Science, Economics and Pretending in the Globe and Mail

by Graham H. Cox last modified 2012-10-12T11:59:24-04:00
The Globe and Mail is known for conservative economics and an aggressive pro-Capital agenda, but recent articles attacking the analytical methodology rather than the substance of its critics has taken a bizarre turn.

There is nothing scientific about the type of analysis seen in the pages of the Globe and Mail. Of course, this is not surprising given that it is a newspaper and not an academic journal, but from time to time we see writers from the academy, or brush up against the academic kind of analysis as a way of the paper to be taken seriously (rightly or wrongly) as an elite news source.

The Economy Lab section of the paper is one such area where the writers take themselves and their trade seriously. Again, there should be nothing surprising here, economists are (strangely) held in high regard in our society regardless of their academic credentials or history of getting things right. The problem comes when editorial writers try to bring academic concepts into their writing in an effort to one-up their ideological opponents. The problem is it almost always fails and mostly results in a confused readership.

One of those in Economy Lab is the Business School icon Mike Moffatt. Recently, he has been on a bit of a rampage against the critics of right-wing ideological economic ramblings. However, instead of explaining concepts and providing his own analysis (allowing us to mock him in private), he is now spending his column inches attacking other individual economists and commentators like Bill Curry, Jim Stanford and David Suzuki. It may be that Moffatt has run out of issues he knows about, but we can only assume the ad hominem attack trend will continue.

The self crowning of Moffatt as the Economy Lab's fact umpire is a troubling direction for many of us, not least because he his recent attacks are simply straw-man arguments built-up against the critics of the dominant ideology, but also because of his dreadfully old-fashioned liberal economic analysis.

There are many "defend the dominant orthodoxy" writers like Moffatt in the pages of the Globe, but what makes Moffatt stand out is his recent use of pseudo-scientific language and twisted concepts used in an effort to sound smarter than those he is attacking.

One of his latest is his use of the term "counterfactual" in his article attacking Jim Stanford's editorial on the failures of free trade. For those of you that do not study the history of confused and rather irrelevant positivist social science methodologies, one can describe this as "If-Then" approach to historical analysis. Alternatively, you can call it what it is: the Day-Dreaming About What Could Have Been method.

For example, a counterfactual to Jill passing her exam would be "if Jill had not shown up to the exam, then she would not have passed." The problem with "counterfactuals" is that it is not a scientific method and has been rejected long ago by those studying methodology. In fact, Moffatt's method is a more dubious than that used by those he criticizes.

Contrary to what Moffatt was outlining with his complaint that these authors were not using his "If, Then" method, it is completely legitimate to judge a policy on whether it produced what the promoters of the policy said it would. For the pro-free trade crowd, they promised a better society, better jobs, and a more robust economy. History is pretty clear on the fact that we did not get these things. So, it comes to reason that these folks pushing the policy were wrong and the policy should not have been implemented--regardless of the use of a "counterfactual" or any other deficient methodology.

What is clear from the critique that Moffatt lays out is that positivist economic analysis is distorting the study of political economy and undermining the reliability of the answers of this essential research. There has been decreasing amounts of research that counts as "science" from the economics realm as orthodox economists revert back to old habits of ignoring history and blindly following the liberal economic line of the late 1800s. These folks seem to forget that liberalism lead to economic despair for the vast majority of people back then and it will like do it again, for the same reasons.

As for the Globe's pages of economic blather, the key is to not pretend something is scientific when it isn't. Not everything has to be rigorous in its methodology to be interesting to read, and just because it is published in a newspaper does not mean we should set policy by it. The fact is, free trade ideologues lost the academic debate a long time ago, but we still read about it everyday in the Globe. It is an example of  what will continue to be published in the corporate media when truth does not fit dominant economic and ideological interests.

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