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Going meta on Niall Ferguson

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;

3. regulation;

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.

34 Comments

  1. Ashok Rao says:

    I think the best defense of NF, but one he can never make himself, is that smart and credible people [like you] can [correctly] think highly of [parts of] him despite some pretty egregious errors. Few people have that luxury, and it speaks of some good quality, I don’t know what.

    By the way, in response to the graph, I think he would respond to the second graph presented by Porter et al. I’m not exactly sure, but the language matches up with his bullet list much better, especially regarding the tax code. However, that faces the same problem in that it doesn’t reflect the direct HBS questionnaire, confuses a strength and weakness, and omits the biggies that don’t gel in.

    The comparison with Michael Moore says a lot. Ferguson is into pop scholarship – as is Paul Krugman – but both, unlike Moore, have PhDs. That gives them a kind of credibility, not as partisans but as experts. I’m not sure what it costs to get Paul Krugman to speak, but I imagine it’s not far from NF – if not much higher – but I don’t see the same kind of egregious exaggerations.

    I generally don’t doubt that people believe what they believe. I don’t think NF has a reason to lie about his persuasions. But in this case, I’m not really sure that’s a good thing.

    • Andrew says:

      Ashok:

      I assume that Ferguson really does believe what he believes about the West being in crisis, that the business is too constrained by laws and regulations, etc. But I find it hard to believe that Ferguson really thought that his list of 5 items accurately captured the responses in the HBS study. My guess is that he felt that selecting out these particular items captured some sort of deeper truth.

      Remember when David Brooks notoriously said that it just wasn’t possible to spend over $20 in the Red Lobster restaurant in Franklin County, Pennsylvania? Reporter Sasha Issenberg followed up, went to the restaurant and found a $28.75 item right on the menu. When he asked Brooks what was up with that, Brooks accused Issenberg of “being ‘too pedantic,’ of ‘taking all of this too literally,’ of ‘taking a joke and distorting it.’ ‘That’s totally unethical,’ he said.”

      Similarly with Michael Moore. When he changes the time sequence in movie (thus violating the usual conventions of documentary film), he is fully aware that he’s manipulating the story. But, again, I assume he feels he is capturing a larger truth.

      When Ferguson wrote his notorious Newsweek story last year, I assume he knew all along he was distorting, but again he felt this was in the service of a larger good. I still call this hackery, if you’re willing to say things you don’t believe, whether the goal is ideology, money, or some combination of the two. If the larger goal is important enough, this is fine—propagandizing can be a worthy endeavor. The paradox is that that’s one defense that Ferguson can’t use. The nature of propaganda is that it has to be presented with a straight face.

      • Ashok Rao says:

        You’re right. At first I thought it might have to do with his recollection of the Porter study, but there is no way an economic historian can botch Adam Smith in the same way.

        But what I just don’t understand is that there is no scarcity of studies that do confirm his assertions. And because most of the audience places more stock on Ferguson’s credibility, than a random author within, he wouldn’t loose much rhetorical effect making the same point with perhaps a less impressive and broad survey.

        I have no idea why he would open himself up for this criticism when it brings him no benefit. As far as convincing his readers is concerned – and not someone like me who went into the book with a very high prior that it would be a hack – he might as well have defended the whole point with “a survey of the literature shows”.

        There’s classics professor at Harvard – don’t recall his name (Nagy?) – who wrote a lot about teaching a class by “reading into” and “reading out of” literature. He makes a lot of reference to Nietzsche and all, but the point of the latter was to impute one’s own macroscopic understanding into the text. I think that’s how NF reads a lot of literature, and confuses his confirmation bias with the content itself.

        If he gets sloppy with it, there are consequences!

  2. Rahul says:

    Is the verbatim Ferguson text available somewhere online?

  3. jonathan says:

    You seem to have a fascination with people of high intelligence (and accomplishment) who go off the rails. Worried about old(er) age?

    This is an interesting topic. Why did Noam Chomsky lose the thread of reality in favor of fervent beliefs? Why is he driven to impose violently twisted interpretations on history and current events as though the force of his will remakes them to fit his model? I’ve wondered in his case if he became so absorbed in his own thoughts that he began to believe those thoughts were THE way to see the world. To use an ancient story, it’s as if Narcissus, having fallen into the infinity of looking within himself, had then decided to remake the external world in his internal image.

