Posted tagged ‘The Atlantic’

Why, Knock Me Down With a Feather: Megan McArdle is Still Always Wrong, Climate Science Edition

September 5, 2011

Warning:  This post is way too long.  I mean, really.  You have been warned.

I’ve been off the McArdle beat for a while.  I find I need to take breaks if I’m to have any hope of (a) retaining sanity in the face of unanswerable questions implicit in our current media ecosystem, and (b) getting work that actually matters to me done that would otherwise be derailed by overloaded outrage circuits tripped by reading McArdle’s…musings are, I guess, the kindest way to describe them.

But a BJ commenter (name now lost to a hyperactive “delete” finger on my email…sorry) pointed me to this bit on climate science from a week or two ago, and it’s been sticking in my craw ever since.  In it, she quotes at length from a post at the Volokh Conspiracy by Jonathan Adler, an environmental law specialist with a libertarian and wingnut-thinktank background.

The post McArdle endorses is Adler’s defense of Chris Christie against charges of being soft on global warming.  Adler denounces the GOP fundamentalism that damns to the 9th circle those Republicans with the temerity to hold such views. His fear, he writes, is that such orthodoxy will lock that party into “anti-science know-nothingism” (his phrase).  To which I would reply, “ya think?” — or rather, “that train long since left the station, pilgrim.”

There’s plenty to argue with in Adler’s formulation of Christie’s alleged connection to the reality based community — but this post is about McArdle’s follies, not any intellectual sins Adler may have committed.

And follies there are in plenty when McArdle decides to amplify Adler’s plaint about pre-Copernicans in the GOP.  Why don’t we take a look?

McArdle begins her gloss in classic form:

I don’t think that science denialism is the exclusive province of the GOP, but it’s extremely disappointing whenever either side does it.

Both sides do it!  Who could have predicted such a claim?  And who could have anticipated that McArdle would offer no examples of denialism by any mainstream Democrat?

Did I miss the part where President Obama asserted that the Apollo missions were faked, Tranquility Base rather existing only on a Hollywood backlot?  While I was off the grid for a couple of weeks in August, did Chuck Schumer suddenly announce that Democrats must all sign a pledge asserting that π = 3?

Come on, oh Business and Economics Editor of the Atlantic:  inquiring minds want to know what Democrats’ sins you think compare to a near-unanimous denial of the reality of climate change and the theory of evolution by natural selection by the current slate of candidates for the GOP nomination to serve as President of the United States?  Anything?


As longtime readers known, I have been extremely critical of the attitude that some climate scientists seem to have developed towards dissent, and what you might call the PR aspect of their work.

I beg  your pardon. It is not the climate science crowd that has been out using state power  in an attempt to crush all opposition.  Rather, climate scientists have faced real and consequential assaults, from Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s witch hunting to the real damage done by all those who piled on to the Breitbart/O’Keefe-style selective quoting from stolen emails in what was called the “Climategate” non-scandal.  Did anyone notice that every inquiry into this false controversy has come up with…nothing?

All of which is to say that there are indeed views that are being shouted down by a contemptuous opposition incapable of accepting anything that contradicts their cherished worldview — and those authoritarian assaults on reasoned debate come from the so called “skeptic” crowd.

The still deeper problem, of course, is that those ideologically committed to the view that global warming is a hoax have themselves mastered modern PR, so that, with the connivance of an incompetent or malicious media (to which faction does McArdle belong…or could this this a case of a nonexcluded middle?–ed.), junk routinely reaches the public as fact.* [much more detail at the footnote]

But to the matter at hand, McArdle’s engaged in classic misdirection.  The researcher’s job is to do the best science that he or she can.  A real journalist would then attempt to understand and explain to a broad audience what the results from such work now suggest.  Here’s McArdle’s attempt:

Nonetheless, I am quite convinced that the planet is warming,

Why thank you, Ms. McArdle.  Your judgment is just what’s been needed to set all this to rest.

and fairly convinced that human beings play a role in this.

Well, that settles it, doesn’t it?

In fact, this one sentence captures much of why McArdle is (or ought to be) such an embarrassment to her employer.  Bluntly, McArdle lacks the capacity to have an opinion on this matter.

That’s the core issue, really, at least for me, in my guise as a science writer and teacher of the skill.  The study of climate and climate change involves a large number of disciplines and sub-disciplines: physics, chemistry, oceanograpy, atmospheric studies, statistics, computer science and much, much more.  It turns on detailed and complex investigations of the interaction between domains each of which are demanding enough to reward a life’s study:  just think about what needs to be worked out about the connections between the biosphere, the atmosphere, the liquid ocean and that part of the global water supply trapped in ice, and so on through most of the modern science curriculum.

Every single specialty involved takes the better part of a decade of specialized training to master to the point where you can run your own lab.  Working the interdisciplinary trick takes groups of people working for quite a while just to be sure they understand each other.  Climate science in its modern form dates really only back to the late seventies or early eighties, when the scientific community began to recognize the vital importance of making sense of what people were finding out across what had been quite distinct fields — or perhaps it is more accurate to say that this turning point came when both the knowledge and the instruments needed to make key observations reached a critical point.

That is:  you can say with a lot of truth that modern climate science dates from the moment when sufficiently powerful computers emerged to run the first plausible three-d models, and when satellites that could do fine-grained remote sensing first started delivering data.  That would be, as it happens, somewhere around the late seventies to the mid 1980s. (You can read a bit more about this in my first book Ice Time [terrible title!], now long out of print, but available for sums reaching as low as … one cent, and glossed very nicely here by Eric Roston, who examines that now 20+ year old book from a perspective informed by what we’ve learned since.)

So it’s a young science, and a difficult one, demanding  a lot of time and training and strong collaborations to produce useful work.  That means there really are some opinions that are much better than others, and even within science, some opinions that are genuinely worthless, as they are come from folks who literally don’t know what they are talking about.  These folks are dangerous for reporters, because naive (or bad-faith) journalists will see a real scientific qualification attached to some name, and hear lots of cool sounding difficult words that sound very much like technical stuff, and can then conclude whatever he or she wants to, believing him or herself to be informed by Science!

So what’s a responsible journalist to do?  Well — take the time.  Go to meetings.  Talk to lots of scientists.  Read constantly.  Check what you write with people who are actually doing the kind of work that bears on the question. Pay attention to those who make a lot of what look like mistakes; if the same kinds of errors get repeated after correction, then you have found someone not playing straight.  (The argument from negative authority is much more robust than its reciprocal.)

Then take more time.

There is a reason that the really good journalists covering this story are people like Andy Revkin, who published his first book on climate change months before my mine came out in 1989.  Or folks like Mike Lemonick, who has covered this area for Time magazine and others for almost as long.  Or Elizabeth Kolbert, who spent years turning herself into a competent — and better! — interrogator of this field after an earlier career spent on other beats; or Eric Roston, mentioned above, who spent three years working through a biography of carbon to present a from-the-ground-up account of (among much else) why virtually everyone capable of holding an informed view recognizes the reality of anthropogenic global warming; or any of the many honorable others who actually have devoted themselves to mastering this beat.  This kind of science coverage takes sustained effort, which is why you could have counted me among this group twenty years ago, but not now:  I’ve shifted my focus several times since those years in the ’80s when I was consumed by the real excitement of what this new science could do.

