• There’s a reason TIE is so focused

    There’s a really interesting post up by Peter Frase entitled, “The Perils of Wonkery”. He argues that we are relying, perhaps, too much on policy wonks. This comes, of course, from the news about Reinhart and Rogoff’s “errors”. Frase writes:

    As we now know, that graph was based on erroneous data marshaled in support of a logically flimsy premise. But while the data errors wouldn’t be revealed for months, not everyone was fooled. Matt Yglesias—a writer often lumped in with wonks like Klein— dismissed the Reinhart-Rogoff paper as “confused correlation-mongering”, on the grounds that the reverse causal story about debt ratios and growth was far more plausible. (Incidentally, the way Yglesias approached Reinhart and Rogoff’s claims demonstrates how poorly he fits the mode of the Ezra Klein-style wonk-journalist. In contrast to the wonky preoccupation with empirical studies and pretty graphs, Yglesias has argued that “evidence is overrated”, and he often offers positions based on his own ideological predilections and reasoning from first principles.)

    I felt my hackles rising. I think that arguing from principles and ignoring evidence is sometimes a bad idea. But I read further, and I’m glad I did:

    The function of the wonk is to translate the empirical findings of experts for the general public. And he is supposed to be distinguished by an immersion in the details of studies and policy papers. But if the wonk wants to cover a wide range of subjects, they will necessarily have far less expertise than the people whose findings are being conveyed. Hence it becomes necessary to make a concealed argument from authority. When Wonkblog presents the findings of Reinhart and Rogoff without comment, they are implicitly telling us, “trust these people—they’re famous academic economists”. This is because they don’t have the ability to do what people like Paul Krugman did, and actually assess the correctness of the famous economists’ claims.

    Performing this con on the public is dangerous enough. But insofar as the wonk gets high on his own supply, and starts to trust the findings of congenial academics without verifying, the temptation to take shortcuts can be overpowering. It’s easy to read the abstract and the conclusion of a paper and trumpet its findings, without looking too closely at whatever equations or models lie in between. This isn’t actually any more hardheaded than relying on one’s feelings, but it’s an appealing way to give one’s prejudices a fact-like veneer.

    People often ask me why our blog is so narrowly focused. I could, after all, offer my opinion on so many issues. But I recognize that I have a specific skill set as a pediatrician and health services researcher. I understand medical and health policy research. I get the methods, I know how this works, and I can read and discuss studies in the area about as well as anyone. That’s where my expertise ends, though

    When I read news in other areas, be it housing regulations, tax policy, or even non-health-related economic issues, I have to rely on others to translate for me. The original studies are sometimes above my understanding. There are a number I people I trust to give me the take-home points. But when it comes to translating medical and health literature, I don’t need (or necessarily trust) journalists. I can read the source material myself. I do, and I try to offer you my best opinion on it here.

    I am sometimes frustrated by what I see on cable news. Hosts will often turn to the same pundits to talk about all aspects of policy, regardless of its focus. I should never be booked to talk about the military, or about education reform, or about the space program. But if you’re going to talk about Medicaid, Medicare, or the ACA? Then I could very well be your guy. That’s not how the punditocracy works. You can just pick one and have him or her talk about anything. That’s problematic:

    As the policy wonk has risen in prestige, we seem to have reached the point where this entire class of commentators is highly susceptible to what I’ll call “Charlie Rose disease”. It’s a malady named for the host of the eponymous TV show, who has always impressed me with his ability to convey an impression of knowledge and gravitas to his viewer. If you watch his show and actually listen to him talk, you’ll quickly notice that Rose is a shallow thinker even by television standards, and generally quite ignorant about the things he interviews people about. But everything about him—from his face to his cadence to his posture to his austere black-background set to having his show on public television—works together to produce the image of intellectual seriousness, even more than for most TV news hosts.

    And so it is with the wonk—he needs to appear to be deeply knowledgeable about a wide range of obscure and technical subjects. But this entails concealing both one’s ideological biases and one’s substantive lack of knowledge, and relying on the borrowed prestige of academics and experts. In doing so, the wonk becomes the conduit for the experts, or more exactly a crucial means by which their authority is reproduced. The wonk takes the expert’s pronouncements at face value because they are serious, mainstream figures, and the fact that journalists do this reinforces their seriousness and mainstream-ness.

