Friday, January 23, 2015

Double bonus false-equivalence points at the New York Times

Reading this David Leonhardt piece (Letter From the Editor: Marriage, and When Liberals Are Wrong) is like watching the Three Stooges working in a hardware store -- Here's where he steps on the rake. Here's where he drops the anvil on his foot. Here's where he walks into the buzz saw -- but with the crucial difference that the Stooges at least had some glimmer of awareness after the injury (even Curly would get up off of the stove when his pants started to smoke). Leonhardt doesn't seem to realize there's anything wrong.

The rake --  "[H]appiness research is a mess"

The safe thing for a journalist to say about these dueling views is that they’re both partly correct. And they are! Yet that’s also an incomplete statement. To be blunter, I’d say that family structure is an area where many liberals are putting more weight on their preconceptions (inequality is bad for society) than on the evidence (changes in family structure are both an effect and a cause of inequality).

My colleague Claire Cain Miller’s widely read piece this week on a new study of marriage is another reminder of this fact, I think. The researchers who wrote the paper set out to figure out whether marriage actually promotes happiness or whether married people are happier simply because happier people tend to get and stay married. The data point to the first conclusion: Marriage (or long-term partnership) causes a noticeable and lasting increase in life satisfaction, especially among people who consider their spouse to be their best friend.

There may be no single word in social science research that makes the statistically literate more cautious than "happiness."

It has no standard definition, let alone an operational one. It is difficult to measure, subject to all sorts of selection effects, and colored by expectations. The metrics are vulnerable to framing and other extraneous factors. The data are always confounded. Virtually all attempts at causal inference have to be buried in countless caveats and conditions.

(Dean Baker spells out some of these concerns here, particularly involving survivorship bias)

Even if everything that followed in the piece went well, any conclusions drawn from this data would still be suspect, and as mentioned earlier, what follows doesn't go well at all.

The Anvils (one for each foot)

Having started out with this questionable foundation and made some big causal leaps, Leonhardt then finds himself arguing that "liberals are wrong" on a position that no actual liberal seems to hold, at least none that the author can find. The best he can do is to argue that liberals blame many social problems on inequality and "Life satisfaction isn’t the same thing as inequality, but they’re related." Throw marriage equality into the discussion and the argument for liberals taking the marriage-does-not-lead-to-happiness position is even weaker.

Having smashed one toe, Leonhardt then goes looking for another anvil to knock over.
We should also be willing to say when we think liberals don’t have a claim on the evidence — such as when they argue that education is overrated (but still send their own children to expensive colleges)... 
Just to be clear, the links indicate that Leonhardt is talking about college education. Liberal attitudes toward the role of K through 12 education are complex and you might be able to make at least an interesting argument for some of them underrating that part of the process but with college he runs into the same problem of not being able to come up with any liberals who hold what he suggests is the typical liberal position.

To appreciate fully the journalistic slapstick here, you need to follow the links. The first goes to a piece by EPI research associate Richard Rothstein, the second to another post by Leonhardt.
There are a couple of problems here: first, with no disrespect intended for Mr. Rothstein, if you are going to argue for a liberal consensus on an issue and you are only providing one example, it needs to be someone quite a bit more prominent; second, and more serious, Rothstein's position in no way contradicts Leonhardt's.

Here's the key paragraph from the Rothstein article:
Colleges and other educational institutions can influence which students get the more highly-skilled jobs that are available. But colleges and other educational institutions cannot, to a significant extent, affect the number of jobs that are available – highly skilled or otherwise.
And here are a couple of passages from Leonhardt's article.
A new set of income statistics answers those questions quite clearly: Yes, college is worth it, and it’s not even close. For all the struggles that many young college graduates face, a four-year degree has probably never been more valuable.

The pay gap between college graduates and everyone else reached a record high last year, according to the new data, which is based on an analysis of Labor Department statistics by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. Americans with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more an hour on average in 2013 than people without a degree. That’s up from 89 percent five years earlier, 85 percent a decade earlier and 64 percent in the early 1980s. 
I find the data from the Economic Policy Institute especially telling because the institute — a left-leaning research group — makes a point of arguing that education is not the solution to all of the economy’s problems. That is important, too. College graduates, like almost everyone else, are suffering from the economy’s weak growth and from the disproportionate share of this growth flowing to the very richest households.
Keep in mind, these aren't just some articles pulled from the archives; these are what Leonhardt himself links to as support for his contention that liberals claim that education is overrated despite the evidence.

And it gets worse. To find someone who actually espouses this "liberal" position, you need to follow through the links in Leonhardt's earlier article. Those will bring you to this:
"For an increasing number of kids, the extra time and money spent pursuing a college diploma will leave them worse off than they were before they set foot on campus," Megan McArdle concluded in a Newsweek cover story last fall. Peter Thiel, the billionaire PayPal co-founder, has been paying smart undergraduates to drop out and start working on something, anything, other than college.
At the risk of belaboring the obvious, in this chain of articles, the two people who come closest to taking the "liberal" position are McArdle and Silicon Valley's favorite pro-monopoly, anti-suffrage Galt-wannabe.

The buzz saw -- offsetting penalties

There is no better way of setting up a gag been combining smug self-congratulation and utter cluelessness.
When we started The Upshot last year, we said that one of our goals would be to avoid false equivalence. When we thought one side of a debate had more claim on the evidence — even when that side didn’t have a complete claim on the evidence — we would say so. In recent years, there have been more than a few policy debates in which liberals have had this greater claim on the evidence — climate change, tax increases on the affluent, Federal Reserve policy or health care. As journalists, we should be willing to say so. We should also be willing to say when we think liberals don’t have a claim on the evidence — such as when they argue that education is overrated (but still send their own children to expensive colleges) or when they argue that marriage isn’t very important.
You have to wonder what definition Leonhardt is using here. For most of us, the expression "false equivalency" refers to the practice of falsely equating things that are dissimilar, particularly in magnitude. The most common form of this is the offsetting penalty. This occurs when journalists weasel out of blowback from a story that is critical of one side by finding something bad to say about the other. This allows the journalist to maintain an air of moral superiority and a reputation for taking tough stances while allowing the wrongdoers to almost completely evade any responsibility for their actions.

Leonhardt's whole piece is an exercise in false equivalence. The fact that he doesn't see that indicates that a level of arrogance and obliviousness that is remarkable even for the New York Times.

And that is a high bar to clear.

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