May 24, 2014
The Financial Times has pointed out several data-manipulation errors made by French economist Thomas Piketty in his new bestseller about how the rich get richer. I'm not going to attempt to adjudicate a technical issue.
Some of the problems appear to stem from Piketty building giant models in Excel spreadsheets, which tend to turn into giant hairballs over time. (One unkind theory about Nate Silver's frequent career changes is that his elaborate Excel spreadsheets get too convoluted to maintain, so he's off to something new.) Here's a white paper on "Code and Data for the Social Sciences" with advice on how analysts can learn from professional programmers to make their work more maintainable.
I’m always fascinated by the dynamics of reputation. For example, when Christopher Foote and Christopher Goetz demonstrated in late 2005, a half year after the publication of Freakonomics, that Steven D. Levitt’s most famous theory — that legalizing abortion cut crime — was the result of Levitt’s sloppiness in writing Stata code (not Excel, by the way), the impact on Levitt’s career was negligible. His reputation only started to decline a few years later with the publication of SuperFreakonomics in which Levitt didn’t demonstrate complete fidelity to the climate change orthodoxy.
Basically, there was no money to be made in showing that the facts didn't support Levitt's conclusion. In contrast, there is a lot of money arrayed against Piketty, so we'll hear more about it.
Malcolm Gladwell’s reputation took a major hit from insisting upon tangling with Steven Pinker over a bad NYT review, when Gladwell persisted in defending an overstated article he had written about how it was impossible to predict a college quarterback’s performance in the NFL. But what really hurt Gladwell was misspelling a statistical term (see Dan Quayle's career).
What really makes you unpopular is being right. When Arthur Jensen died a couple of years ago, we had to organize an email campaign to finally get an obituary for him in the New York Times. Jensen's crime was publishing a meta-analysis in 1969 suggesting that the vast social spending to help blacks Close the Gap with whites wasn't going to be very effective. The subsequent 43 years of Jensen's life showed him a prophet, which made him hated.
Conversely, the high repute of Jensen's semi-innumerate critic Stephen Jay Gould is only very slowly being worn down by an inundation of evidence that Gould was, at best, wrongheaded about much.
By Steve Sailer on 5/24/2014