    I see versions of this with Ferguson. He has become successively more invested in making his mental constructions real, progressing from a clever contrarian to advocate, with all the distortionary power being an advocate implies. It subjectively isn’t distorting facts if you believe the facts should be this and not that way.

    (BTW, I don’t put Paul Krugman in this group at all. He is clear in his own statements that he knows he advocates and he acknowledges that his views are subjective in the key senses that he recognizes other can hold different views and that his views are not going to take over the world.)

    I can see your worry. (insert smiley face, if you want) You have long proposed model improvements and have advocated for Bayesian methods. You have a strong need to communicate your beliefs to others and thus to influence how they think and act. Yes, you could follow Karl Pearson down the path of rigidity and foolishness. It happens. (I assume you aren’t worried about the path followed by, for example, William Shockley.)

    My guess is that when derailments occur you realize it is happening but you have been right so often and your being right has relied on a form of confidence in your path that overcomes all the doubt along the way that you end up in cloudcukooland.

    In this regard, I suggest the life of William James Sidis and particularly Amy Wallace’s The Prodigy. Not because he ended up doing minor clerical work but because it shows there are other paths. The image of Sidis running an adding machine doesn’t convey a basic truth that we have no idea what he was doing in his head for all those years. He decided to keep it to himself. Perhaps he looked into the mirror of the stream and found he preferred the infinity within to the external world. I don’t mean to imply he found something, just that he chose that manner of looking.

    • Andrew says:

      Jonathan:

      Actually, Ferguson is younger than I am! I’m not actually worried about going off the rails in old age. I anticipate continuing intellectual decline, but that’s just the way the world works.

      Again, I think Krugman and Mankiw are much different from Ferguson. They are playful sometimes (for example, in Mankiw’s claim that he’s paying a 93% marginal tax rate), but pretty much it seems that they write what they believe, they’re not hacks in the way that Ferguson has become.

      • numeric says:

        Playful? Read Jonathon Chait’s comments on Mankiw’s defense of the one percent(
        http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2013/06/gop-economist-makes-terrible-defense-of-the-1.html?imw=Y). As for the comment”

        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.

        Methinks you’ve been in the ivory tower to long. I’ll ignore the obvious reference to Hitler (actually, Pol Pot is a better example), but just note that ideas have consequences and Ferguson and others like him (including Mankiw) are the new social Darwinists. The fascination of intellectuals with eugenics set the intellectual stage for that massive social experiment in genocide known as the Third Reich. Mankiw is not “playful”, he’s dangerous, in the sense that his arguments have no decreasing returns to scale aspect–inequality could increase until we had established a new feudalism. An intellectual (in particular, an economist) should know better and in fact does know better. In that sense Mankiw is what you see Ferguson as, and the current Republican/conservative meme of government is the root of all evil (used to be money, but times and faith change) is similarly vested in a lack of intellectual honesty (and there used to be this in politics, even on the Republican side–remember the EPA, or FAP (Family Assistance Plan). I’m not certain of the causality (did dishonest academics create dishonest politics, or vica versa?) but there is a massive feedback loop (examples of “early”–before the Republican party went off the rails–dishonest academics are such works as Lowi’s “Then End of Liberalism” or Fiorina’s “Congress: Keystone of the Washington Establishment”–so an argument can be made that the distortions of reality occurred on the academic side first–recall there is historical antecdents for this–the Russian revolution was based on academic theory and the academics of the Weimar Republic undercut democratic forms of government).

        • Andrew says:

          Numeric:

          Why do you say the Lowi and Fiorina books are dishonest?

          • numeric says:

            Not having a copy of either here (I may have thrown them out), I’ll have to do this from memory. Fiorina’s hypothesis is that casework and pork barrel has destroyed competition in American politics, government is corrupt, politicians are in it because they like people sucking up to them, etc. Writing before the political upheavals of the last 30 years this comes across as having the American Voter view of the electorate (in the sense of assuming the current static conditions will obtain forever–after all, casework and pork barrel didn’t disappear and the House started flipping in the 90’s and the Senate well before that). But leave that as it may. The dishonesty in particular (and it is Mankiw’s) is a failure to consider alternates/tradeoffs. To Fiornia, government per se is inefficient and deliberately so by Congressmen eager to hang on to their jobs, so they can come in and fix things. But Fiornia never considers whether an alternate arrangement (presumably private) would be more efficient (think about your cell phone contracts or trying to get cable service fixed).