All that to say that Megan McArdle literally doesn’t know how much she doesn’t know.  She lacks any of the apparatus to make a meaningful statement on this subject.  A good journalist recognizes when they’re out of their depth, and they shut up, or get help.  McArdle does neither — or rather, when she seeks validation for her pre-digested thoughts (“I’m…fairly convinced!” — by all that the FSM deems holy!) — she does so from precisely the kind of folks who reveal just what McArdle herself is really on about:

(When you’ve got Reason’s Ron Bailey, Cato’s Patrick Michaels, and Jonathan Adler, you’ve convinced me).

Umm, no.

These are pundits who — to be fair — have spent a fair bit effort on this issue.  They are thus not as uninformed as McArdle herself — but they are advocates for a particular view of human agency and autonomy, and not actual experts on the detailed progress of climate science.  They may get as far as the IPCC reports, and plenty of the toilet paper produced by the skeptic propaganda machine, (see, as always, Oreskes and Conway’s vital Merchants of Doubt for the gory details).  But even the environmental law expertise that Adler may bring to bear is not the same thing as engagement with the beat, nor any substitute for actual technical competence.

Even were one to grant to these three the standing that McArdle does, she still fails of her basic responsibility as a journalist.  It’s not just that spinners aren’t even secondary sources.  McArdle is utterly unqualified to have an opinion of her own because, by her own admission she has outsourced her brain on this issue and that she hasn’t and won’t do the actual work needed to have even a beginner’s grasp of this story.  Caveat lector

And still — by Blackbeard’s ghost! — there’s more:

I reserve the right to be skeptical about particular claims about effect…

McArdle can, of course, be skeptical about anything at all.  The question is whether anyone with intelligence to outrank a ficus should give any credence to such concerns.  Remember: she’s already told you that she has no personal competence in this field

…(particularly when those claims come via people who implausibly insist that every major effect will be negative)

Ah yes.  Al Gore is fat.  Except, of course, climate science as a field does not so insist.

Take, for example, the extensive discussion of climate feedbacks in what amounts to a manifesto for what real climate researchers should do (and are now doing), the 2003 National Academy of Sciences report Understanding Climate Change FeedbacksThere the nation’s top scientific institution lays out a meticulous account of the major feedbacks and the necessary research program needed to understand what impact, positive or negative, each such process may have.  Or you could look to the most recent IPCC analysis, the nearest thing that exists to a consensus document reviewing the current state of knowledge about climate change — exactly the people whose willingness to entertain contrary results McArdle here disdains.  In the FAQ [largish PDF] that accompanies the main report, you will find, among much else, this statement:

Additional important feedback mechanisms involve clouds. Clouds are effective at absorbing infrared radiation and therefore exert a large greenhouse effect, thus warming the Earth. Clouds are also effective at reflecting away incoming solar radiation, thus cooling the Earth. A change in almost any aspect of clouds, such as their type, location, water content, cloud altitude, particle size and shape, or lifetimes, affects the degree to which clouds warm or cool the Earth. Some changes amplify warming while others diminish it. [Italics added] Much research is in progress to better understand how clouds change in response to climate warming, and how these changes affect climate through various feedback mechanisms.

Of course, McArdle is not trying to engage in principled argument here.  She may not know or perhaps she simply does not care about the actual practice of climate scientists.  But the truth is there to be found, easily recovered with minimal effort, that the global climate change research community has a record extending back decades of trying to figure out the interlocking positive and negative feedback mechanisms that shape climate change.

Ah — but I’m missing McArdle’s point here.  Really, we should read this as a tell, the reveal of the con she’s been running all this long while.  She’s already shown her intellectual generosity by grandly conceding that anthropogenic climate change is real.  Now, she gets to go all “even-the-liberal-New Republic” on us and tell us why that concession doesn’t matter.  See, e.g., her very next line:

and, of course, of ludicrous worries that global warming will cause aliens to destroy us.

Nothing to see here, move along.

Nothing, that is except for an almost textbook example of dishonest writing.  These ludicrous worries that do not exist serve nicely to suggest that those concerned about the actual consequences of global warming are keeping company with folks whose fillings serve as antennae tuned to Alpha Centauri.  This is one way to fight a political action when the facts are against you:  ridicule your opponents for stuff they never said.

But generally, I think global warming is happening, and even that we should probably do something about that, though I’m flexible on “something.”

I.e. we should do nothing.

See above — once you’ve said that those who worry about severe consequences of global warming are delusional, you’ve kind of undercut any call to action. And, just to add a stray thought:  given my corollary to DeLong’s law, that McArdle is always wrong, and when you think she’s right, refer to statement one, I might start to question the reality of global warming myself, were it not for the fact that the rest of this piece so clearly demonstrates that she does not accept the actual meaning of that view.

However. Even if you disagree, it is reprehensible to have a litmus test around empirical matters of fact. (I’m not a fan of litmus tests in general, but I suppose it’s fair enough to say “If you want marginal tax rates of 70% on the wealthy, you don’t belong in today’s GOP”).

Gotta move on sometime, so I won’t whale on this, except to note the implied litmus test to which McArdle submitted herself above:  climate change only becomes real to her when ideological soul-mates say it is so.  Heaven forfend she take the word of someone who actually knows something about the subject.  Nope.  It had to wait for some pundit with whom she already agreed before she could make the concession.

What these Republicans are doing to people like Chris Christie is no better than what Harvard did to Larry Summers when he suggested that it was possible that women had a different IQ distribution than men.

Oh, this zombie lie.

Not to beat a truly dead horse, but for those of us who actually have some proximity to Harvard, and, as it happens, who know some of the women on its faculty, it’s important to note that Summers survived that flap by about a year, during which a number of other incidents occurred that cast doubt on his competence.

For example, his disastrous management of Harvard’s finances would only become obvious in 2008-9, but in the year between his statements about women and IQ and his resignation, he lost significant support among the actual decision makers at Harvard (i.e., not its Arts and Sciences faculty)  over the handling of the Andrei Shleifer case.  Shleifer, an economist on Harvard’s faculty and was found to have committed insider trading while working on a Harvard-led project aiding the privatization of Russia’s post-Soviet economy.  The settlement of the Shleifer case cost the university $26.5 million — and while Summers had recused himself from anything to do with the case, its outcome represented a major blow to his standing at Harvard.

There were in fact a number of other contributing factors that led the only folks with a vote (again, not the faculty) to ease Summers out.  Just a hint — if you look at how Harvard is actually run, it becomes notable that the deans of Harvard’s various schools did not leap to Summers’ defense in his time of need.  All of which is to say that the assertion that Harvard tossed out its president just because he said something ill-informed about women fails on even the most cursory inquiry.  But even such minimal curiosity is what McArdle, as I’ve come to expect, will not pursue, if there’s a risk she might find out something that contradicts a cherished fable.

And still there’s more!

Facts are not good or bad; they are correct or incorrect.

Snicker. (And not in a PoMo way.)

And a policy based on hysterical refusal to consider all possible facts is neither good, nor correct.

