One of the more amusing threads that runs through the conversation among the online left is the viewpoint that the science is settled in every arena, and settled in their favor. The data backs the leftward view, and if it doesn’t, there must be a flaw in the data, or in the scientist, or secret Koch-backed dollars behind the research. This bit of hubris leads to saying obviously untrue things – like “every economist from the left and right” says the stimulus has created or saved at least two million jobs. Or that there’s “no solid evidence” that boosting the minimum wage harms jobs. Of course the media knows that these aren’t true, but they largely give these politicians a pass, because dealing in data and with academic research is their turf.
But not so for the right. See the reaction to Paul Ryan’s latest report on welfare and the war on poverty: Ryan constructed a rather centrist report, relying overwhelmingly on the work of think tanks and academics in the moderate-to-left category to make his case. But a reporter at The Fiscal Times suggested Ryan had misrepresented the research of these economists in making his case.
Jonathan Chait, whose hate-hate relationship with George W. Bush has long ago shifted to Ryan, seized on this idea with glee. Paul Krugman and Michael Hiltzik repeated the charge, as is their proper role. I would link them but you already know everything they will say, forever.
The only problem: the initial report was wrong. The reporter called Dr. Jeffrey Brown, and asked if his research was presented accurately; Brown said it was; the reporter indicated it wasn’t. Brown had to take to the article’s comment pages to protest. Here’s Brown:
Speaking of “misrepresentation,” I take issue with your portrayal of my email communication to you as suggesting that Congressman Ryan incorrectly cited my work with Amy Finkelstein of MIT. You provided me the quote from his report and asked me if it was accurate, noting that another academic suggested it may not be. My exact response to you was: “That quote is an accurate representation of our work. My only caveat would be that although Medicaid has this effect, there may also be other factors that would continue to limit the size of the private market even if Medicaid was reformed.” The caveat was provided to help you – as the reporter – to understand the context for the citation in case you wanted to explore the policy implications of our work further and to help you understand why another academic might have felt the quote was inaccurate. But I did not suggest nor do I hold the view that Congressman Ryan “ignored” the caveat, as implied by your writing. Nor, as implied by the title of your piece, do I believe Congressman Ryan “misrepresented” my research. His citation was appropriate. Obviously, the interactions of Medicaid and long-term care are complex, and a full discussion would go far beyond the small summary they provided. But that is true of any summary – indeed, even our own abstract of the paper does not provide that caveat due to word count constraints. In short, I do NOT believe that my work was misrepresented in the Ryan document. Rather, I believe my email was misrepresented in your article.
The Fiscal Times article mentions five experts. One of them, Jeffrey Brown, has asserted that Ryan quoted his research accurately. A second, Amy Finkelstein, is mentioned but offered no opinions in the article. That leaves but three scholars mentioned in the piece – Jane Waldfogel, Chris Wimer, and Barbara Wolfe – who criticize how their research is cited. For perspective, consider that the Ryan report has 683 footnotes citing an untold number of experts. It is virtually inevitable that out of this vast number there would be a few who disagree with Ryan’s policy conclusions or take issue with how their work is cited, while there could be hundreds who believe Ryan encapsulated their research well. In any event, the scholars cited in the Fiscal Times article fall short of a significant or even newsworthy number, and the piece misrepresented the position of at least one of those few.
Academics don’t have to like the way their data is used – particularly liberal academics – so long as it’s used accurately. In a more respectful age, Ryan’s report could’ve been viewed as an olive branch – as Chris Edwards notes, it’s far more moderate than I would like to see. But even this report was too much for the blathering crowd to bear without resorting to such ridiculousness.