It’s not that McArdle can’t read…it’s that she can’t (won’t) think: part one.

There is a lot of writing, especially in the self-declared higher reaches of what passes for public intellectual life on the right, about the need to use the rigor of this or that body of knowledge to see through to the truth of policy choices in areas like health care, climate science and so on.

Much of the actual stuff put out into the intertubes on such technically-infused subjects displays, to my eyes at least, systematic errors, an inability to grasp how science works.

So, even though I swear  I’m not going to make The Atlantic’s Economics Editor (sic!) a permanent obsession, here’s a ridiculously overkill series of posts about what happens when someone uses the scientific literature as a toy.  (And yes, I know this is a post about something that happened aeons ago in blog-years, but my aim is not so much the specific matter under dispute as the habits of mind that lie behind the writing of a piece like the one I’m targetting.)

Via Susan of Texas, I learned of Megan McArdle’s attempt to justify (a) her own prior, much ridiculed argument over the role of big pharma in drug development and (b) her quaint commitment to the idea that the American citizenry should subsidize the rest of the world’s  pharmaceuticals [see especially  pp. 348-349 of the PDF at that link].

Susan points to McArdle’s attempt to pass off as a mere rhetorical device her false claim that the US accounts for more than 4/5ths of drug company profit.  McArdle asserts that her use of this number was merely a “hypothetical” and not repeated justification to preserve artificial barriers to price negotiation within the US health care market, to the detriment of individual consumers and the great profit of the purveyors of pharmeceutical).

And for Susan, I think, the key point is that McArdle makes a lot of stuff up, and hence is untrustworthy across the board:  why should you believe any argument from someone whom, everytime you check closely, gets even the little stuff wrong — and I agree with that.

The argument from authority is always fraught; but the argument from negative authority is much stronger:  if someone has a history of screwing up, it makes sense to anticipate future screw-ups and pay less and less attention to the offending party.  That’s what makes McArdle’s admission that her numbers were in fact pulled out of the ether so damaging.  It is now (some would say (me!) it has long been…) simple prudence to assume that any fact she presents is, as she puts it, “a hypothetical” unless footnoted and checked.  That’s the beginning of the end (or ought to be) for any claim to a seat at the grown-ups table.

But I’m going to focus here on what I see as McArdle’s intellectual sleight of hand at a deeper level.

No surprise, given the provenance of this blog, I diagnose the root cause of this pathology as a fundamental antipathy to and misunderstanding/deliberate misuse of the tools of science.

And what I’m really trying to say — just to give you an out before the tome to come — is that writing for the public about technically complicated ideas is hard.  If you want to do it, you have to understand a few things:  how the discipline(s) you are covering actually advance; how to distinguish between — or when you need to check — good work and bullshit; what any given result might actually mean, in the context of the field and in its application to the real world.  To take a recent example far from the one I’m going to hammer McArdle on, it does no good to report the fact that an HIV/AIDS vaccine trial achieved a 30 percent efficacy if you don’t know why such inadequate protection is so exciting, nor why it remains so tantalizing.

And more:  not only is science writing — or writing about health care, or economics — hard, it’s damned important to do it right.  People talk a lot about scientific illiteracy, about the problem for a democratic society if large chunks of the population don’t know either the facts or the habits of mind of science (I care more about the latter).  But it’s not that folks are dumb, or unwilling to learn — after 25 years in the science writing game, I’ve had ample evidence of the willingness of just about anyone to be interested in important stuff if you give them a reason to read on.

Rather, its crap like the sort purveyed by McArdle here, and many others like her,that do enormous damage, for it makes science and its results into pawns in a game of the sort high school debate teams play.  It’s not the quality of the evidence or the argument that matters in such contests, just the quantity, and the ability to baffle a casual onlooker long enough to achieve the end desired.  This is fine if you are trying to make it to State or Nationals.  It’s not so good — disastrous, I would say, when the success of this strategy kills people, as it does in the current state of American health care.

That’s the opening argument.  Go on to part two to read the details of my bill of indictment against the divine Miss McA.

Image:  Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “Peasant Wedding Feast,”  1568

Explore posts in the same categories: bad writing, Economic follies, Journalism and its discontents, Medicine, science writing, Stupidity, words mattter

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3 Comments on “It’s not that McArdle can’t read…it’s that she can’t (won’t) think: part one.”

  1. jre Says:

    I’ve loved the Atlantic for years, and (like you) I am exasperated with its editorial management for permitting — nay, engineering — the decline in standards we’ve seen ever since the Michael Kelly days.
    To be fair, the Atlantic is not alone in its slide when the New York Times employs David “the dog ate my research” Brooks. But here’s a bright ray of sunshine: The NYT also publishes a health economist who actually knows what he’s talking about, and that makes up for a lot.
    Hello? Atlantic? You could learn something here.

  2. Blake Stacey Says:

    Man, that takes me back. . . You pinpointed the main reason why I gave up and left the high-school debate team after just a few competitions.

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