Off Topic: An Age of Empiricism? Let's See Some Numbers.

This is the first of what promises to be many short essays on topics not related to the transpacific triangle. I’ll cut them off after their introductions to spare uninterested readers the details.

John O. McGinnis, a law professor at Northwestern (whom I’ve never met), writes over the summer in Policy Review that “we are on the cusp of a golden age of social science empiricism that will help bring a greater measure of agreement on the consequences of public policy.”

It’s a bold statement. Reasonably, I think, I expected it to be backed by some empirical evidence. Alas, I was disappointed.

First, he argues that Moore’s Law—the notion that computer chips will double in speed every two years (McGinnis repeats a common misquote and says it’s 18 months)—will solve the problem of dealing with huge data sets, what McGinnis calls the “Achilles’ heel of empiricism.” McGinnis asserts without evidence that Moore’s law, a rough approximation that has approximately held since Moore came up with it, will “persist for at least another 15 years.” It certainly may hold for another decade and a half, but where’s the empirical evidence? There is only probability and speculation when predicting the future.

Along with Moore’s Law, McGinnis writes that blogs and “information markets” will usher in this age of empiricism.

“Blogs help police and expose false studies with which interest groups and partisans may attempt to counter the empirical work that undermines the factual bases of their positions,” he writes. Appealing to academic experts, whom he says both regularly blog (survey evidence?) and are more able than reporters to apply scrutiny to studies (I agree, but prove it). Academic debates are indeed democratizing online. Someone like me, for instance, can listen in on message boards and blogging communities run by experts in a field. But what about the blog medium makes it more useful for what amounts to peer review? Unless we’re ready to hear untrained and unempirical arguments, peer review might even be better.

Nonetheless, if an academic takes to the internet to denounce a politically motivated and unreliable study, wouldn’t the politicians behind the study attack the academic as partisan? The question then becomes: Who will have time to come to the defense of every academic who is roped into partisan political debates? I suspect few will rise to the unpleasant occasion. McGinnis certainly provides no evidence to dissuade me.

While McGinnis appeals to an academic elite to police information via blogs, he appeals to an economic elite to vote with their wallets. Information markets, such as the online betting systems that tend to do a good job predicting the outcome of presidential elections, will only de-empiricize the judgment of data—after all, people only bet on who’s going to win, not who’s right.

[McGinnis goes on to make some politically charged claims about affirmative action and the political leanings of academics, which I will not address here because they are discussed in a lively way elsewhere, including by my employer. I withhold judgment for, yes, lack of data on these questions, but I have published my personal opinion about the fate of Ward Churchill at University of Colorado, Boulder, here.]

He ticks off a laundry list of instances in which studies appearing to support typically liberal positions did not stand up to empirical scrutiny: a flawed study on charter schools, Michael Bellesiles’ resignation and loss of the Bancroft Prize after a controversy surrounding his book on gun ownership in colonial America, and lastly Marx and Engels, whom McGinnis writes “would not have withstood the light of empirical scrutiny.” He neglects to mention the numerous examples of flawed social science published in support of conservative policies. The omission is anti-empirical, a common rhetorical device in political debates.

Some issues, he admits, are just too partisan to be dealt with empirically. Abortion rights, for one, is “an unusual issue in this respect, because it divides citizens on the metaphysical questions of when life begins,” he writes. In other words, people fundamentally disagree.

Empiricism can only form consensus in society when social goals are commonly held. At the outset of the essay, McGinnis writes that “politically, most people within the modern industrial society adhere to a rather narrow range of values, at least in the economic realm. They favor more prosperity, better education and health care, and other such goods that make for a flourishing life.”

Do we all favor the same kind of prosperity? One person might prioritize a more equitable distribution of prosperity among U.S. citizens over a national GDP increase. Others might conversely value an increase in their own prosperity, regardless of the consequences for others. Still others might advocate a more equitable distribution of wealth among people of the world. I know people with each of these views, and it is doubtful that empiricism will solve this cleavage of values. I do value empirical evidence, however, and McGinnis would have been wise to use some in his essay.

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