    Like Austin, my primary goal is not to become famous or become a pundit. It’s to deliver you the best, evidence based information on health and health policy that I can. I’m comfortable in that area. I don’t claim to be infallible, but I think I’m pretty qualified, and I have an enormous track record on this blog by which you can judge my credibility.

    This is where TIE chooses to play. It’s where we shine. And I think that we all might be better served if more wonks chose to narrow their focus towards the areas in which they are specifically knowledgeable.


    Comments closed
    • Your goal may be to deliver the best evidence based information about health policy, but facts by themselves make no sense. To have any meaning, they need to be tied together into a theory. One of the annoying aspects of this blog is the lack of any explicit statement about your theory or philosophy (maybe there is one, but I haven’t found it).

      Without an explicit statement, readers are left to infer that the contributors to TIE are simply supporters of big government who have little respect for freedom. For example, the idea of placing 315 million people under the thumb of a central authority for healthcare doesn’t appear to be the least bit disagreeable to anyone at TIE.

      As Peter Frase points out, wonk people are not very open about their ideological orientation. Perhaps it’s time for TIE contributors to reject the standard approach and explicitly outline the theory they’re operating under. Maybe in a FAQ?

      • You’re making an absurd (and apparently ideologically based) argument that one’s political or ideological leanings affect the facts.

        If Aaron posts a series of tables of data points (that are independently verifiable) I don’t need to know who he votes for or even what he thinks the solution may be to come to conclusions on my on own, nor are his philosophical leanings likely to affect my conclusions. Yet many here repeatedly argue that the facts as he (and others) present cannot be right because they don’t align with the complainants beliefs.

        To suggest the facts are meaningless unless you know his ideology is even more absurd.

      • It always startles me that people believe everyone must have an underlying ideological orientation. And, perhaps it is true that many or most people do. But it need not be true. And, I have asserted many times, it is not true of me. I know it’s hard to believe. But, prove me wrong! I assert my writing supports my claim.

        • We learn and consider the facts so that we can develop a coherent view of the universe. Everyone has some understanding of how the things work – what is yours?

        • “It always startles me that people believe everyone must have an underlying ideological orientation. And, perhaps it is true that many or most people do. But it need not be true. And, I have asserted many times, it is not true of me. I know it’s hard to believe. But, prove me wrong! I assert my writing supports my claim.”

          A claim that you have no ideological priors whatsoever that have any bearing on the manner in which you select, process, and draw conclusions from the health care literature can’t be what you mean here because it would be so clearly false.

          My interpretation of what you are claiming in the above passage is that in the aggregate, your priors don’t necessarily align with a particular political ideology, which is a much more reasonable and defensible claim.

          If you really want to subject your priors to open source scrutiny, the “Thankful for Insurance” post would be a great place to start. I’m not stating that your ideological pre-commitments are better or worse than anyone elses – they may be exquisitely praiseworthy in every detail – but they are certainly quite evident in that post.

          • “My interpretation of what you are claiming in the above passage is that in the aggregate, your priors don’t necessarily align with a particular political ideology, which is a much more reasonable and defensible claim.”

            Sure. Go with that.

            As for insurance. I can imagine a counterfactual world where we don’t have any or none that resemble what exists today and in which I’m equally happy. Transport me there and we’re good.

    • From paper:

      “Obsessing over the analytical missteps in this paper reeks of the preoccupation with having correct and empirically supported arguments, while ignoring the importance of power and ideology. ”

      Kinda reminds me of this.

      Maybe he made some good points. I could not read past the sentence above though. Maybe I am misinterpreting his message.

    • “For example, the idea of placing 315 million people under the thumb of a central authority for healthcare doesn’t appear to be the least bit disagreeable to anyone at TIE.”

      Will I guess making up your own “facts” is one option.

    • As a reader, I’m deeply appreciative of this approach. This is one of the blogs I recommend most to people.