In that case, someone with the initials MM has a lot of ‘splainin to do about just about every claim current GOP candidates are making about the role lower taxes on the wealthy have on economic growth.  Just sayin’.

If someone is wrong about the facts, you should explain to them, calmly and concisely, why they are wrong. If it’s really that obvious, it shouldn’t be hard to convince them.

Uh.  I just can’t.  The snark writes itself — and I’ll let everyone here enjoy their individual takes on what one should say here.  That’s why the good FSM created comment threads.

When people start trying to expel heretics because of disagreements over facts, it suggests that they suspect–even know–that the facts are not on their side. Which is, frankly, what I tend to think is happening here. If open argument is going to force your ideology to confront uncomfortable facts, you create a closed circle that the facts can’t penetrate.

Still can’t stop giggling.  Have at it.

If the circle is big enough, the geocentric universe gets a few hundred more years before the defensive perimeter cracks.


Message to McArdle:  the Catholic Church has indeed survived that anti-science episode.**  But the geocentric universe lasted exactly…well I guess not zero years, but pretty nearly so after the publication of Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632.  Geocentrism and the broader disassembling of classical astronomy had, of course, already largely been undone by the early 1600s, at least among the community of the learned.  The conventional sequence — from Copernicus, with his still artificially circular orbits, to Kepler’s fitting of the correct elliptical shapes to the paths traced by the planets (and the mathematical advances captured in his three descriptive laws, to Galileo’s observations of the Jovian system, with its moons orbiting a central body in a strikingly clear model of a the kind of heavenly motion Copernicus advanced, published in 1610 — created a broad basr on which to support the fundamental claim of heliocentrism.  By the 1630s, the Inquisition could condemn, but minds living in those expanding parts of Europe no longer subject to Rome’s authority could and did ignore any assertion of pontifical judgment about scientific fact — a development that did precisely the kind of damage to the cause of religion that Galileo himself had anticipated in his letter to the Medici Grand Duchess Christina in 1615.

Or to put all this another way:  the current closed GOP circle is as unlikely as the Vatican’s was ever to be big enough. The U.S. may suffer — greatly — if we ignore basic facts.  We may, likely will, do great harm to others. But those nations and cultures that don’t listen to the McArdles of the world, and all their kin?  Well, like Isaac Newton’s England, I expect they’ll do fine, even if we languish under President Perry in predicaments of our own making.

Why so long on what was obviously a rhetorical grace(less) note?  Because it is a microcosm of the McArdle approach to her life’s work.  This invocation of Galileo’s trial is ignorant of basic facts, false in its implication, historically obtuse and hell, just plain stupid (not to mention kind of meaningless).  I guess it sounded kind of clever to McArdle, which meant, on the evidence, that she didn’t pause to ask if the example made sense.  It didn’t, and it doesn’t, and should be taken as the warning it is:  you can’t take any claim McArdle makes as valid until thrice checked.

Of course, that also means a few hundred years invested in building an institution that cannot survive in a heliocentric solar system.

Uh.  Last I looked Pope Benedict still held sway within Vatican City, honored by Catholics the world round.  Even the ramifications of a transnational conspiracy to cover up acts of sexual violence against children seems set to do more than temporary damage to the institution.  That fact may or may not fill you with pleasure/relief/loathing…but the notion that somehow the contemporary Catholic Church is paying the price for Galileo’s fate is simply phaffing on McArdle’s part — beneath notice except as a further instance of a seemingly incurable lack of rigor in her work.

Maybe the skeptics are right and AGW is minor, or not happening at all. But on the off chance that they’re wrong,

Uh…”off chance…” Not going to rehearse all that’s gone before, but just to say, one more time:  virtually every scientist with actual knowledge of the data, the underlying methods, and the theory of climate science have been saying for some time that AGW is real and consequential.  McArdle may not like that conclusion; she nonetheless has no standing to dismiss it.

the GOP needs to be the sort of pluralistic body that can survive and thrive on a steady diet of accurate data–no matter what those data say.

I agree.  I also think that this is where the whole post reveals itself as a smoke screen to confuse others in the media into the view that a fictional GOP that could thrive on data actually exists.

If enough GOP-identified pundits say a few nice things about positions they simultaneously dismiss (a standard trick within David Brooks’ playbook, of course, and much of McArdle’s raison d’etre) then the useful idiots they count as colleagues can write that once in power a Republican president and congress might not be entirely batshit crazy.  That we have plenty of evidence that this view is false (2001-2009; GOP governors/legislators/the Boehner-Cantor led house since 2010) can be ignored, as long as the Business and Economics Editor of the Atlantic reassures her friends that there really are some Republicans with whom you could have a chat and a drink.

That, as I read it, is really the point of a post like this…

…Enough.  Almost five thousand words on a tossed off bit of nonsense by someone whose work is, frankly, trivial, no matter how much influence it may have within a couple of corners of the Village.

I guess I explode into these periodic rants not so much because anything McArdle actually writes is so much more egregious than hundreds of effusions spurting daily from those carbuncles on the body politic that make up the right-blogosphere.  Rather, it’s that she does so under the cloak of, and at an institution venerable within a craft I hold dear, that of serious, reasoned, public journalism.  This post really is bizarrely too long, so I’m not going to expand on a point I’ve made before.  But the particular form of intellectual dishonesty with which McArdle plies her trade does damage to the country — and less consequentially, but probably more severely to all those directly associated with her work at The Atlantic.

*Case in point:  over the couple of weeks I’ve been picking away at this post, this story has bubbled up.  I believe John linked to it — but the gist is that a journal editor resigned when it became clear that some climate denialist “scientists” snuck a junk paper past the peer review process of  the journal Remote Sensing.  That paper repeated previously debunked claims that satellite data contradict model results, fail to account for the impact of clouds on the radiative balance of the earth, and thus overstate the risk of warming.  The editor resigned because it became very clear on reflection that this paper should have been flagged by what was clearly a flawed peer review.  On the level of basic craft, the paper failed to meet the most elementary requirements of a scientific claim:  “no statistical significance of results, error bars or uncertainties are given either in the figures or discussed in the text. As to the content — the core claims of the paper are simply wrong, and they are so in elementary ways, rendered meaningless by errors of both method and an actual grasp of the range of observational data:

Overall, the argument made in all of these papers to support the conjecture that clouds are forcing the climate (rather than a feedback) is extremely weak. What they do is show some data, then they show a very simple model with some free parameters that they tweak until they fit the data. They then conclude that their model is right. However, if the underlying model is wrong, then the agreement between the model and data proves nothing.

I am working on a paper that will show that, if you look carefully at the magnitudes of the individual terms of their model, the model is obviously wrong. In fact, if [University of Alabama at Huntsville’s Roy] Spencer were right, then clouds would be a major cause of El Niño cycles—which we know is not correct. Talk to any ENSO expert and tell them that clouds cause ENSO and they’ll laugh, at you.

Why would someone nominally a science commit such serial and serious errors?   Spencer himself tells us.  He is the author of a number of interesting works — including one flawed study withdrawn for plagiarism, among other sins, and this latest fiasco — but the actual content of his stuff doesn’t matter.  Rather, it is crucial only that Spencer can call himself a scientist, and can be termed as such by the echo chamber right-wing media that takes fatally flawed “research” and retails it to a public as the real deal.  Which is exactly what Spencer says he wants to achieve:

“I would wager that my job has helped save our economy from the economic ravages of out-of-control environmental extremism. I view my job a little like a legislator, supported by the taxpayer, to protect the interests of the taxpayer and to minimize the role of government.”

