Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The disgrace of Niall Ferguson

(The content of this post is somewhat beyond the usual remit of this blog.)

A month or so ago, a friend drew my attention to the 2012 BBC Reith Lectures given by Niall Ferguson, a Harvard professor of economic history. This is a particularly prestigious lecture series on BBC Radio 4. Past lecturers have included many famous names, from Bertrand Russell in 1948 to Aung San Suu Kyi in 2011; I would recommend several previous lectures. But on listening to Ferguson, I was so annoyed by the combination of factual errors, non sequiturs, deliberate misrepresentations and schoolboyish debating tactics I heard that I almost composed a long diatribe for this blog to point them all out. In the end I refrained, partly for the sake of my blood pressure.

Now, however, Ferguson is back in the news, for an execrable cover story in Newsweek attacking Barack Obama's economic policy that contains many of the same tactics he employed in his Reith lectures, and I can no longer pass up the opportunity to comment. Luckily the Newsweek story has stirred up such justifiable disdain everywhere that I will be able to outsource much of the detailed commentary and merely provide you with a round-up of the reasons why you should never believe a word Ferguson says or writes.

In both his Reith lectures and the Newsweek story, many of Ferguson's arguments are apparently grounded in economic reasoning. Since he is a professor of economic history, he would clearly like you to believe he knows what he is talking about when it comes to economics. But let's take a step back. This is a man whose (mis)understanding of economics led him to predict that levels of US government deficits would cause interest rates on US debt to skyrocket: the opposite has happened. He's been predicting the imminent onset of terrible inflation in the US for many years: that hasn't happened. He claimed "the Chinese clearly feel they have enough US government bonds": that wasn't true either. Even worse, when Paul Krugman pointed out the errors in his analysis back in 2009, he derided Krugman as being "from Planet Econ-101", and claimed the facts would show him to be wrong. Trouble is, they did precisely the opposite. (Note to Ferguson: if you claim your opponents are disagreeing with you on the basis of elementary arguments, you will look more stupid, not less, when they turn out to be right.)

Given this history, it is surprising that Ferguson has the chutzpah to stand up and make any kind of economic argument at all. It is more surprising that anyone should feel he deserved any platform — still less the Reith Lectures — from which to make it. But it is his Newsweek piece that really takes the cake. Take the following sentence for instance:
Certainly, the stock market is well up (by 74 percent) relative to the close on Inauguration Day 2009. But the total number of private-sector jobs is still 4.3 million below the January 2008 peak.
Did you see what he did there? Maybe he thought readers wouldn't notice or remember who was President in January 2008. When the truth is inconvenient for your argument, you can always resort to insinuation. It is sentences like this that cause James Fallows to apologise on behalf of Harvard for Ferguson's writings.

Another sentence from the article employs a similar strategy:
The president pledged that health-care reform would not add a cent to the deficit. But the CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation now estimate that the insurance-coverage provisions of the ACA will have a net cost of close to $1.2 trillion over the 2012–22 period.
Paul Krugman pointed out why this argument was deceitful ("insurance-coverage provisions" and "deficit" are not the same thing, and the CBO report says Obama's reform would reduce the deficit, just like he said it would). Ferguson responds here: as Ezra Klein in The Washington Post points out, his defence is essentially to argue that he didn't make a mistake, he was deliberately trying to mislead his readers.

Wait, that's not even the worst of it! In his defence, Ferguson quotes from the CBO report as if it justifies his position, but as Dylan Byers shows, he's deliberately manipulated the quote to change its meaning. Seriously, does this man have a professorship at one of the world's best regarded universities? To hear him pontificate on TV is to realise that he regards himself as the bee's knees, but this is at the level of a teenager who thinks the adults he is debating with will be unable to spot his obvious tricks.

At this point further examples are probably unnecessary, but if you want you can read a full fact-check of Ferguson's argument by Matthew O'Brien — Ferguson has now apparently taken to calling such fact-checking "nit-picking". You could also read Noah Smith speculating that it is Ferguson's nostalgia for Empire that informs his politics and drives him to such blatant distortions.

There are two further comments I would like to make. The first is that despite the fact that it is a country with one completely loony mainstream political party, political discourse in America is clearly still in some ways sharper and better informed than in Britain. Despite the efforts of certain economists to take him to task, the fact that Ferguson could be invited to give the Reith Lectures despite the documented failings of his economic predictions, and could get away with such little criticism afterwards, is a bit of a sad indictment of how far removed from reality the economic argument in Britain has become since the last general election.

The second comment is to do with experts who hitch themselves onto a particular political bandwagon. I wrote some time ago that scientists who entered into party politics would end up discrediting their academic reputation for independence of thought: this argument of course need not apply only to scientists but to experts in any field. I think the scorn that has been poured on Ferguson for "playing for Team Republican" over the last few days is a good example of just how much damage one can do to one's reputation when one makes political point-scoring a higher priority than the truth.

We can but hope that this damage is enough to ensure that people remember never to take Niall Ferguson seriously again.

Update: In my annoyance at Ferguson, I completely forgot to mention another example demonstrating his incompetence. He also makes elementary errors when interpreting data (but only in such a way as to support his pre-determined argument). What's particularly laughable about this is that literally every time I have ever seen that US public payroll graph, it has been accompanied by a comment pointing out that the temporary spike was due to the 2010 Census. But I guess Ferguson chose not to pay attention.

Another update: I'd like to quote Mark Kleiman here:
Of course, Ferguson couldn’t get away with deceptively truncating quotations in his scholarly publications. Apparently he thinks that he can get away with it in his pseudo-journalistic “public intellectual” hat. I think he’s mostly right. But he shouldn’t be.

Of course we don’t want professors losing tenure for making political statements unpopular with their peers, or with academic administrators or funders. But equally of course, people who trade on their university titles as pseudo-journalists or consultants or expert witnesses ought to be held to the same standards – not of rigor, but of honesty – in their parallel work as they are in the stuff that gets them tenure.

“Veritas” isn’t a bad slogan for a university. I wonder if the Harvard History Department thinks it means anything.

No comments:

Post a Comment