Sunday, November 12, 2006

When Experts Wing It

The authors of the paper on heritability of political beliefs, which I commented on below, are poli-sci professors. I downloaded batches of their papers online, having to do with studies and experiments about decision-making, leadership, composition of the US Congress, etc. I always admire the caution I see in professional papers: warnings about small sample sizes, possible alternative interpretations, careful elucidations of necessary assumtions, and the like. What I read in these papers is much the same, with a notable exception.

When the experts wing it, and talk about matters related to their research but not (visibly) affecting the results, they sound just like everyone else, just with better vocabulary. They have the same biases or prejudices as the public as a whole. In this case, they lean left.

One first interpretation of this would be to ask "Well, AVI, if poli-sci professors lean left, maybe that should tell you something. They study these things all the time. Perhaps they lean left because the liberals are correct, and their expertise allows them to see that." I actually do have some sympathy for this view. I have noted before that I would readily defer to the seminary professors and denominational leaders in many matters - if their logic were not so demonstrably bad. Bill James, the baseball statistician, gives the example of a scout or a manager making an evaluation of a player, versus what the statistician sees. If they gave their answers in terms of what would reasonably be their expertise, what choice would I have but to accept their judgement? If the manager claimed that he liked a kid's swing and how he adjusted to pitches, liked his reactions in the field, and didn't care what his batting average is, I could accept that. But managers don't say that. They say things like "well, he hit thirty homers, and we need power." They make a statistical argument. And the statistician knows that besides the 30 homers, the player in question brings very little to the table. He doesn't hit for average or hit many doubles, draws a below-average number of walks, and is a defensive liability. I have that same experience when reading, say, Tony Campolo. The appeal to authority is that they have made the application of the Scriptures their life's work and have the right to generalize. Then they go and advocate for increasing the minimum wage on shaky economic grounds, because y'know, Jesus was for the poor, not the rich. And this minimum wage thing does that, y'see.

I had that experience while reading the articles as well. An example:
Not long ago, Congress initiated an investigation that in 1980 the Reagan campaign team undertook steps to delay the release of the hostages in Iran in order to deny Jimmy Carter an "October surprise." Conclusive evidence for these charges was not forthcoming, but the fact that they were taken seriously by serious people is instructive. (Emphasis mine)

William F. Buckley might chucklingly use the same phrase as the one emphasised above as an understated and even facetious way of saying that there was in fact no evidence forthcoming, and the group responsible for the accusations, the Christic Institute, turned out to be a nest of insane conspirazoids. "Yes, we might safely say that conclusive evidence for these charges was not forthcoming. Heh." Thus the seriousness of those "serious people" is in question. To note mildly that "conclusive evidence for these charges was not forthcoming" borders on dishonesty.

Or again,
Politicians as recent as Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush (41. ed) have been accused of going to war for electoral reasons.

Technically true, I suppose. All three were accused of lots of things. By their political opponents, notably.

Or in a third place,
In the 1990's, a Democratic president (Bill Clinton) transformed welfare to workfare; then in the 2000's, his Republican successor (George W. Bush) greatly expanded federal involvement in both education and the provision of prescription drugs for seniors. If the enactors of the policies were reversed. the groups of citizens displaying support for the policies would also have been reversed...(Emphasis mine)

Really. My memory is that the Republicans forced Clinton into welfare reform over the objections of his base, and conservative Republicans were (and are) furious at Bush over exactly those two things.
...Similarly, if a Republican president had committed adultery with with a young intern, or if a Democratic president had dramatically worsened the deficit and taken the country to war in a far-off land on the basis of undeniably incorrect beliefs about the opponents' nuclear and chemical weapons capabilities, the positions of most voters on the acceptability of these positions would be completely reversed.

For such dramatic claims, some evidence might be in order.

What Profs Hibbings and Alford give is a common point of view. It is in fact, the Democratic point of view, delivered here in an academic paper with whatever weight and authority such things carry. The Republican point of view would suggest that misleading a grand jury was at issue with Clinton, that the deficit is equally in Clinton's lap or more (I have discussed the two-year delay in evaluating a president's effect on the economy, because as of his inauguration he has had no effect whatsoever and economies respond slowly), and that the prosecution of this war from start to present has been about the same as any other war as to mistakes, with the notable exception that a lot fewer people are dying.

You might disbelieve the more Republican POV, as I imagine my 25% liberal readership does. You might have evidence of your own that the Democrats' POV is more accurate. The point is that it is an opinion, with little place in an academic paper unless significant supporting evidence were added.

When experts wing it, they are no smarter than the rest of us.


bs king said...

To take that to another field, this happens a stunning amount in the medical community as well. Due to my vegan eating habits, I've gotten in to some interesting conversations with doctors and nurses about nutrition, and am constantly reminded that your average doctor only gets 4 hours of nutrition training in their whole career. Two of my favorites: comments/questions:
"Beans have protein in them?"
"But milk is the only food that has calcium in it!"
Those were both from 4th year medical residents.
As the doctor David Sehran-Schreiber once put it "You have to have a medical degree to be brainwashed enough to believe that food does not have a major impact on physical and emotional health. For most people, its importance goes completely without saying."

Not political I know, but it annoys me, so I thought I'd share.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

There are some things so stupid, only an intellectual could believe them.
George Orwell