Well, fine, if you are lobbyist, an advocate, or a Know-Nothing GOP candidate for president.  But if you call yourself a scientist and purport to take part in the common enterprise that is the advance of human knowledge…with that statement you’ve just declared yourself an enemy of whole endeavor.  You can’t serve two masters, both your ideological commitment and nature.  You have to choose — and Spencer clearly has, opting to put out propaganda contradicted by the testimony of nature in order to defend views that comfort the comfortable.

This is just one example — but it’s why climate scientists don’t have a lot of sympathy for “dissenters” who are in fact propaganda hacks –self admitted in this case.  Rather, they have to work overtime in never-really-successful attempts to counter the real damage done by pieces like this both to science and to any kind of real deliberation on the proper policy to adopt in the face of AGW.  We surely need a better media.

**Yes, I’m aware that McArdle would probably claim that she was merely saying the Catholic Church itself retained its geocentric views for centuries– but that’s both not exactly true (plenty of folks within the church understood and accepted the advance of knowledge on this question, whatever dogma decreed) and not on point to the suggestion she then tries to make, that such myopia produced an institution that is having trouble surviving now.

Images:   William Blake, The Ancient of Days (God the Geometer),1794

Pieter Breughel the Elder, The Alchemist, 1558 (Engraved by Philipp Galle)

John Barnard Whittaker, Comedy and Tragedy, c. 1883.

Pieter de Bloot, Tavern Interior1630s.

Megan McArdle is Always Wrong (Again!): Kitchen History Edition

February 4, 2011

There are those who think the least snark directed Megan McArdle’s way is a waste of time — that her Our Lady of Perpetual Error persona is a considered ploy to grab enough attention to make it worth her masters’ while to retain her as Business and Economics Editor of the Atlantic. (Yes, the sound you just heard was Emerson spinning in his grave.)


Me, I’m actually sympathetic to that view, for all the joy I’ve taken in McArdle gigging over the last few years.  It would be better for both the body politic and the culture at large if McArdle’s fifteen minutes simply dwindled to their inevitable end. Certainly, I’m not helping every time some new howler evokes a bloggy response.

But the problem is that her quarter of an hour is not yet over, and McArdle is still The Atlantic’s most prominent economics blogger, and she continues to weigh in on a whole raft of stuff about which she willfully knows nothing, all in order to advance an agenda that has only one item:  to comfort the comfortable.


So, despite the truth that each time someone points out she’s made another howler it only adds to her profile, I think there is a duty to do so. Once upon a time, in organizations that saw themselves as doing real journalism for audiences with an understanding of the term,  errors actually mattered.  Anyone starting out would get a chance or two, or even three.  But when gastritis broke your calculator once too often, you’d seek a new line of work.  You’d go become a shill, perhaps — a time honored retreat into expense account heaven for plenty of hacks who couldn’t hack the hard work of actually getting stuff right … or for whom, as in McArdle’s case, getting things wrong is a feature and not a bug.  That this hasn’t happened here is a problem for McArdle’s colleagues, I think, or it ought to be…about which a little more below.


So what’s today’s problem post?  Nothing overtly political actually, which in some ways makes the case of McArdle’s unfitness for her claimed role yet more clear.   In her post, “The Economics of Kitchens,” she attempts to engage an ongoing discussion between Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen on the pace of innovation.  Krugman and Cowen point out that there isn’t a whole lot new in kitchens today compared with those of sixty years ago.  Not so, says McArdle.  Rather, we live now in culinary paradise compared to those bad old days:

1953 kitchens did not have electric drip coffee brewers, stand mixers, blenders, food processors, or crock pots….

Err, no.  I’ll give McArdle this.  Electric drip coffee makers do first appear in the 1970s.  The electric vacuum coffee maker was, however, a common appliance and a very competitive marketplace. Not to mention that it was a technology that offered such incredibly cool options as the Faberware Coffee Robot:

Stand mixers in the 1950s?  Oh, you mean the standing mixer invented in 1908 by Herbert Johnson, sold to commercial bakers in 1915, and released for the home as the KitchenAid Food Preparer in…wait for it…1919?  Sunbeam released its cheaper alternative in the ’30s, and in 1954, (that kitchen of the 50s thing again) one could actually purchase a KitchenAid in a color other than white.


Blenders? Same story. The blender was invented in 1922 first as a tool for soda counters, and the iconic Waring Blender hit the market in 1937.  By 1954, one million had been sold. As a sidenote, the Vitamix Corporation introduced a competitor to the Waring machine, and in 1949 sold it with the aid of a thirty minute broadcast on a brand new medium:  WEWS TV in Cleveland, in what is thought to be the first ever direct response ad.

You get the idea.  In the list above, food processors and slow cookers are in fact inventions that have their roots in the sixties and their commercial release in the early 70s.  Give McArdle that — but the point to take away from this is that in a list of five statements of fact, McArdle gets two wrong unequivocally, is deceptive in a third case (there were no automatic drip coffeemakers, but automatic makers using other brewing methods were readily available) and right only in two cases.  .400 may be fabulous in baseball.  In journalism, it wouldn’t even propel you to the Cape Cod League.

Then there’s this:

…aside from the privileged few who could afford copper, most Americans were cooking on thin, low-quality stainless steel and aluminum pans that deformed easily…

McArdle knows this how?  It’s a pretty bald declaration that would have come as a shock to a company like Lodge (founded 1896) or Wagner (founded 1891).  And if you want to think about the availability of high-end cookware aimed at more regular folks, what about the company born of a trip to Paris in 1952, on which Chuck Williams first encountered “classic French cooking equipment like omelet pans and souffle molds whose quality I’d never seen in the U.S.” Williams opened his first store in 1956 in the then very ordinary small-town farming community of Sonoma, California.  Williams-Sonoma proved to have legs, I believe.



Again, the point isn’t that one store in Sonoma in 1956 = sauciers for everyone.  It is that McArdle has neither knowledge nor diligence enough to investigate even this really elementary question of fact:   whether or not Americans in the ’50s cooked in lots of different kinds of pots.


And how about this:

I don’t believe that they have gone without fresh produce for six to eight months at a time, as my mother did in her childhood–and was told to be grateful for the frozen vegetables which hadn’t been available when her mother was young…Is the shift to flash frozen produce greater, or less great, than the shift from flash frozen to the fresh produce made possible by falling trade barriers, rising air travel, and the advent of container shipping?

There’s a lot wrong with this little passage, but here, let me just point out that McArdle is simply wrong in what she implies here about the history of the transport of refrigerated food.  The earliest prototype of a mechanically cooled railroad car received a US patent in 1880.  It certainly did take a long time for that to yield practical diesel-powered refrigeration on rails, but the use of natural ice for refrigerating specially designed rail cars — “reefers” dates back to the mid 19th century.  By the early 1880s, the Swift company were using ice-cooled cars to deliver 3,000 carcasses a week from the midwest to Boston.  When ice production on industrial scale took off around the turn of the twentieth century, refrigeration on rails became so pervasive that 183,000 reefer cars were on US rails by 1930.


