The Death of Facts

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We live in a world where facts matter. Knowing that if I eat arsenic I die, or leaving my car on inside the garage shuts down the supply of oxygen to my body and leads to death can save my life. Facts are things that can’t be avoided, even if you choose to ignore them- surprise! they’re still there.

So why does it seem like we are forgetting the facts. Ideology, people’s beliefs – fairy tale or not – do not supersede fact. We’ve already heard campaigns say “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,” and have seen some ads that have chosen to ignore known facts. But it’s not just election campaigns, its more than that, it isn’t just Romney or Obama, it is everyone. Do we really still live in a world where people blindly follow notions and ignore reality?

Throughout history we have seen the evolution from beliefs into facts, paradigm shifts that have resulted in progression and the overcoming of nature. Understanding gravity led to flight, knowledge of electrical currents led to light-bulbs and computers, examining germs have led to vaccinations and the eradication of most of the historically dreadful diseases. The point is, facts should supersede belief. It wasn’t long ago we thought people got sick as a punishment from God, before that people thought Zeus threw lightning bolts from the sky and we sacrificed children to bring rains. I’m glad people got over their superstitions and embraced fact.

But not everyone is so willing to embrace knowledge. In fact, many try to suppress it for their own vanity. Scientific results are not always correct, and repeated experiments are necessary to make claims of fact. Another scientist can refute the work of past experiments by coming up with a superior method of testing. This is the way we progress.

Recently it was reported that the “Congressional Research Service withdrew an economic report that found no correlation between top tax rates and economic growth… after Senate Republicans raised concerns about the paper’s findings and wording.” I’ve reviewed the paper, and I will say that some of the wording such as “Bush Tax Cuts” or “Tax cuts for the rich” sound politically charged, and that the methodology is probably not perfect, but its findings deserve the light of day. I’ve reported on the mere correlation between tax cuts for the wealthy and growth here, and this report is far more academic than mine.

In the spirit of knowledge, a determined scientist would strive to find the answer to this question regardless of outcome. If one disagrees with the finding, they construct a better method to answer the question and execute their own study. This is the way science has worked for centuries, and what has told us the earth is round and above the clouds lies an entire universe. The notion that killing the messenger to stop the message leads to a better society more equipped to face new challenges is absurd. You can try to point to your ideas a the fact, but if you want truth turn on the light.

 

5 thoughts on “The Death of Facts

  1. Reply BB Nov 3,2012 8:16 pm

    I am a trained economist who read the report. While the motive of the politicians was likely impure, the report is not an example of sound science and should have been rejected by the agency’s quality control. The fatal flaw is that the regressions presented fail to meet any of the assumptions required by the statistical method for it to be valid. In technical terms, the control variables are endogenous Second, the ratio of the numer of observations, about 70, to the number of control variables is too small to allow the method to work reliably–you should have a ratio of 20 to 30, he has half that or less. Third, he leaves out several important control variables that are correlated with both tax rates and GDP growth, omissions that bias the results. The paper would have zero chance of being published in any serious economic journal, and would not likely even earn a passing grade in any graduate statistics course. So, in short, the CRS should really consider whether their academic standards are rigorous enough.

    • Reply Daniel McKay Nov 3,2012 8:33 pm

      Thank you for the analysis. I would also agree, that you can hardly make causal statements with the report. The methodology is flawed (I have since actually read the entire report), as you have stated there are a variety of “red flags” that need to be addressed.

      The paper however doesn’t make this assertion, it addresses correlation. And as you know, making a statement about correlation doesn’t imply causality. (As you state the problem of endogeneity in this study, which is also the underlying hurdle to overcome in just about any economic study.)

      This doesn’t detract from the message of the post – a real scientist, as you have noted would point out its flaws, then report his/her findings.

  2. Reply Daniel McKay Nov 3,2012 8:38 pm

    I just found this if anyone is interested, Krugman was a couple hours too late… (Unfortunately, he takes a political tone which I prefer didn’t accompany discussions of economic importance… but he needs readers right?)

    http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/03/the-ultimate-zombie-idea/

  3. Reply Truthiness Nov 13,2012 2:15 pm

    Can BB provide any reference to back up and justify his assertion that you need a ratio of “20 to 30″? New one to me (which is not to day he’s wrong). What about degrees of freedom being relevant? Use of the word “control” is also somewhat misleading, as although, in principle, there are variables capable of being “controlled”, like tax rates, I doubt any were in the sense of a “controlled experiment”. Let’s face it, too many “critiques”, and “research”, nowadays, particularly in economics, are motivated not by a search for the truth, or are serious exercises designed to attempt to find the facts. Too many critiques and too much research, instead, is simply generated to “muddy the waters”, and let unsubstantiated opinion reign.

    Facts matter, so Daniel’s point is well taken, regardless of any doubts any might have about this particular study.

    Sadly we are being inundated by research and critiques that aim to bury the facts. The more unpalatable the potential fact, the greater the inundation!

    Correlations are facts, albeit capable, at times, of disguising underlying, more important, facts. Nevertheless ,they are a first step on the road of a serious search for the truth.

  4. Reply Robin Feb 6,2013 7:43 pm

    Good blog–point well stated.

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