            I can recall three specific things that are more bordering on actual dishonesty (aside from the type I discuss above). First, in Fiorina’s graphs showing the growth of government, he fails to adjust for such things as inflation and population growth. This is noted in Tufte’s “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information”, in a section dealing with how to misrepresent data with graphs. Tufte calls this the “lie factor”, and assigns a multiple for how much the lie is (2 is twice the truth, 3 three times, etc). Tufte does not calculate the lie factor for the graph of Fiorina’s he reproduces, but I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation once and thought it was about 10–in any case, almost certainly higher than any of the other graphs presented in that section.

            Two, graphs showing the change in voting returns for Congressional district over time, going from a unimodal, nearly-normal distribution to bimodal. But this is just for Congressional districts. If you look at a state like California, which switched from a part-time legislature to full-time in 1966, you’ll see unimodal before and bi-modal afterwards. But the California legislature has no casework to speak of and little pork barrel.

            Third, Fiorina quotes an icon of the Civil Rights movement (and I’ve forgotten which one, but it’s in the book) to the effect that the attacks on government spending were really a veiled attempt to attack minorities. Fiorina calls this “nonsense.” But consider Lee Atwater’s words:

            You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say
            “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing,
            states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re
            talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally
            economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We
            want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell
            of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.” [This is from later on but Kevin Phillips work describing white backlash against blacks predated Congress: Keystone of the Washington Establishment and the “Southern Strategy” was also well-known].

            It might be noted that Tufte refers to Fiorina as making a “political” point. I would characterize it a little less charitably, as the (white) professors who are quoted extensively (and approvingly and always with the honorific “Professor” before their name–what sort of scholarly work has a subliminal appeal to authority in it?), and the sole black quoted is talking “nonsense.” All in all, the “work” presents an argument that could easily be presented by Rush Limbaugh (and I remember reading a Heritage Foundation tract approvingly quoting the book in the early 90’s). This doesn’t make the thesis wrong, but an alternate scenario is that government became a lot more profitable for Congressmen because corporations are a lot more interested in government because of increased government regulation. This has nothing to do with casework or pork barrel (and we now see when the House eliminates earmarks Boehner can’t control his caucus, so it would seem that the overriding reason for pork barrel is to put together majorities, which is a far cry from it existing to further Congressmen’s reelection prospects–if anything, pork barrel is in exchange for votes which hurt a Congressman’s reelection prospects).

            I’m not saying I am right, though the existence of work such as Ansolabehere/Snyder “showing” campaign contributions don’t influence votes (quoted approvingly by George Will), which is so at variance with the experience of anyone who works in politics (lobbyists are called “The Third House”), might give one pause to think. In any case, my point is that alternate theories are not even considered or are rejected as nonsense, and that the elementary considerations of scientific inquiry are routinely ignored or perverted by political (and social) scientists (Mankiw’s “playful” 93%, which goes greater than 100% as marginal tax rates rise). This lack of integrity encourages political actors.

            Rather than go into detail about Lowi’s book, I’ll just mention that the interest-group liberalism he disdains prevented a social revolution in this country, and that we are now well into the “juridical” regime that is supposed to restore democracy in this country. The “restoration” has lead to widespread government spying, widespread disenfranchisement of poor and minority voters, allowing torture, unlimited secret corporate cash to influence elections and public opinion, and a widespread contempt for the institution charged with promoting the rule of law (Bush v. Gore, anyone?).

  4. a reader says:

    If you can point to something, with citation, that you do admire that Ferguson has written or uttered that might be helpful to this reader. As far as I can tell, you seem to try to be gracious to a propagandizing hack. There seems little even in his supposed scholarship of any merit at all.

    You quote that he was at one time a scholar and yet you yourself make no mention or citation of any of his work. In my estimation it his work is and has been throughout his career very poor propaganda at best. Even his support of what was once a kind of pseudo-conservative meme that high taxes were and are hindering the growth of oligopoly capitalism is atavistic. The guy has read nothing and seems to know nothing of seminal figures in economic history such as Schumpeter or of finance as it actually works, or even of any academic work in economics or finance.