All of which is to say that the delivery of fresh food to locations distant from production is something that has evolved over the last century and a half — and is not simply, or even mostly, the result of falling trade barriers, air transport or containers.

Or, in other words, McArdle — again — knows not whereof she speaks.

Of course, this being a piece by McArdle, it is not possessed merely of  factual howlers.  Misused citations also do their duty.

For one:  McArdle writes that you can tell Americans in the ’50s ate badly by looking to the sources:

It shows in the cookbooks.  The Betty Crocker is full of economizing tips: ways to stretch ground beef by adding Wheaties; noodle and rice rings that artfully disguise the fact that there isn’t much protein to go around; “one egg” cakes praised for being economical.  This was not a handout for welfare recipients; it was expected that the average housewife would be anxiously counting the cost of the eggs and milk used in her baked goods, and looking for ways to stretch out even cheap cuts of meat at the end of the month.

A couple of things here:  cookbooks published in the late ’40s and early ’50s often retained some of the traces of WW II rationing; they are very useful documents for the social history of that era, but they are not wholly reliable guides to the cooking practices of the post-rationing world.


More to the point of method and intellectual honesty, there’s the question of whether or not a 50s era “average housewife” text is that different from later, similar works.  I checked my ’75 edition of The Joy of Cooking, a perhaps slightly more upmarket cookbook than the Betty Crocker, and I find that when you get to the ground meat section, for example, there is a section on stretching animal proteins with starches, how you flavor such mixtures and so on. (And I’m not even going to go into the wealth of “improving” cookbooks that were also the rage in the ’50s, and that would give the lie to McArdle’s suggestion that those benighted days were wholly nasty, brutish, and full of hamburger helpers.  I’ve got a classic double-volume edition of the Gourmet cookbook from that period that shows that would be pink-Himalayan saltanistas would have had plenty of guidance.)


And finally, this: it wouldn’t be a McArdle piece in all its glory without a bit of gratuitious viciousness to the poor:

Now, I’m sure there are still people in this country who worry about the price of adding an extra egg to their cakes–but they are not the average, or even close to the average.

Current percentage of Americans in poverty?  As of 2009, 14.3% nationwide, according the US Census Bureau. Almost exactly the same proportion — %14.7 — American households suffered food insecurity according to the Department of Agriculture.


That is to say, those who might weigh the price of eggs may not be not average — but more than one out of every eight Americans had a moment recently when they might have thought twice and thrice about cracking that last shell  — or rather, had no cake at all to ponder.


This, of course, is the point to which McArdle was tending this whole time.  Even here, in a seemingly weightless post about cooking and memory,  McArdle is still working her one consistent vein of propaganda:  We live now at the apex of history, in the best of all possible worlds and hence would alter the existing power structure at our own great risk … and BTW f*ck the poor.  Same old, same old, in other words and just as dishonestly advanced as in the more obviously political of her work.  Which makes it more dangerous, I think, not less.

Oh well.  I could and probably should have got to this point in the story much sooner.  But all the overkill above is actually aimed at anyone who still takes McArdle seriously on any score — and it is especially intended to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about the damage she does by association to anyone and any institution that claims to be serious about journalism.  That she still survives — hell, holds a prominent position at The Atlantic — casts a shadow, fairly or not, over the work of the genuinely thoughtful real journalists who still publish there, folks like James Fallows and Ta-Nehisi Coates along with many others.

As they care for their reputation, they must wince at the collateral damage inflicted every time McArdle hits the “publish” button.

Images: “Coffee Robot” Original 1938 hang tag.
Diego Velasquez, Old Woman Frying Eggs, 1618
Pieter Claesz Tafel mit Hummer, Silberkanne, großem Berkemeyer, Früchteschale, Violine und Büchern, 1641.

It’s not that McArdle can’t read…it’s that she can’t (won’t) think: part four (and last, thank FSM).

October 7, 2009

Update: Hello and thanks to everyone coming over from Balloon Juice (and elsewhere.)  It took me a while to acknowledge y’all as I’ve been enjoying the strangely liberating experience of being on Amtrak and without intertubes for the last several hours.

Also, picking up on the comment below by Joel, let me emphasize that I don’t want to suggest that Acemoglu et al.’s later work contradicts the earlier paper discussed below; rather, as good research/ers does/do pursuing a question in detail leads to a more complex understanding of the problem.  The point is that if you are trying to argue from someone else’s work, you can’t just pick and choose the bits you like.


OK, by now it’s clear that this is overkill.  One post by Megan McArdle does not need this kind of rant; it’s like using a howitzer to plink a tin can off a fence.  [For grotesque demonstration of my logorrhea problem, check out parts one, two, and three of this series]

But in some sense, all I’m doing is channelling my inner John Foster Dulles:  McArdle, and her ilk are not going away.  Sadly, no amount of day-by-day debunking seems able to evoke the kind of respect for their claimed craft that would produce even a smidgeon more care and honor in their ongoing attempt to write into reality their unexamined assumptions.  So, after Dulles, consider this a kind of blogospheric massive retaliation, an attempt to shock and awe the recalcitrant into the virtues of intellectual honesty.

Which brings us to one more thing that McArdle did not do in her attempt to recruit what she claims as the gold-standard of authority, the academic literature, to bolster her assertion that any attempt to control drug expenditures in the US medical system is tantamount to a pact to kill nice old people.

I’ve used two posts so far to ridicule McArdle’s attempt to demonstrate her intellectual chops by basing this argument on a paper by the Rand Corporation, paid for by Pfizer (the world’s largest drug company) that relies on a secret-sauce “model” to produce the conclusion that free market negotiation by large customers (the US government, e.g.) and/or price controls would reduce the pace of innovation in the drug business, resulting in a loss of months of life expectancy.

In other words:  I don’t think much of a study paid for by the man that comes to the shocking conclusion that we must pay that man or he’ll shoot grandma.

But having disposed of the follies inherent in taking advocacy research too seriously, I want to point out one last and deeper flaw in McArdle’s dishonest brandishing of the sword and buckler of academic authority.

Recall that her core argument is that she is a truth teller, while her critics are ideologically driven bullies.  She writes

Or we could go to the academic literature.  Not the literature from advocacy groups which too often fills the pages of political magazines on the left and right, but something from someplace like Rand….

She says, in other words, that we should believe her because she performs research through the academic literature, and not mere advocacy.  (She actually contradicts herself below, by saying that we should believe her because she talks to Big Pharma, and thus is willing to dirty her hands in pursuit of truth that those who insist on relying on (presumptively) disinterested research by those “who have never run  or even studied businesses”…but never mind.)

But in fact, leaving aside that Rand is in fact a producer of advocacy literature, the Rand paper and McArdle cite a genuine academic source for a crucial part of the argument, a study that they claim demonstrates that changes in pharma revenue produce outsize shifts in the rate of pharmaceutical innovation.

And yet:  McArdle did not in fact “go to the academic literature,” for all of her properly provided hyperlink to the paper in question.

How do I know?

Because I checked.

