Some people really hate to own up their mistakes, and some mistakes seem to be more difficult for people to admit. There are many factors for such reluctance or avoidance. Here are a few obvious ones: A person’s position of power and reputation, the amount of time lapsed from initial decision to the revelation, the difficulty of isolating causality (i.e. Did my words cause all the trouble?), or the magnitude of sheer embarrassment…etc. For instance, managers are never wrong, neither are politicians…or, they sure act like that. And when one actually apologizes, the apology is usually so convoluted and opaque (because they really don’t think they are wrong, or, they think that being wrong shouldn’t have mattered) that you wish they would just go away. We tend to think that people in academia may be more honest, because of the peer review system and because they are after all, academicians. Supposedly, they choose the profession because they believe in the pursuit of truth.
So, what’s my agenda? It’s the recent brouhaha over the assertion by two Harvard economics professors – Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff (R&R) — that when national debt exceeds 90% of the GDP (gross domestic product), economic growth suffers sharply. Generally speaking, economic theories bore me, but the social psychological aspects of this controversy fascinate me. Sadly, some aspects of social sciences seem to overlap with gossip. So be it.
There are at least two major points in this controversy. First of all, the directionality of the causal statement is suspect. Is the debt a result of slow economic growth? Or, is the slow economic growth caused by debt? R&R’s data demonstrated a correlation between these two economic phenomena but not causality. Yet, the authors strongly implied that debt is the culprit, and that therefore cutting debt is the proper course of action. Even though many economists immediately refuted their thesis — published in May, 2010 — on both sides of the Atlantic politicians advocating austerity plans latched onto the R&R article as evidence to support their policy. One study! And a potentially flawed study at that. In addition to questionable directionality inherent in the R&R study, many other economic researchers, using similar data that R&R used, could not reproduce the debt/growth correlation that R&R claimed.
The second point in this controversy regards mistakes. It turned out that after some heated exchanges in the academia, R&R allowed University of Massachusetts researchers to look at their original data. The UMass researchers found Excel coding errors, in addition to some omissions and debatable statistical formulae. Once corrections were made, the reevaluated R&R data was consistent with what other researchers have shown since the original R&R publication; namely, GDP growth rate beyond the 90% debt/GDP ratio isn’t dramatically different from when debt/GDP ratio is under 90%. There is nothing magical about the 90% cut-off, contrary to what R&R strongly implied throughout their original article. And oh, by the way, the UMass researcher that caught the Excel mistakes was “just” a graduate student, supported by his professors.
When NASA engineers neglected to convert measurements to metric units, they couldn’t dodge their mistake because the Mars Orbiter crashed. Yet, even though it has become perfectly clear that Reinhart and Rogoff made an error, they have been dancing around an “apology.” In New York Times 4/25/13 edition, their non-apology Op-Ed piece by and large angered readers even more. I don’t for one second condone all the vitriol and hate-mail these authors have received. However, for them to claim that the politicization of their paper was misplaced is disingenuous at the very least. After all, when national politicians touted the R&R paper as gospel and used their findings to legitimize their austerity policies, Reinhart and Rogoff made no protest whatsoever over this politicization. In addition, they still denied that the errors were “serious.” Seriously? If your results seem “extraordinary,” then, you bear extra responsibility to ensure the accuracy of your work. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.
In my more uncharitable moments, I wonder if these academic authors’ abrupt promotion to celebrity status overheated their heads. Not unlike the Kardashians…eek.
If Reinhart and Rogoff want to continue arguing their thesis that debt leads to lower economic growth, in defiance of the data, that is their prerogative; it’s within their academic right. But once their assertion has been proven erroneous, how can they, as professors at a prestigious university claiming international leadership, deny their responsibility to own up? Especially given that policies based on their assertion could have, and have already had, tremendous impact, do they not have any sense of disquiet?
It is painful and wholly embarrassing to admit, in public, our mistakes, particularly the mistakes that have affected others. A true classy person would not only own up her mistake but offer lessons for others; such a person could gradually rehabilitate their standing in their professional community and public at large. I recall Doris Kearns Goodwin (a media commentator, a historian, and author of several books on President Lincoln) was once accused of plagiarism. She quickly admitted her mistake and moved on. (When researchers take copious notes, sometimes they may forget to record sources or to put proper quotation marks. It happens.) Though never a fan of Martha Stewart, I found her willingness to take responsibility for insider trading and serve jail time almost refreshing. But then, I am dismayed to note that these days we regard such D+ behavior as commendable. Stewart has since rebooted her business which, while not quite the empire it used to be, is viable and lively again.
I have detected little humility in Reinhart and Rogoff’s public expressions thus far; I won’t hold my breath. I enjoy a Chinese saying, “When one door is closed, another will open.” When we can admit a mistake, other possibilities to explore open up.
Have an extraordinary April/May week. Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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- Rogoff and Reinhart should show some remorse and reconsider austerity | Heidi Moore (guardian.co.uk)
- The Excel Depression (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/19/opinion/krugman-the-excel-depression.html)