The Niall Ferguson affair: Beyond fact-checkers to argument-checkers

The reaction to Niall Ferguson’s Newsweek attack against Barack Obama interested me as I tried to fill in the blank: It’s important that Newsweek published a poorly argued article because ______________________.

Some writers, taking the journalistic angle, focused on the fact that Newsweek employs no fact-checkers:

In the case of the links listed above, the blank is filled: “it illustrates Newsweek’s disrespect for facts and shows how the magazine has fallen into disrepute.” The Ferguson article is so shameful because Newsweek ignored basic journalistic standards.

I read some of the web’s debunking of Ferguson:

What I read in those articles was calling out of mostly Ferguson’s conflations, irrelevant claims, and misleading transitions, but not as often factual inaccuracies. More often it was rebuttal along the lines of this, from O’Brien:

“The most recent estimate for the difference between the net present value of federal government liabilities and the net present value of future federal revenues–what economist Larry Kotlikoff calls the true ”fiscal gap“–is $222 trillion.”

That’s a lot of trillions! But if our fiscal gap is “really” this many trillions, why can we borrow for 30 years for a real rate of 0.64 percent? It’s because this number is meaningless. First of all, it seems to project many decades of growth figures and budget decisions that we simply don’t know will happen. It assumes the Bush tax cuts never ever expire and that the healthcare cost curve never ever bends. This is like projecting, in 1942, that the Empire of Japan will rule the entire Asian continent for 70 years based on a few years of battle outcomes. It’s an interesting prediction, but it’s not an empirical vision of the future.

or this, from Fallows:

He presents an ominous chart showing that, if Obama is reelected, China’s economy might become bigger than America’s around the time he leaves office … [the chart] … What this chart demonstrates is not “a nation losing ground” but the reality that China has four times as many people as America does. When its overall economy exceeds ours, its per capita output will be only one-quarter as great. A historian would presumably know that the conscious strategy of every president from Richard Nixon through Barack Obama has been to encourage rather than thwart China’s continued development, on the reasoning that a poor and festering China would be more dangerous to the United States than one that is becoming richer.

O’Brien and Fallows present rebuttals to poorly justified claims. But they do not write that Ferguson’s “$222 trillion” or “China’s economy” data are factually wrong. They write that the data are irrelevant, misleading, unconvincing, etc. That requires a certain amount of training in not just economics, but argument.

Would a “fact-checker” have noticed the same thing, or would they have been content with Ferguson’s provision of a source for the figure and the chart?

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that "a culture of fact-checking, of honesty, is as important as the actual fact-checking.

In my experience, seeing your name on the cover of a magazine will take you far in the journey toward believing your own bullshit. It is human to do so, and fact-checkers serve as a valuable check to prevent writers from lapsing into the kind of arrogant laziness which breeds plagiarism and the manufacture of facts.

But if there weren’t many “facts” out of sorts — as opposed to out-of-sorts arguments — then I don’t know how much the culture of fact-checking would have helped. What would have been more important is a culture that encourages you to have your reasons and evidence straight before opening your mouth, and I don’t know whether that’s the same thing. Maybe it is.

Then again, would a high-flying “celebrity” academic have been affected by such a culture of honesty? Might he “believe [at least some of] his own bullshit” when, as Stephen Marche noted, he takes $50,000 to $75,000 per speaking appearance?

Perhaps Ferguson’s view of himself wouldn’t matter. Suppose Newsweek had fact-checkers. Fallows supposes that they might have approached the work with a different lens than they would have Coates or some other journalist:

Scholars are supposed to be different from mere pamphleteers and journalists. We give the judgments of academics — like those of doctors, scientists, renowned jurists, etc. — extra weight because we assume that they have considered evidence, precedent, and probabilities more carefully before offering conclusions. Think: E.O. Wilson on ants and ecological patterns more broadly.

He almost — but only almost — makes the case that even fact-checkers wouldn’t have helped. Even if they had read the story, might they have made the same assumption that Fallows suggests and tread more softly around Ferguson’s work?

Finally, on the subject of intellectuals as valuable “brands,” and on the subject of a “higher standard” for scholars and academics, see Daniel W. Drezner’s post “Intellectual power and responsibility in an age of superstars”.

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