Here’s the deal:  in science journalism — in any attempt to write about technical material for the public — it’s not enough simply to read an abstract or even the whole piece and call it done.

You can’t just read the paper and assume –unless you are genuinely expert in that subdiscipline of the field you wish to cover, and often not even then — that you know what its authors’ actually have done and what it means.

That’s why scientists go to conferences, for one thing — because there is more to grasping the meaning of important work than just reading the stylized and usually telegraphically compressed report of a piece of research in the professional press.

And if you are a reporter, then, by gum, you have to report on the piece, which is a much more involved and difficult task than many give it credit for being, at least if you do it right.

I’m not claiming that I did enough of that complicated work to write an independent piece on the very interesting research McArdle pointed to.  But I did do enough to confirm a suspicion formed on reading both McArdle and Rand:  Acemoglu and Linn’s paper, does not say what they thought or perhaps simply asserted it did.

This is the ultimate point I’ve been laboring towards all this long while.  Science writing is hard because of two related issues.  The first is that science — and aspiring sciences like economics — is/are hard.  Such work involves complicated ideas, intricate, often mathematically complex methods, jargons that can take quite a while to penetrate and so on.

And the second hurdle for good writing about hard stuff for the public is that the goal of science writing requires that you learn not just how to understand what’s being said in the terms of a discipline itself, but also how to identify, and then convey the core ideas in any given bit of science to an audience that doesn’t have the time you’ve taken to figure it all out.

So what you do if you are a properly trained and ethical science journalist/popular writer is read first, of course, with care and attention to all the places you either or both don’t understand and/or get the sense of an important subtlety…and then you call.

You talk to someone, lots of someones if necessary.

You get people in the field to explain what they are doing; you allow yourself to appear dumb to yourself; (you won’t seem stupid to just about any good faith expert source — only the assholes expect you to have mastered every paper in every journal tangentially bearing on their crucial work before calling, and there really aren’t as many of those as legends suggest); you ask simple questions, and then more complicated ones, until you and your interlocutor agree you’ve got what you need.

You have to persist — and if someone says check out this or that, you do, looking up the papers if necessary and then calling back…and so on.  You do what a good reporter does:  you cover the story.

This McArdle did not do.  If she read the Acemoglu and Linn paper with care, and especially if she had talked with someone who was familiar with the work, she would have realized the subtle distinction those authors made.  They looked at the role of market size on innovation for each particular market segment — a disease or group of diseases addressed by a set of competing drugs.  The Rand authors, with McArdle trailing happily along, conflated that to an argument about the effect of total market size on innovation across all drugs.

Again — this is subtle, and I had to talk at some length with an economist colleague to get why it mattered.*  But the essence of the idea is that the shifts in pharma innovation Acemoglu and Linn identified tracked the relative value of the market for individual areas of interest.  It does not follow that gross revenue changes produce the differences in innovation overall that both McArdle and Rand cite.  Rather, the two MIT economists simply demonstrated that more market share by drug category produced more new drugs within that category.

Or, more simply:  when the Rand/Pfizer authors claimed, and what McArdle (deliberately?) uncritically parroted — that a respected academic body of research confirmed that cuts in gross pharma revenue = cuts in innovation overall — they were, to phrase it most kindly, in error.

It actually gets worse, of course.

There is this thing called the internet.  It contains things like the homepages of scholars, which often include lists of their publications…which will often reveal ongoing lines of research or areas of interest.

As it happened, Acemoglu and Linn followed up their 2003/4 paper with a subsequent study, published in 2006 with David Cutler and Amy Finkelstein joining the original pair as co-authors.  This second paper looked at the impact of Medicare funding on innovation.

McArdle and the Rand folks do not mention this study, and it’s pretty clear why they might have wanted to ignore it.  For what did its authors find?


More formally, they wrote, “Our reading of the evidence is that there is no compelling case that Medicare induced significant pharmaceutical innovation.”

That’s not conclusive either, as one of the economists with whom I spoke explained to me.  What is clear — and those I asked agreed — is that connection between drug producer prices, market size and innovation is at best a mess (my word).  There is no basis on which to assert, as McArdle does, that

The upshot is that the overwhelming weight of the available evidence indicates that the effect of price controls in the US would be real, significant, and bad….The idea that any significant change in the profit margins on drugs sold here [in the US] will have enormous impact on the future of pharmaceuticals, is as close to a fact as we can get in this vale of uncertainty.

That is unproven in the sources she cites, and it is unproven in the real world.  On the basis of the academic literature she so proudly proclaims as her guide, she cannot know what she thinks (or wishes) were true.

To cover up this and prior errors, she is reduced to insulting her critics who have pointed out her ignorance, sloppiness and general lack of understanding of what real work looks like in the field in which her competence is supposed to lie. (Economics Editor of America’s Oldest Serious Magazine™!)

It’s time I finished this off, and by now the message, I think, must be obvious.  This is one tired horse I’m beating.

But here is a last thought, to try and generalize from one rather minor example of shoddy work on the internet.  It is a sign of both ignorance and bad faith to treat the real world and attempts to understand it as cavalierly as McArdle does here, and the right-punditocracy has done so often of late.

But this is  where the right is just now.  You can see bad faith and sloth too in  George Will’s embarrassing attempts to weigh in on climate change.**  You can see an almost comical (were it not so willed) misreading of the research in almost any attempt to produce a scientific justification for failing to credit the fact of evolution.  You can sure find the attempt to claim unearned authority running through McArdle’s work.

In each case, whatever the variations of motive, method and intent, all of this rests on the writer’s determination to ignore how science actually works — and hence how human beings actually find out useful knowledge about the world.  In each case — the root intellectual activity is to cherry pick what ever serves to bolster conclusions reached long before the notorious liberal bias of reality has had any chance to sully their perfect thoughts.

And as for McArdle herself?  Her sins are typical, but for that very reason, I guess, hardly worth the bludgeon I’ve tried to wield over the last several thousand words.  Except for this:  a failure to think clearly about how to repair a deeply flawed health care system kills people.  There are significant studies that explore those excess deaths.  Here’s one.***  And if you take that work seriously, then you have to see the Panglossian mission of McArdle and her herd of thundering ilk to present chunks of the status quo as best of all possible outcomes as implicated in those deaths.

More broadly: writing about the things that matter in real people’s lives — that may end some of those lives — is not a game.

That McArdle writes as if it were is the true measure of her work.

*I’m not naming by source, because that person dislikes the hurly burly of the blogosphere…and while I know that unnamed sources are more or less worth what you know about them, you have to decide here whether I’m a reliable enough interlocutor to believe what follows.

** Click that link to see why Chris Mooney gets around in public more than I do:  he gets done in 800 words what I’ve just spent in excess of 4,000 spouting about.  Still, someone at MIT has to take on the Henry Jenkins mantle of ridiculously overextended blogorrhea.

*** For a quick guide to skepticism in the face of research, here are a couple of guide points on this study:  It’s funded under a NRSA (NIH) grant — not by an advocacy group.  It draws on a history of similar studies engaged with the same question:  whether or not uninsured status correlates with excess deaths.  The paper contains some detail on their methodology, and crucially, includes a section on limitations and potential sources of error in the work.  To gain confidence in its quite commanding conclusion — that lack of insurance is associated with more than 44,000 deaths per year — you (I) would need to do quite a bit more reporting than a simple read of the paper.  But my point here is that this piece of work passes several of the smell tests that the Rand study, and McArdle’s writing, did not.  You have something to go on here.  And with this, the sermon endeth.

