Irritating pseudo-populism, backed up by false statistics and implausible speculations

Tyler Cowen links to this article by Matt Ridley that manages to push all my buttons. Ridley writes:

Drawing a direct analogy with the effect of vouchers in the education system, Messrs. Seeman and Luciani suggest “healthy-living vouchers” that could be redeemed from different (certified) places–gyms, diet classes, vegetable sellers and more. Education vouchers, they point out, are generally disliked by rich whites as being bad for poor blacks–and generally liked by poor blacks.

Three things here. First, I’m sick and tired of all the rich-white bashing. I mean, what’s the deal? Matt Ridley is a rich white, I’m a rich white, so are lots and lots of the readers of the Wall Street Journal. If you got a problem with rich whites, maybe you should start writing for a publication associated with a different income stratum and a different ethnic group.

Second, the rich-white thing seems so selective. Does Ridley bash rich whites who want to lower taxes? Rich whites who want safe neighborhoods, clean streets, fast wifi, winning sports teams, bomb-free commercial aircraft, juicy steaks, cold beer, and all the rest? No. It’s only when rich whites happen to disagree with him that he decides to play this populist game.

Third, it’s not true that rich whites oppose school vouchers. It’s poor whites who oppose them. Here are our estimates from the 2000 and 2004 Annenberg surveys:



Fourth, who says that opponents of school vouchers oppose them “as being bad for poor blacks”? Where did that come from? I imagine there are a lot of different reasons why people support or oppose school vouchers. And I doubt that worrying about what’s “bad for poor blacks” is a high priority for most whites–rich or poor. Maybe things are different in Canada, but here in the U.S.A., we rich whites spend a lot more time thinking about ourselves than we do about poor blacks.

The rewrite

So let’s rephrase Ridley’s sentence, given what we’ve learned above:

Education vouchers are generally disliked by poor whites and are liked by rich whites (if they happen to be Catholic or evangelical Protestant), poor Hispanics, and poor blacks in the Northeast. Two Canadian academics, Neil Seeman and Patrick Luciani, state, with zero evidence, that opponents of school vouchers oppose them “as being bad for poor blacks.”

Hmmm . . . doesn’t sound so impressive . . .

You might say I’m picky, mucking up a clean story with messy survey data. And, hey, maybe opinions on school vouchers have changed since 2004. If Seeman and Luciani want to propose an ideological solution to obesity, fine. But don’t start making up numbers and making up motivations!

I can hardly blame Ridley here: it’s natural for a journalist to take academic researchers’ claims at face value (even if the two scholars mentioned above are closer to policy analysts than academics). The scholars oozed authority and Ridley didn’t think of questioning them. After all, journalists are busy people and can’t be expected to check up on every quote. That’s the point of experts: you can trust them, right?

One more button

But then we come to one more thing that Ridley wrote, pushing one more of my buttons. Here’s Ridley:

Messrs. Seeman and Luciani’s suggestions will annoy both the left and the right. . . . But the very fact that their idea defies conventional wisdom suggests that it is a good one.

Huh? I agree that conventional wisdom isn’t always right. But does he really believe that the very fact that an idea defies conventional wisdom suggests it’s a good idea? If so, perhaps Ridley might consider driving a 1975 Gremlin. Conventional wisdom (backed up by the Consumer Reports frequency of repair records) suggests that AMC cars were crappy. And maybe he’d like to wash down his next KFC meal with a delightful C&C Cola, which conventional wisdom suggests is high quality.

And, to get back to public opinion for a moment, let’s forget about sample surveys. Conventional wisdom says that Gallup etc. know what they’re doing. So maybe it would be better to defy conventional wisdom and just invent numbers. It’s so much easier than conducting a survey, and the very fact that it defies conventional wisdom suggests it’s a good idea!

P.S. Why does this irritate me so much? I analyze survey data for a living. If I were to go around making up numbers about the atomic weight of potassium or international trade, people would rightly ask what I know about chemistry or economics. But when people start spreading false statements about public opinion, they’re believed without question–even by a science writer who prides himself on defying conventional wisdom–and used as part of a pseudo-populist argument about that despicable group, “rich whites,” It all just makes me want to barf. If you want to attack rich whites, fine. But use a more plausible argument, please!

P.P.S. I’m surprised that Cowen fell for the “rich whites” bit, but I suppose he was focusing on the weight-loss ideas. I only noticed the education vouchers part because I’ve done research in that area. Once I noticed that problem, the whole argument fell apart in my hands.

21 thoughts on “Irritating pseudo-populism, backed up by false statistics and implausible speculations

  1. Unfortunately the fabrication of "facts" isn't limited to facts about public opinion. A push-my-button article for me is a recent op-ed in the New York Times that opens and closes with the author making a ridiculous analogy in order to paint people who disagree with him as bigots…and in the middle extols the economic benefits of kudzu and zebra mussels. My initial thought was that it's an April Fools article, but I'm pretty sure it isn't (for one thing, it was published a day too late, but there are other clues too).

