Saturday, May 11, 2013

The hubris of economists

           A recent study by economists Reinhart and Rogoff concluded that large national debts inhibit economic growth (which in the neoconservative cosmology is the Moloch to which all goods of the earth must be sacrificed). Now, few papers submitted to peer review - as Reinhart and Rogoff's had been - are actually fully scrutinized under a magnifying lens: the researchers basic competence and honesty are assumed. In this case these assumptions appear to have been misplaced..

          University of Massachussetts (Amherst) doctoral student, Thomas Hendon, was assigned, as part of his course work, the task of "replicating" and critiquing a published paper written by professional economists. Hendon chose the Reinhart and Rogoff study. To his surprise he found numerous errors and - infinitely worse from the point of view of scientific objectivity - even "strategic" omissions: data that did not fit their theses were passed over in silence.

           To read student Hendon's report and critique, click on the link, in blue, "read Thomas Hendon's 'A critique of Reinhart and Rogoff' here"

           We can only conclude that this is another case of the hubris of the neoconservative establishment, so assured of itself in its high places of power. Objectivity and caution are thrown to the winds. All that matters is the ideology: Moloch - economic growth - must be fed at all costs. The ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles spoke of this state of spirit when he wrote:

            "The gods blind those they would destroy"

             What is particularly galling here are not the (apparently rather elementary) spreadsheet computational errors. These are bad enough indicating unprofessional attitudes and work ethic (although not rising to moral derelection). Rather what galls is the omission or deletion of "non-conforming data", those which run contrary to one's ideological preconceptions. The odor of moral dereliction is now in the air: economists, after all, do have pretensions of practicing a "science" and science, the last time I checked, is suposed to be motivated by a comittment to discovering truth through the "open and public" analysis of replicable data. Suppressing non-conforming data violates the basic demand of science for intellectual honesty, objectivity and transparency. That is my reading anyway.

             Anna Maria Tremonti interviewed several guests - from both sides of the fence - recently on the CBC program, "The Current". The following link provides access to the podcast.

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