Images:  Adolf Friedrich Erdmann von Menzel, “Eisenwalzwerk (Moderne Cyklopen)” Iron Mill Work (Modern Cyclops) 1872 1875.

Deutsche Bundespost, designed by Steiner, stamp in honor of the history of post and telecom, 1990.

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

October 7, 2009

This is the third part of a ridiculously oversized tome on one example of what I see as a systematic failure on the right to engage science in any meaningful way. [Part one is here; part two, here]

In part two, I noted that serial offender Megan McArdle was trying to defend a claim about how health care reform will kill grandpa by asserting that the scientific literature supported that view.

The literature she cited began and mostly ended with a long paragraph quoted from a study by the Rand corporation…and in the previous post I noted that one of the problems in making the claim that McArdle’s argument was based on a rigorous review of the literature was that this paper was essentially research for hire, where the client was the world’s largest drug company.

While it is not true that just because Pfizer paid for a study that showed cutting Big Pharma revenues would result in a decline in pharma innovation that would lead to a loss in life expectancy*…it does mean that you can’t just do what McArdle did here: say “look — some folks with initials after their names confirm my unexamined conclusions.  Therefore I win!  Yippee.”

Rather, what you have to do with any piece of research, and especially one that is both making a major claim and is doing so from a clear position of interest in the outcome of the research, is to check.  You gotta interrogate the paper, its methods, its claims, its interpretations, its conclusions, the lot.

You know — basic reporting, the basic lesson we make sure each science journalism student we encounter at my shop (and every other good science writing/journalism program too) learns in the first weeks of study.

This McArdle clearly did not do.  How do I know?  I’m not (I promise) going to fisk the Rand paper top to bottom, but there are several issues with it that don’t pass the smell test right off.

The first is that the authors present their results as the output of a complicated model, itself derived from several other models for the behavior of the large variety of inputs needed to understand whether or not a cut in drug company revenue will have an impact on innovation.

A first plausible question is how the model actually works, and to what extent it has been tested.  Not to get too wonky — and not to claim expertise I certainly don’t have — but if this were a serious paper for the professional literature, you’d expect at least some discussion about the underlying logical and mathematical structure and strategy of the model.  It’s not there, at least in the publicly released form of the paper.

Next: check out the authors’ rhetoric .  It doesn’t read like scientific writing…and there’s a good reason for that.

To see what I mean, look to the paper both the Rand folks and McArdle cite as supportive of their arguments, Acemoglu and Linn, written by two MIT economists.  There you can scroll down to the final section and you see a set of graphics supplied to support the discussion above.

Some are labelled “tables” and they contain accounts of the data collected to support the model, complete with explanatory captions to allow a reader to follow the reasoning that led the authors to gather that particular slice of reality and not some other.

Some are called “figures,” and they come in the form of graphs which show what happens to that data when run through a model calculation.

Now go look at the Rand document.  It presents six graphics.  Each presents some feature of the argument they seek to make — how a given approach to pharmaceutical cost control affects innovation and or longevity.  They are easy to read, striking, even, with graphs or bar charts to show the devastating consequence of reducing producer payments to big drug companies.  They should scare anyone who wants to live their fully alloted span — as they appear to have terrified the young and impressionable McArdle.

But if you want to figure out if the graphs represent much of anything beyond conclusions expressing the assumptions with which their creators began, you can’t.  Each has the identical caption:

Source:  Authors’ calculations based on the Global Pharmaceutical Policy Model [the authors’ rather modest signfiier for their black box of an analytical engine].

Just in case you were wondering — that’s the language of advocacy, not research.

The authors are saying “Trust me,” and anyone with even a passing knowledge of the movie business knows that this is the punch line to the old joke:

How does a Hollywood executive say “F*ck you?

And if you needed a yet more obvious clue, check out the label put on each graphic.  It’s not “Figure,” or “Table,” or even “Results.”  Oh no.  This is no mere milque-toast publication of data and the logic that lies behind the authors’ inferences.  That kind of thing is for the intellectually conservative, or those committed to an attempt at disinterested investigation.

The Rand team, hired by Pfizer, knows what it is doing.  It is making a case for a particular policy outcome, and hence its graphics are labeled — and I’m not kidding — “Exhibits.”

Not to belabor this — I’m after McArdle and the approach to argument she embodies, not the well-known habits of the bespoke policy research game — but one of the first and most basic lessons we try to teach our students in the Graduate Program in Science Writing in MIT is that  just because some document looks like a real scientific paper, or that  some result gets published somewhere that looks impressive, you cannot then safely conclude that what it says is true.

Rather, we tell our students, you have to read it not just for the results, but for the degree to which the paper itself does what a serious piece of research should.  Does it at a minimum provide you with enough information to ask intelligent questions about what it purports to show.  If, as here, you see such a broad tell as the word “exhibit,” then you have to know that this demands a lot more digging before you can accept its claims.  The say-so of the paper and its authors isn’t enough; they’ve told you so themselves.

It is tempting simply to ignore any paper like this one — anytime someone tells you that they’ve come up with some complicated model that gives a magic answer, a long life in science writing tells you that they are blowing smoke.  Remember: big claims require big justification.

Over time, with experience in the business (either that of science or science writing) you learn when to get revved up about something, and when to sit back and let shoddy work slide by without close examination.  Life is too short to spend one’s time doing what xkcd so famously documented.

But let’s give the Rand paper, and McArdle yet more benefit of the doubt.  All that I’ve said above suggests that the Rand paper itself is telling you that you need to dig deeper before you rely on it.  Who knows?   Maybe its conclusions are true, even if it is impossible to determine that from the evidence presented.

Well, I haven’t done anything like a proper job of reporting to that depth.  But what I got in a morning’s reading and calling is strong hint that the Rand paper is, as expected,  propaganda, nicely garbed in Rand blue.

For the details….look to part four.

Images:  Rube Goldberg cartoon.

xkcd “Duty Calls

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

October 7, 2009

So:  on to the bill of particulars on McArdle’s recent attempt to claim the intellectual high ground in her ongoing attempt to convince us that we live in the best of all possible drug markets. [Part one is here]

I’m not going to fisk the entire piece in question.  Instead, I’m going to focus on one passage in which she invokes the research community to defend her assertion that artificially high US drug prices for big pharma are essential to the future of drug innovation.  You can read in the way she treats this literature that she either doesn’t or willfully won’t engage her subject up to the level that would allow her to make believable arguments.

She introduces her bravura display of rigor this way:

…we could go to the academic literature.  Not the literature from advocacy groups which too often fills the pages of political magazines on the left and right, but something from someplace like Rand.  And fortuitously, Rand happens to have published a paper on this very topic!

McArdle goes on to quote at length a passage about what would happen to longevity if the US imposed price controls on pharmaceuticals to bring US costs down to those paid by Europeans (about 20% less than current prices, according to the paper).

