Nicholas Kristof has done some excellent reporting on the issues facing the developing world. But he is a case study in how reporting and analysis are not necessarily part of the same skill set. In Thursday’s column, Kristof writes (italics mine):
When I was in college, I majored in political science. But if I were going through college today, I’d major in economics. It possesses a rigor that other fields in the social sciences don’t — and often greater relevance as well. That’s why economists are shaping national debates about everything from health care to poverty, while political scientists often seem increasingly theoretical and irrelevant.
Economists are successful imperialists of other disciplines because they have better tools. Educators know far more about schools, but economists have used rigorous statistical methods to answer basic questions: Does having a graduate degree make one a better teacher? (Probably not.) Is money better spent on smaller classes or on better teachers? (Probably better teachers.)
Oh boy. If I hadn’t been barfing my guts out earlier this week, I would have hit the bar–at noon. Let’s leave aside the basic problem that Brad DeLong and Dean Baker have both discussed (with DeLong in the role of penitent)–most of the economics profession that was “shaping national debates” fundamentally missed the collapse of Big Shitpile and the ensuing economic pandimensional clusterfuck. Better tools, indeed.
No, this was the part that nearly drove me to drink:
Economists are successful imperialists of other disciplines because they have better tools. Educators know far more about schools, but economists have used rigorous statistical methods to answer basic questions.
You mean like value-added testing? A method so imprecise that estimates of teaching performance can range from utter failure to ‘grant her tenure’? Methods which, depending on the test used, can rank the same teacher in the top fifth of performers or the bottom? A method that concludes fifth grader teachers have significant effects on fourth grade performance–which means that either the methodological assumptions of the tests are violated or school systems are able to fundamentally alter space-time.
I don’t think Kristof is a bad guy (even if I don’t always agree with him). But if you’re going to argue for analytical superiority, you must have some statistical bona fides. Sadly, Kristof appears to be impressed by a lot of seemingly complex math (although much of it isn’t that complex once you know some math).
To top it all off, Kristof confuses statistics–which is a very useful thing to understand–with economists who use statistics (if not always wisely). There are plenty of other disciplines that uses statistics, such as biologists. And, of course, statisticians.
Better pundits please.