    His chief skills seem to be self promotion and the propagation of atavistic fairy tales. Any assumption that he has actually understood any thing of economic history outside of fairy tales seems wholly unwarranted. I’d relegate him to the heap of Fox tv talking heads who can pretend to opinion without thought.

    Perhaps you are giving him way to much credit just because he is yet another fraud that has managed to get a gig at Harvard? If one bothers to actually read any text or listen to any utterance by him, one might look to his other skills for the source of his success.

    I don’t feel I have the time to go and look again at any thing he has written. I’ve long since put him in that class of fools who are capable of self promotion and little more. Is there anything to admire in that? Not at all in my opinion.

    • Andrew says:

      See here. I linked to it in the first sentence of my post above.

    • Ashok Rao says:

      Also in his success as a public speaker, I honestly don’t think his accent should be discounted. He just sounds so smart, lucid, and clear if you smack yourself in the head and turn off all logic-detectors.

      His self-promotion is more than just greedy, hardcore marketing. It’s the perfect mix that comes from being a) a named professor from Harvard, b) fantastic credentials, c) a lovely accent, d) looks (compare that to the average tenured professor market. Altogether, it makes for a great documentarian (as in Ascent of Money PBS version) and CNN/BBC/Munk/etc. debater.

      Also, there’s two crowds of educated audiences. One is the type that attends things like the Munk Debate, comes from affluence, probably reads top Beltway op-eds, and may be from left to center right (ultra right do not feature) but is not too focused on the more than superficial aspect of the economics and statistics. Niall Ferguson is the *perfect* ambassador to this group. I am not saying they are not smart. I am saying with extremely busy, dual-income, prepschool kid lifestyles, they just don’t have the time or care to seep through everything else.

      Another analogy may be Whole Foods (and honestly, why wouldn’t you love it). That is nicely-packaged, good environment, based on sometimes good data but *well* exaggerated, with a dose of hypocrisy too. To Niall Ferguson’s audience, taking the virtues of Whole Foods at face value is more likely. It’s part of another appeal (not necessarily class-based).

      I guess my point is, NF has a lot going for him that set him apart from the professor in an overlarge suit. I haven’t thought much about this, only after reading this post. When I was reading the book, my outrage was almost natural. But that’s because I’m quite inundated in the sphere of media where people like Niall Ferguson, Tom Friedman, and David Brooks are huge no-nos.

      This is why Mankiw, and especially Krugman, strike me as so successful. To the some in the first group – the affluent ones etc. – calling Krugman a hack is not uncommon. I have friends whose parents fall in this category, and I read the stuff they do, and beneath all that is this “he’s so predictable”. But that is because they read his columns but not blogs. Krugman still has an amazing following among everybody (million + followers on Twitter), but he is unique in that he is probably quite a bit more respected among the blogger types etc. Mankiw evokes similar reactions, if on a lower scale. Liberals in the former category see him associated with the Bush-theme of tax cuts and all whereas those in the latter group are more likely to see him as a scholar.

      That, I think, is the distinction. Niall Ferguson succeeds as an ambassador, Krugman and/or Mankiw as champions of a field from within. (You can argue that Krugman is also incredibly successful in the former position, but far more polarizing).

      • Ashok Rao says:

        For an example, just look at the way these Morning Joe anchors – who are epitome for the first grp of educated listeners – are blindsided by NF: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9slquoIuPC8

        Noam Chomsky I think said that the country is divided into 80% that don’t care and 20 minus epsilon % that care in the sense I described. They read the New York Times, and other such publications, but from a superficial level.

        My guess is having the command of the members of your party in that 20% is key for top politicians in terms of juicy donations. (The million + donors don’t belong to this group, probably, but their inner circle of acquaintances and friends do).

        I watch HBO’s Realtime w/ Bill Maher and a week or three ago Niall Ferguson was a panelist. He dominated. And his presence + accent are to blame, with the “Harvard” that appears right under.

        Overall, a lot of speculating and baseless hypothesizing on my part. I should find a way to mark my predictions to market.

        • Andrew says:

          Interesting. I don’t have a TV, so perhaps I vastly underestimate the effect of TV presence on the success of a public intellectual.

  5. Steve Sailer says:

    Ferguson got in a lot of trouble over his remark about Keynes in large part because most pundits have forgotten about the purpose of the Bloomsbury coterie.

