Ashok Rao shreds the latest book from Niall Ferguson, who we’ve encountered most recently as the source of homophobic slurs but who used to be a serious scholar. Or maybe still is. Remember Linda, that character from the Kahneman and Tversky vignette who was deemed likely to be “a bank teller who is active in the feminist movement”? Maybe Ferguson is a serious scholar who is active in the being-a-hack movement. Perhaps when he’s not writing books where he distorts his sources, or giving lectures with unfortunate slurs, he’s doing historical research. It’s certainly possible.
Rao describes how Ferguson distorts his source materials. This is a no-no for any historian, of course, but not such a surprise for Ferguson, who crossed over the John Yoo line awhile ago.
Last year I wrote about the paradox of influence: Ferguson gets and keeps the big-money audience by telling them not what he (Ferguson) wants to say—not by giving them his unique insights and understanding—but rather by telling his audience what they want to hear.
I don’t want to get into that again. Instead I’d like to talk about the next stage in the game.
But first, here’s Ashok Rao:
This book is clearly written for a lay audience, given its understandably pedantic explanation of what exactly an “institution” is (no, friends, not a mental asylum reminds us Ferguson). Therefore, it is fair to assume Ferguson does not expect his audience to have read the papers cited throughout. It is his responsibility as a member of elite academia to represent those papers with honesty and scholarship. As page 100 of the Allen Lane copy suggests, Ferguson does not agree:
It is startling to find how poorly the United States now fares when judged by these criteria [relating to the ease of doing business]. In a 2011 survey, [Michael] Porter [of Harvard] and his colleagues asked HBS alumni about 607 instances of decisions on whether or not to offshore operations. The United States retained the business in just ninety-six cases (16 per cent) and lost it in all the rest. Asked why they favoured foreign locations, the respondents listed the areas where they saw the US falling further behind the rest of the world. The top ten reasons included:
1. the effectiveness of the political system;
2. the complexity of the tax code;
4. the efficiency of the legal framework;
5. the flexibility in hiring and firing.
As it happens, I [Rao] have read this paper. And, like I said, the only way Ferguson’s cherry-picked nonsense can be justified is through the emphasized grammar. Indeed the “top ten” reasons did (in different words) include the above. Take a look for yourself:
The reader is led to believe that the five listed reasons are at or near the top of a such list created by Porter and his team. To the contrary, the biggest reason, almost twice as prevalent as anything else, was “Lower wage rates (in the destination country)”. That would seem to suggest that “globalization” and “technology” play a role, which Ferguson shrugs off as irrelevant. The tax system, is sixth down the list and cannot in any way be considered primary. . . .
Let me say that again. The article gave 10 leading reasons. Ferguson give a numbered list of 5 reasons, which happens not to include any of the top five from the cited article. Nor does it include items 7, 9, or 10. And actually Ferguson’s list doesn’t even hit item #6 very accurately (as he translates “lower tax rates” into “the complexity of the tax code”). So it was a complete botch.
Now back to Ferguson. My question is: how would he respond to the above criticism? The error seems too big for him to say it was a simple transposition or slip on the part of a research assistant. My guess is that Ferguson would respond on two tracks. First, he’d attack the messenger and say that Rao is a political opponent. Such a reaction would seem irrelevant to me—yes, Rao is an opponent of Ferguson’s political positions, but the evidence seems clear that Ferguson is misrepresenting that study. Ferguson’s second response might well be be that he is correct in some deep sense, that the Western world is sliding down the bannister to Hell and we need to get competitive now Now NOW, so what’s the point of being picky about the details about some silly little survey?
Ferguson = Michael Moore. If you agree with the guy, you feel his heart is in the right place, and what’s the big deal if he moves a few facts around and violates the stuffy conventions of documentary film or scholarly writing? Scholars are all biased anyway, right? And who cares what the haters say, they’re nobodies compared to an Academy-Award-winning top-grossing film producer or a Hoover Institution professor whose lecture fees are in the high five figures and is friends with Henry Kissinger?
In short, I think Ferguson’s strongest reply would be to say something like, “Don’t be picky. It’s not about the details, it’s about the big picture.” Not the response you might want from a trained historian, but I think that’s the best we can hope for. And, indeed, if you agree with Ferguson on the big picture, maybe the details really don’t matter.
What really amazes me about Ferguson is that at this point he really doesn’t seem to care about scholarly norms. He’s above it all. It wouldn’t have been hard for him to have summarized that research accurately in his book and still come to the same substantive conclusion. But he just didn’t bother.
P.S. Just in case anyone sees some obvious parallels . . . no, I don’t think every public intellectual is a hack. I don’t see Paul Krugman or Greg Mankiw as hacks. I see them as advocates with strong opinions and partisan perspective, but I don’t think they’d knowingly distort a study they’re reporting on. As I wrote last year, when I’m describing someone as a hack, I’m not saying he’s political or that he’s writing something I disagree with. I’m saying that he’s writing something that he doesn’t himself believe. And, no, I don’t think I’m a hack, even when I’m blogging. I report things as I see them, and I struggle openly with difficulties.
P.P.S. Also, I think this might’ve come up before: Why do I write about this at all? Part of it, I think, is Ferguson’s similarity in career to me: he’s a social scientist who teaches at Harvard and writes for a broader audience. I respect some of Ferguson’s work and I respect his goal of aiming for public influence. I feel that much of his recent writing is at worst a violation of scholarly ethics (as above) and is at best laughable and empty (as here), and I am repulsed by his crude attempt to get laughs by alluding to poof-like characteristics of historical figures. But I recognize that he feels he has a larger purpose; I assume he really does believe that it’s 1973 and the Western world is being crushed by its business-unfriendly political environment, and that the crisis is real enough that it’s worth destroying one’s scholarly reputation to address. I’m just not so politically committed and I have a sort of admiration for people like Ferguson who go all-in on their commitments.