McArdle then seeks to emphasize the urgency, even the moral quality of her concern for maintaining the status quo in pricing by citing this conclusion from the Rand group:

…. the introduction of price controls would reduce life expectancy by two-tenths of a year for Americans ages 55-59 alive in 2010 and by one-tenth for Europeans ages 55-59 alive in the same year. In percentage terms, these correspond to 0.8 percent and 0.7 percent declines from the status quo.

And, just to finish laying the groundwork, she adds one more cite from the professional literature to affirm the authority of the quite striking claim above:

If you’re wondering how much levels of spending matter, you could go to Acemoglu and Linn, who estimate that a 1% increase in market size (aka revenue) for pharmaceuticals results in a 3-4% increase in the number of drugs being approved.

Sounds pretty devastating, right?

Well, yes…and that ought to be the clue.  In science, and in common experience too, of course, the rule of thumb is that the more striking the claim the greater the appropriate level of skepticism.   So before you endorse or adopt such positions, you need to test the inference.

There are a number of ways to do so, of course.  Step one is to consider the source.

Did McArdle?  Not really.  A first reality check comes from an inquiry into the background of the Rand study.

Go to what the Rand paper actually says:  It analyzes two cases:   either reduce payments to drug companies, or increase subsidies to consumers to get an effect on consumer pocketbooks (absent the tax consquences of the latter policy) that would be the same.  Reducing drug expenditures though it saves consumers money but, according to this analysis, costs them life expectancy.  Subsidies leave consumer finances unchanged, but do not impose the cost in months of life lost.  As the value of life in the model exceeds that of the saving on drug costs, the conclusion is obvious:  No attempt to reduce drug company receipts should be made, with policy makers concerned about the effects of the cost of health care instead told to focus on further subsidizing the purchase of drugs.

That is:  pay the man, or we will kill grandpa before his time.*

But then, if you go on to read to the end of the study, you find something interesting.  The study was not a piece of social science research undertaken by a body of disinterested researchers. Rather, you are reminded that Rand is a private, nonprofit research shop, available to perform academic-level, but not academic-housed studies for those willing to pay.  The lead funder for this study?


Which, if you’re interested, is, by a wide margin, the largest pharmaceutical company in the world.

McArdle does not point this out.  I’m not sure if she noticed it in her first reading of the piece.  She does respond in the comment thread to a reader who pointed this out, writing”If you can find articles on the subject that are not funded by an institution with a clear dog in this fight, please send them. Rand is a widely respected institution.”

This is…how to put it…seriously weak sauce.

Juxtapose it with her snark about “the literature from advocacy groups which too often fills the pages of political magazines on the left and right.”

In other words, she’s relying on the argument from authority, again:  Rand is respectable…a member of the village.  The fact that it is an intellectual gun-for-hire does not seem to matter to her, and of course her defense — that everybody does it —  is wrong, a false statement.

You don’t have to go far to find the confounding counter-example.  The other paper she cites, (on which more later), was written by two economists both then at MIT.  The work, published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, lists its outside funders:  first the National Science Foundation, and then the Russell Sage Foundation, a one hundred year old philanthropic institution with a focus on “the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States.”

Oh well…

Now of course, the fact that Rand was hired by the world’s largest drug company, and then produced a paper which argued that the pharmaceutical industry’s revenue should under no circumstances be cut unless you are willing to accept death and lamentations, is not in itself prima facie evidence that this paper is a put-up job, astroturf research with Rand serving as the cut-out for big Pharma.

But it does, or it should, compel you to interrogate the paper with great care.

And for that:  look to part three of this series.

*Or perhaps, if  you follow the learned doctor M. Python, pay the man and we’ll kill grandpa before his time…;)

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

October 7, 2009

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

Further to Ambinder’s Folly.

August 1, 2008

Thanks to Brad Delong for taking my pique with Marc Ambinder and running with it. (In my ongoing attempt to keep some strand of overt science running through this blog while the election season has me obsessed I e-mailed the web’s reality check with my rage at Marc’s seeming pride at being as trivial as he wants to be, and said, in effect “you do it.” To my great pleasure, Brad did.

Brad did say that he thought that writing about energy and its discontents did fit the brief for this blog, so, with permission from that august source…here’s how Marc finished off his sterling performance of yesterday:

While we’ve been focusing on the race card, the Republican echo chamber has been sounding full tilt about Barack Obama’s Jimmy Carter-esque turn as advice columnist to Americans about energy. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity spent part of their broadcast mocking Obama for urging Americans to inflate their tires to help conserve gasoline.

Obama had a point, and the auto industry recommends the same thing as do governors Schwarzenegger and Crist, but nevermind; the ridicule fix is in. An effective GOP shot.

I suppose the author of a “reported blog on politics” gets to judge whether a campaign tactic is effective. But look how he characterized Obama’s comment. Jimmy Carter-esque advice. And a quick trip to Youtube certainly shows that the echo chamber was indeed in full cry.

Now look at what Ambinder didn’t tell us. He didn’t tell us that the point Obama was making was not simply that you could save some gas with properly inflated tires — but that McCain’s energy “plan” (sic) is so feeble that its oil drilling proposals would have no effect at all for a decade, while the risible gas tax holiday would save the individual driver as much as…wait for it…properly inflating your tires.

So how come McCain’s snark, which has the merit of, in essence, encouraging people to waste gas and cash, gets the approving nod, and Obama’s on point policy jab–also couched as a snark, gets no mention. Because the GOP echo chamber told Ambinder what to cover.

If you do want to see the substance of Obama’s response to the McCain energy fantasy — really, it’s not a plan, it’s a couple of really bad ideas that we can only hope will be no worse than ineffective — read on, from the prepared remarks for yesterday’s economic security rally.

I understand the politics. In a country desperate for action, ideas like a gas tax holiday or expanded oil drilling in the waters off our coasts are popular. And I’ll say this – if there were real evidence that these steps would actually provide real, immediate relief at the pump and advance the long-term goal of energy independence, of course I’d be open to them. But so far there isn’t.

As good as they sound, the history of gas tax holidays is that the prices go up to fill in the gap, and the big winners end up being the retailers and oil companies – not the American people. That’s what happened when we had a gas tax holiday in Illinois that I supported, and that’s why we ended up repealing it. It didn’t work. And it would also drain the federal highway fund of billions of dollars and cost hundreds of thousands of American jobs.

When it comes to offshore drilling, even Senator McCain has acknowledged that it won’t provide short-term relief. In fact, if we started drilling today, we wouldn’t see a drop of oil for seven years, and even then it would have little if any impact on prices.

Meanwhile, the oil companies currently have the rights to drill on 68 million acres of land and offshore areas that they haven’t touched. I believe that before we give the oil companies any more land, it’s time we tell them to start drilling on the land they already have or turn it over to someone who will, because we need that oil. We should also invest in the technology that can help us recover more oil from existing fields. And we should also look to our substantial natural gas reserves to tap a source of energy that’s already powering buses and cars here and around the world.

In the long-term, however, we have to remember that these domestic resources are finite. Even if you opened up every square inch of our land and our coasts to drilling, America still has only 3% of the world’s oil reserves. Senator McCain may believe otherwise, but that is not a real solution to our energy crisis.