    The assertion that kudzu and zebra mussels are economically beneficial here in the U.S. is not true. And here's a guy who says it in the New York Frickin Times!

  2. "But does he really believe that the very fact that an idea defies conventional wisdom suggests it's a good idea?"

    Modern libertarianism in a single sentence.

  3. Broken links to PNGs?

    The requested URL /~cook/movabletype/archives/2011/04/vouchermaps2004.png was not found on this server.

  4. Most of the variance in voucher patterns can be simply explained.

    Wealthy religious whites overwhelmingly send their children to religious private schools. They want vouchers, because they want to offset costs of those private schools.

    Poor blacks and hispanics send their children to poorly-rated local public schools and they want to send them elsewhere.

    Middle class non-religious whites don't want vouchers, because they have good local public schools and they want to keep poor inner-city blacks and hispanics out.

  5. You must have misread the article. He does not say that kudzu is, on the net, economically beneficial. He says that even kudzu has some economic benefits (among others, an effective method to control soil erosion and a good source of nutritional starch.)

  6. Nameless, it's true that the author doesn't use the word "net" when he says "But even these notorious villains have ecological or economic benefits." Perhaps he is being deliberately ambiguous. But I don't think so; the whole point of the article is that we should embrace invasive non-native species because they provide a net benefit.

  7. Matt Ridley isn't just a rich white guy, he's really, really rich, and and his father is the fourth Viscount Ridley, and Matt's middle name is "White" because he's a member of the White Ridley family. Matthew White built the family estate Blagdon Hall in the 1700 and it sits on 8,500 acres of estate.

  8. Steve:

    Wow! I've been thinking of writing a piece on rich whites who hate rich whites–as a non-self-hating rich white guy, I feel I'm well qualified to do this. I'm wondering: is the guy who wrote Stuff White People Like a self-hating rich white guy, or is he a non-rich white guy who resents the rich ones?

    P.S. I'm defining "rich" here at being in the top 5% of income.

    P.P.S. I assume Ridley doesn't hate all rich whites; he probably just dislikes the rich whites who disagree with him politically. Perhaps he sees them as traitors to the cause.

  9. Here's a picture of Matthew White Ridley VIII's family estate, Blagdon Hall:

    The Blagdon Estate's website says:

    The Families of Ridley and White

    Blagdon has been home to the same family since 1700. The first three generations of owners were all named Matthew White. The next nine generations of owners have all been named Matthew White Ridley. For more than 300 years Blagdon has been owned by somebody called Matthew.

  10. Wow. A rich white guy who doesn't hate other rich white guys because it's trendy to do so–and who actually examines data to boot!

    Alas, I am only an aspiring rich white guy. (I have the *white* and *guy* parts down pat, though.)

  11. So this reminded me to finally dig out Thilo Sarrazin's comment to the accusation that his numbers on how many turkish migrants where not willing to integrate into german society (and similar statistics) were pure fabrication. Unfortunately I couldn't find the full quote (missing in brackets) but it goes something like that (original is in german):
    [If the numbers haven't yet measured] one has to fabricate one that points into the right direction, then if nobody can refute it I have made my point with my estimate"

  12. I generally go with the principle that hating as few people as possible is a very good way to live. I kind of buy into the whole Buddhist idea that hate hurts you at least as much as the other individual.

    That being said, I found this a nice article. The attempt to associate views of skepticism about vouchers with racism to be unhelpful. There are educational systems (Canada comes to mind) that produce decent results, generate reasonable social mobility and have to deal with at least as much diversity as the United States but are mainly public institutions. It's not clear that this is the most efficient approach (it can be expensive) but it appears effective.

    I think reasonable people can disagree about the best way forward on a subject as complicated as education without maligning either side. I think our real enemy is the complexity of the educational process as a whole and the difficulty with straightforward causal inference.

  13. "Middle class non-religious whites don't want vouchers, because they have good local public schools and they want to keep poor inner-city blacks and hispanics out."

    That's the reason middle-class whites are against busing, not vouchers.

  14. "That's the reason middle-class whites are against busing, not vouchers. "

    It depends on how the question was worded.

    If people were asked about vouchers specifically for private schools, then my reasoning is invalid. But then there are no apparent reasons for middle-class whites to be opposed to vouchers. (An atheist minority would be opposed to what they perceive as government financing religious schools, but we shouldn't be seeing deep blue across the map in the non-evangelical protestant row.)

    If people were asked about vouchers that allow you to send kids to any school, public or private, that implies busing.

  15. Thom:

    You write, "I'm surprised Matt Ridley has any credibility left . . ."

    No credibility is required to write for the Wall Street Journal. They publish John Yoo!

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