      I’m not an expert in health care and never will be, but it’s such a vital part of the future of our country that as a citizen I’m hungry for thoughtful expert opinion. This blog does a great job of giving me an informed take that isn’t dumbed down, and isn’t written by a general-audience reporter, hungry for pageviews, who will only spent a couple of years on a health-care beat.

      Thanks so much for taking the time, and for keeping things focused.

      • I heartily agree. I rely on this blog to keep me up with real information on health care, like I rely on Krugman for overall economic macro, Lawyers Guns & Money for labor history and legal education and Eschaton just because he is willing to put a name to the wanker of the day.

        Its very important to me to have a trusted voice that can translate for areas outside of my expertise, which are oh so numerous.

    • Contrary to a previous comment, I did not suggest that political ideology determines facts (although it obviously will determine which facts get published). Rather, I simply pointed out that disembodied facts are meaningless. We gather and study the facts in order to understand how the world works, which means developing theories based on the facts.

      TIE claims to study healthcare with “an eye on reform.” That implies an understanding of our current system, an understanding of the defects in our system, and a view of what healthcare should look like (all based on the facts, of course). Okay, just what are these understandings? Why are TIE contributors reluctant to explicitly state how they view the world (based on the facts, of course)?

      • “and a view of what healthcare should look like”

        I interpret this to mean a unique view of what healthcare should look like in the sense of believing that there is one ideal. Speaking only for myself, I have not established such a view. I reject the notion that the evidence supports one or that one is required to have an “eye on reform.”

        I know this is hard for you to understand. You’re not alone. But I maintain that it is true. I do not have a hidden view. You can keep looking for it. When you find it, let me know!

      • As a reader for the last couple years, I don’t see Austin and Aaron as unwilling to address their understanding of the healthcare system, only that it’s been addressed in fairly lengthy fashion previously (see http://theincidentaleconomist.com/wordpress/how-do-we-rate-the-quality-of-the-us-health-care-system-introduction/ and and the question itself doesn’t really lend itself to a pithy answer besides an obvious statement like “our prices are much higher here”.

        Admittedly, things like the FAQ section could be updated to present this information more clearly, but that’s a fairly minor nit to pick. I think it’s unreasonable to place the onus on Aaron/Austin to reply to every reader with a pat summary of previous posts, though.

        • It’s a valid nitpick. I wish some reader would offer help crafting a nice FAQ section, or pay me handsomely to do it. So much for nitpicks. (This is not intended to be snark!)

    • I’ve commented on several occasions that Yglesias reminds me of the pious Christian who sees images of Jesus in mashed potatoes; he sees what he wants to see. I still read his blog sometimes, but with my eyes wide open (I hope). This infatuation with data stems from Moneyball, which I find much ado about very little. Of course, baseball and statistics are synonymous. But determining the relevance of the statistics takes more than regression analysis. More than anything it takes open eyes. Take Kevin Youkilis, the Yankees fill-in third baseman. Watch his hands when he bats. They go from above his head to below his waist. Coaches with open eyes will pitch Youkilis high so he will hit harmless pop ups and fly balls. Yet, most pitch him low because, well, his statistics say he’s a power hitter and the low pitch is the best defense against a power hitter. That’s what the data says, though my open eyes say something very different.

    • “Trouble with folks ain’t what they don’t know; it’s what they know to be true but it just ain’t so.” Mark Twain

    • The main peril of wonkery is a tendency to confuse the map with the territory.

      This is particularly evident when the phenomena being studied are exceptionally complex, dynamic, emergent phenomena where the normal method of analysis limited to selecting a subset of variables and searching for statistical associations between them.

      There are a million examples of this, but the debate over the disemployment effects of raising the minimum wage is a hardy perennial. Has it been subjected to empirical study? Yes. Has it settled the question of whether raising the price of labor induces employers to demand less of it than they would otherwise? No. Can it ever settle the matter definitively? Given that the debate has been raging without a resolution for decades suggests that it can’t. Ditto for a brief consideration of how many variables one would have to measure simultaneously, let alone the difficulty of locating a perfectly consistent counterfactual.

      Quite a bit of the medical literature that strays beyond determining the clinical efficacy of a particular intervention has this same problem and suffers from similar limitations, but you’d never know it by the confidence with which most of the wonks in the field make pronouncements based on the literature.