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How denialism works.

April 23, 2009, 9:17 am

The problem with Politico reporting of Amity Shlaes’s Forgotten Man that

Critics of the book, including economist Paul Krugman and historian Eric Rauchway, have challenged Shlaes’ use of data, noting, for example, that the unemployment statistics she uses do not count Works Progress Administration jobs. Shlaes defends her approach, arguing that make-work jobs are not evidence of economic growth and noting that President Barack Obama recently used the same data series she did in discussing unemployment during the Great Depression.

is not that it’s “they-said, she-said” journalism, but that it’s an inadequate representation of the truth. It’s not just Shlaes versus a famously shrill Nobelist and some dude at an ag university; it’s Shlaes versus the accepted academic consensus.

As previously noted, if you were a sufficiently honest and competent researcher located like Amity Shlaes near any number of world-class reference libraries simply out to find out the unemployment rate in the 1930s, you would not find the data Shlaes cites; you would find, in the authoritative reference work, an explanation of why it’s not best to cite the data Shlaes cites. Shlaes has to go out of her way to find other data.

Shlaes likes to pretend it’s the other way around—that she’s using authoritative data while Krugman and I are citing data from an old but (she graciously concedes) “useful” paper by Michael Darby. This is not true. Darby’s paper is the opening point in a decades-long process of scholarship that extends through published papers by several other economic historians including Robert Margo and David Weir that culminates in the authoritative reference work, Historical Statistics of the United States, publishing Weir’s series and not Shlaes’s preferred data. This is what academic work is supposed to accomplish: establish by research and the adversarial process of debate and peer review a consensus. Shlaes is defying it.

This may seem rather similar to the method used to deny that tobacco use causes cancer, or that human action promotes global warming: by making something seem complicated, by saying, well, there’s disagreement, Shlaes and other denialists undermine the entire academic enterprise.

I don’t know if they tried to call Krugman, but Politico left no evidence of trying to get in touch with me; if they had, I would happily have explained the above. Perhaps they’re content simply to flack for Shlaes.

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