It Is Not Just John Maynard Keynes, It Is Milton Friedman Who Is Being Thrown Over the Side
links for 2010-10-21

Why oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Yet Another Atlantic Monthly Edition)


Henry Farrell on Clive Crook:

Expertise — Crooked Timber: Clive Crook on his blog today

idolizing experts and disdaining the supposedly ignorant masses is at least as dangerous. The intelligent use of experts is not straightforward. Technical expertise tends to be narrow, sometimes extremely narrow. Many policy-oriented experts are only too pleased to exceed their limits, pronouncing widely and authoritatively on matters they understand hardly any better than non-experts.

My immediate reaction while reading this was that even if the underlying claim is right, it still sounds a bit rich when it comes from someone whose paid job is every week to pronounce widely and authoritatively on matters where he does not possess any obvious expertise. And then I read the next sentence.

Economists and climate scientists spring instantly to mind.

Most readers of Crooked Timber are probably unaware of the little spot of bother that Crook got into over climate science a couple of months ago....

I have no direct knowledge of the intervening discussions which led to Crook publishing rather substantially amended versions of his original posts some weeks later. But whatever their motivations, they represent a quite remarkable volte face. This bit in particular presents a striking contrast....

I am not competent to discuss the science, and do not pretend to be. But here is what I see when I read the “trick” email and then the Penn State report. An explanation is required. The report offers only half an explanation: “trick” means “statistical method”. No contrary opinions are sought or heard. On this basis the report finds “no substance” in the criticism.

Suggestions that it is hard to ‘keep a straight face’ while entertaining the notion that climate scientists had meant the word ‘trick’ to refer to a statistical method and that Mann’s account “strains credulity” have been replaced with vaguely-worded platitudes about the “judgment calls” involved in dealing with data series that have gone funny in recent decades. The claim... that it is an ‘insult to one’s intelligence’ to suggest that the Climategate emailers were not being deliberately misleading has disappeared entirely.

I don’t know exactly why Crook climbed down in this abject fashion. To use his own term, these posts are “mealy-mouthed apologies,” albeit “mealy-mouthed apologies” of the kind that clearly had some considerable difficulty making it past the craw.... It is obvious to anyone who spends any time at all with statistically minded scientists (and social scientists) that they commonly use the term ‘trick’ in just the way that the reports suggest it was used. When a statistician talks about e.g. a clever statistical trick, they are usually not suggesting that they want to lie with numbers, and you are likely to get very confused if you think that they are.

Hence, Crook’s imputation that the “trick” was surely employed toward dishonest ends, was not only potentially libelous, but a clear demonstration that he simply didn’t know what he’s talking about. He had no expertise on the topic, and under his own rules, should have shut up about it. If he had, it would have spared him some considerable embarrassment.

Summing up, I can certainly understand why Crook has an animus against climate scientists. I can even understand why, in some intellectually confused fashion, he links discussions of climate science to the question of what happens when people pronounce confidently on topics where they have no legitimate expertise, and suffer the painful consequences. But his memory seems to be malfunctioning. It wasn’t the climate scientists who got their arses handed back to them on a plate. It was Clive Crook. I trust he’ll be grateful for the reminder.