Blargh Blog

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Working together

Incompetence and ideology often work together in the creation of pieces of pseudo-research that support someone's partisan position while having little basis in reality. How do they do it? Here's one simple way for them to create a powerful one-two punch:

1. Do some sloppy research on a politically-charged topic.
2. If the results match your ideological preconceptions, publicize them. If they don't, try to improve your methodology.

One advantage of this kind of incompetence-ideology teamwork is that you can plausibly claim that the error was an honest mistake and that you did not intentionally skew your conclusions. Since proving counterfactuals is a nasty business, it's difficult for anyone to know what you would have done if the initial results had not matched your ideology.

But we can come up with some promising examples where this sort of joint effort probably took place:

- Late last year, Ross McKitrick and a mining executive published, and AEI publicized, a piece of empirical research that attempted to refute the claim that there has been dramatic climate change in the last few decades. However, their paper was riddled with mistakes, including inputting latitudes in degrees and then using a program that treated those numbers as radians in its calculations.

- The State Department issued a report in April that claimed that terrorist attacks had declined in 2003 and the Administration publicized it as evidence that we were winning the War on Terror. It was later discovered that the report was riddled with mistakes, including a failure to count attacks that ocurred in the last month and a half of 2003.

- Dan Rather and CBS news aired an episode of 60 Minutes that was critical of Bush's Nation Guard service, basing their decision on documents that turned out to be shoddy forgeries.

- Irwin Stelzer argued that the economy is doing well, based on a dramatic increase in Walmart's sales from July 2003 to July 2004. However, he failed to account for the fact that the majority of the increase was due to the fact that Walmart had opened up lots of new stores.


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