    I wrote the only known defense of both Keynes and Ferguson:

    http://www.vdare.com/articles/despite-the-global-gasping-niall-ferguson-has-had-a-point-about-keynes

  6. Mr.Ed. says:

    perhaps ferguson means or meant to write “The top ten *institutional* reasons included” ?

    not that i have read the book (nor most people commenting here i suspect…), but it may be clear from the context…

    • Rahul says:

      Here’s a link to the paper. Gated unfortunately.

      http://hbr.org/2012/03/choosing-the-united-states/ar/1

      I’d love to read and find if the HBS conclusions are indeed at odds with the crux of what Ferguson says or merely Ashok Rao’s possibly tendentious interpretation.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      It’s pretty easy in Microsoft Word to enumerate a list when it should be bullet-pointed. My guess from the vast number of books Ferguson churns out that intensive proof-reading is not a high priority.

      Also, let’s keep in mind that large numbers of terrorists want to assassinate Ferguson’s new wife and mother of his fourth child as a Muslim apostate, so he’s probably feeling pretty passionate these days about things, which no doubt cut into his scholarly even-handedness. Here’s the Wiki page on the new Mrs. Ferguson:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayaan_Hirsi_Ali

  7. Frank S says:

    There is an astonishing level of ill-will here. Why? What class of toes has Ferguson stood on that he can be compared unfavourably with someone like Krugman? The latter is comfortably within the left-leaning establishment that seems to dominate academia in the USA, whereas the former is not. He needs more courage to speak out, and I get the impression he has a lot of it. I for one am encouraged to read more of his work after glancing through this post and its comments.

    • Rahul says:

      I agree about the ill-will. I’m no Ferguson fan, but isn’t “shreds the latest book” a bit of a hyperbole based on evidence contrary to one single paragraph of the book?

      Even if Ferguson totally botched page 100 that’s hardly damning evidence of him being a hack. Unless you start with very strong priors, of course.

      • Andrew says:

        Rahul:

        What you call “priors,” I call “data.” You can search this blog (or the web more generally) on “Niall Ferguson” for more. Over the years, the guy seems to have made a conscious choice to misrepresent, to write things the way he wants them to be rather than the way they are, and I think it’s just sad.

        Frank:

        Forget about left and right. As I wrote above, Paul Krugman = Greg Mankiw, and Niall Ferguson = Michael Moore. Not exactly, of course, but my impression is that Krugman and Mankiw have strong partisan views but respect the evidence, whereas Ferguson and Moore are willing to misrepresent the facts. I agree that in a sense this takes courage: Ferguson has shown a willingness over the years to torch his own reputation as a scholar in order to advance his political agenda.

        It also may take courage for Ferguson to use schoolyard taunts in front of an audience of adults when he mocked Keynes for being gay and marrying a ballerina, but this is not the sort of courage I admire.

        And it may take courage for Ferguson to read an academic paper and then misrepresent its results for a popular audience, but this is not the sort of courage I admire.

        But, as I wrote at the end of my post above, I admire in some way that Ferguson’s political commitments are apparently so strong that he’s willing to violate the usual rules of scholarly behavior (to report your sources accurately and not to mislead (see discussion of his Newsweek article from last year, linked above)) in order to advance his agenda. This is a step that Greg Mankiw and Paul Krugman are not willing to take. They are committed partisans, but they follow the rules of scholarship. I can certainly understand that people such as Ferguson and Moore feel that scholarly ethics is nothing compared to the goal of changing opinions on the vital issues of the day.

        • Citywalker says:

          Niall Ferguson and Michael Moore are entertainers, that’s what they have in common. They are professional “personalities.”
          Andrew, I think you have conflated shamelessness and courage :-)

        • Steve Sailer says:

          Ferguson’s domestic situation hardly affords him the emotional distance to be a full time objective scholar. Here’s the Wikipedia intro to Mrs. Ferguson:

          Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Dutch pronunciation: [ɑˈjaːn ˈɦirsi ˈaːli] ( listen); full name: Ayaan Hirsi Magan Isse Guleid Ali Wai’ays Muhammad Ali Umar Osman Mahamud; Somali: Ayaan Xirsi Cali; Arabic: أيان حرسي علي‎ / ALA-LC: Ayān Ḥirsī ‘Alī) (born 13 November 1969) is a Somali-Dutch-American feminist and atheist activist, writer and politician who is known for her views critical of female genital mutilation and Islam. She wrote the screenplay for Theo van Gogh’s movie Submission, after which she and the director both received death threats, and the director was murdered. The daughter of the Somali politician and opposition leader Hirsi Magan Isse, she is a founder of the women’s rights organisation the AHA Foundation.[2]

          When she was eight, Hirsi Ali’s family left Somalia for Saudi Arabia, then Ethiopia, and eventually settled in Kenya. She sought and obtained political asylum in the Netherlands in 1992, under circumstances that later became the centre of a political controversy. In 2003 she was elected a member of the House of Representatives (the lower house of the Dutch parliament), representing the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). A political crisis surrounding the potential stripping of her Dutch citizenship led to her resignation from the parliament, and led indirectly to the fall of the second Balkenende cabinet[3][4] in 2006.

          In 2005, she was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.[5] She has also received several awards, including a free speech award from the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten,[6] the Swedish Liberal Party’s Democracy Prize,[7] and the Moral Courage Award for commitment to conflict resolution, ethics, and world citizenship.[8] In 2006 she published a memoir. The English translation in 2007 is titled Infidel.[9] As of 2013 Hirsi Ali is a fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, a member of the The Future of Diplomacy Project at the Belfer Center, and lives in the United States.[10][11] She is married to British historian and public commentator Niall Ferguson. She became a naturalized citizen of the United States on April 25, 2013.[12]

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayaan_Hirsi_Ali

      • Ashok Rao says:

        I’ll leave it to others to decide whether what I wrote was effective, but the mistakes went well beyond page 100. For example, he completely misrepresented Adam Smith’s ideas, a common thread throughout the book. Readers are led to believe America fares poorly by World Bank standards and that “Hong Kong” fares better and even European countries do better. Except that America is #4.

        As far as I’m concerned, totally botching evidence like that is evidence of hackery, because he doesn’t just damage his own reputation. He damages the cause of social scientists in general. It shows he does not care about scholarly standards. It is his responsibility as a member of the academic establishment to be honest.

        I encourage you to read the book. I probably agree with more of his prescriptions than you think (though not nearly all). I just know the argument could have been phrased in an honest manner. There is a lot in what I write that an honest free marketer could say without going back on his previous positions. IT’s not about ill-will, or “priors” – just data and fact.

        • Rahul says:

          >>>he completely misrepresented Adam Smith’s ideas<<<

          For someone like Adam Smith, there's probably many different ways to interpret his ideas.

          Of course, you can always say that *you* don't agree with Ferguson's particular interpretation. But that's a disagreement and not a factual nor logical error.

          • Ashok Rao says:

            Did Adam Smith believe all countries would eventually reach a “stationary state” ? Simple yes/no question.

            Let’s see. “The division of labor is limited by the extent of the market”. Also know that A Smith largely ignored scientific advancements (some of his biggest admirers see this as a large, if understandable, flaw).

            But if that leaves too much interpretation for you, how about: “labourers, and those who do not labour at all, are all equally maintained by the annual produce of the land and labour of the country. This produce, how great soever, can never be infinite, but must have certain limits”

            “In a country which had acquired that full complement of riches which the nature of its soil and climate, and its situation with respect to other countries allowed it to acquire; which could, therefore, advance no further, and which was not going backwards, both the wages of labour and the profits of stock would probably be very low”

            This is not interpretation. If NF wants to challenge the most widely accepted interpretation (and it is so for clear reason, see above) he should explain what it is, and why it is wrong. That is another book altogether. No – all he wants to do is borrow A Smith’s name and bring some nice words out of context. Same with J S Mill who said: “the increase of wealth is not boundless. The end of growth leads to a stationary state. The stationary state of capital and wealth… would be a very considerable improvement on our present condition.”

            Classical economists – most of them – saw stationarity of wealth as an inevitability. Some (Mill) as good. Others (Smith) as “dull”. But none as something that had to do with bad institutions or whatever NF wants us to believe.

            Again, there are many, many passages from WoN that NF could have used to his point (except for the fact that, well, it’s written in 1776… and ignores science completely – but that’s just me, so ignore this). But it didn’t fit with the flow he was looking for. I mean how nice it is to talk about the “eerie similarities” to Smith’s deadly “stationary state” when you’re trying to please readers, right?

