When I was doing research in global warming, it was very annoying. The theory was all laid out. And that was most of what we had. At that time, the evidence for global warming was weak. So an iconoclast like me naturally looked for ways that the theory was wrong: negative feedbacks and stuff like that. Because here’s the thing: the basic theory was right. It is simple energy transfer, and thus about as controversial gravitation theory. If it was wrong, it was because there was some other energy forcing that we just didn’t see.
Over time, the data got better. Now, the data alone indicate that the earth is warming, although you need some theory to explain that humans are causing it. But note what the global warming deniers do: they attack the data and the data alone. They can do that because there is a lot of data. But the process is clear: first they decide global warming is bunk, then they search the data trying to disprove it.
The situation is little different when it comes to economics. Mike Konczal wrote an excellent article over at Wonk Blog today, Reinhart/Rogoff-Gate Isn’t the First Time Austerians Have Used Bad Data. In it, he provided a history of conservative efforts to justify the idea of expansionary austerity. This is the idea that if the government cuts its budget to the bone, the private sector will have “confidence” that will get the economy booming. If this sounds like magical thinking, you’re right.
The story Konczal tells is of economists running from data set to data set looking for something that would reinforce their kooky theory. And in each case, the data they seized on turned out to be wrong. But that isn’t because they had bad luck. It is because only bad data would have made the case for expansionary austerity because expansionary austerity is wrong.
In any scientific pursuit, you have to start with a theory. But it can’t just be any old theory; you need to start with the basics of your field. In global warming you need to start with energy transfer and so on. In expansionary austerity you need to start with demand and all that jazz. But in each case (global warming denial and expansionary austerity advocacy), those involved didn’t start with a theory. They just rejected the default, sensible, traditional theory. Then they went out in search of data to confirm—data that didn’t exist because their “theories” were wrong. And that’s not science, it’s politics.
People involved in these pseudo-scientific political campaigns are not honest brokers. They use one of the best aspects of science against itself: the ability of a new theory to destroy an existing paradigm. So they point to Einstein and note how he, for example, revolutionized Galilean relativity. But they never mention that Einsteinian relativity is Galilean relativity at slow speeds. They never mention that Einstein was solving problems that were well known at the time. They never mention that Einstein had a theory whereas they have only “not what everyone in the field believes.”
Whether in global warming or economics, it is shameful.