence of rising inequality is beyond dispute among academics who study it…. [T]he ambition of the conservative counterestablishment in these areas is not to overturn the scholarly consensus but simply to make the topic appear so complicated that laypeople and the press don’t know what to believe.

But whether the missing data would make inequality look worse or better is really beside the point. Reynolds’s role is merely to point out that the data is imperfect. The skeptic challenging the expert consensus must be fluent enough in the language of the experts to nibble away at their data. (The evolution skeptic can find holes in the fossil record; the global-warming skeptic can find periods of global cooling.) But he need not–indeed, he must not–be fluent enough to assimilate all the data himself into a coherent alternative explanation. His point is that the truth is unknowable.

Introducing ideology into a debate is one of the think-tank hack’s strongest weapons. It demystifies a complicated issue, moving it from the realm of science into the realm of politics. The think-tank hack confesses he has his biases but then claims that his opponents in academia or government do, too. Evolution is the secularist science establishment’s campaign to discredit religion; global warming is being pushed by regulators who would gain enormous power from new pollution controls; et cetera.

Since the goal is not winning these debates but merely achieving symmetry, the hack’s most effective technique can be taking the accusation that would seem to apply to him and hurling it at his opponents. “The politically correct yet factually incorrect claim that the top 1 [percent] earns 16 [percent] of personal income appears to fill a psychological rather than logical need,” Reynolds writes in the [Wall Street] Journal. “Some economists seem ready and willing to supply whatever is demanded.” So, while you might think Reynolds is a hack mining the data for results that would conform to his political preferences, he has already made the same charge against the other side. Who can tell who’s right?

Essentially, this comes down to a few basic moves:

  1. Cast whatever doubt you can about the level of certainty your opponents’ views deserve. If you have to take what insiders regard as normal technical disagreements and turn them into proof that “the science is still unclear,” so be it.
  2. Encourage the press to generate the appearance of a controversy.
  3. Argue that since there’s a controversy, prudence demands 1) waiting for more solid science before making a final decisions, or 2) letting people make up their own minds.

This is the intellectual equivalent of guerilla warfare. You don’t have to win. If you can not lose decisively, you can claim a moral victory. If you can keep the battle going, you increase the odds that the other wide will give up.

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1 Comment

  1. Jon’s premise is wrong. He says my “goal is not winning these debates but merely achieving symmetry.” Utter nonsense. I fully intend to win on logic and facts, but it will take a year or two. That is not to imply that any logic or evidence could possibly persuade secular theologians who much prefer to change the subject (I also graduated from the Auto Mechanics Institute in Watts, for example).

    The only substantive issue he mentioned, too briefly, is the topic of my next Wall Street Journal article. And that one too will baffle Mr. Chaitt — unless he asks me for the help obviously needs. I’m always happy to help.

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