        • Rahul says:

          Ashok Rao says: “I probably agree with more of his prescriptions than you think (though not nearly all). I just know the argument could have been phrased in an honest manner”

          You know, that is deliciously ironic because, me OTOH, I agree with a lot of Andrew’s and your conclusions about Ferguson (him being not so great).

          What I *don’t* agree with is the strength of your particular criticism here, and Andrew’s subsequent enthusiastic endorsement of it (he probably got carried away because of his strong, and perhaps valid, priors).

          • Ashok Rao says:

            The “than you think” is doing a lot of work in my claim precisely because you think my claim is too strong.

            I, unfortunately, have no way of really disagreeing or agreeing with what you say, because most of the people who have reacted to this post (right wingers included) probably don’t have great “priors” about NF. However, here is a tweet from @aclassicalliberal – who is a strong conservative – in response to Gelman’s blog: “@AshokRao95 its really sad. Niall Ferguson has gone full Paul Krugman. I’m deeply upset. Why? @StatModeling”.

            I know for a fact that he has strong priors in NF’s *favor* as one of the few historians not swayed by liberal, apologizing, dogma. You may fault me for the way I ended my post, and maybe that’s fair I don’t know, but I think I mark the strength of my criticism very closely to specific, indisputable discrepancies between what he says, and what… well… is.

            This is only one person, but does question the idea that only people who already disliked NF can see my post, and AG’s subsequent remarks, as fair.

  8. Steve Sailer says:

    By the way, my only interaction with Dr. Ferguson was an email exchange after I read his book “The War of the World,” in which I offered a different and unsettling perspective for explaining the events he covered. I was surprised that for such a busy man with such a need to maintain a mainstream political stance to keep getting invited to give speeches, that he was most generous with his time and we carried on rather a long discussion in which he defended his views and considered mine, which opened up new areas he hadn’t considered, in good faith. I was impressed.

    • Ashok Rao says:

      That speaks very highly of him. There is no doubt about it – if he can command $50,000 for a lecture, and he spent even twenty minutes considering your thoughts and writing back… well, you can do the math…

      • Steve Sailer says:

        I was making a critique of his book that he had never heard before, and Ferguson became interested and spent an hour or two coming to understand it.

  9. Brad Stiritz says:

    Andrew,

    >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.

    I think reasonable people can disagree on whether or not Paul Krugman is a hack. The OED defines the word as follows: “Anything that is in indiscriminate and everyday use, and is ‘hackneyed’ or deprived of novelty & interest by such use.. [also] Applied to persons”

    I don’t think anyone, even PK himself, would seriously argue that his viewpoints on economic stimulus vs. austerity haven’t become utterly predictable, repetitive & lacking in respect for opposing perspectives. What was it he said about “This Time is Different”..? Something like “I didn’t believe a word of it.” I know you take a dim view of the book as well, but come on, you can’t say that it has zero value or credibility.

    PK’s recent broadsides against David Stockman’s new book are likewise cartoonish. PK ridicules it as “cranky old man stuff”, which I would characterize as a pretty despicable way to treat someone who did a tremendous amount of careful research & presentation. PK stooped to name-calling in this case, it’s as simple as that.

    I certainly respect, in a deep & sincere way, anyone who demonstrates high intelligence & clear thinking. That includes everyone named above & you as well, Andrew. But this sort-of bloodsport attitude that Paul (among many others) takes towards perceived political enemies reflects very poorly on him as an academic “seeker-of-truth”. I think this is your general point about Niall Ferguson.

    As I understand PK’s worldview & politics, everything is up for grabs & up for sacrifice in the name of maximum employment. While this is a laudable if naive principle, I’m sure you of all people, as a statistician & political scientist, know very well that there are very solid arguments against making this into a be-all-end-all shibboleth to distinguish friend from foe. There’s a kind of smell-test that PK fails badly, in setting himself up as an intellectual & rational standard-keeper, economically speaking. From his exceptionally exclusive institution, he’s too glib lecturing everyone in the outside world on how *they* need to ever-lower their standards (or cheapen their currency, spend their savings, etc) for the sake of all. Arguably a bit hypocritical, I would say.