August 10th, 2010
For some time Neil Reynolds published his op-ed pieces in The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, where they generally escaped readers’ attention. Now that he’s been moved to the op-ed page, he’s getting lots of attention.
Reynolds’s take is what might be called Tea Party Canadian-style. For Reynolds, government is always parasitic and the private sector is always innovative, so that we should have less of the former and more of the latter. His second main concern is energy and the environment, and his message is that global warming and peak oil are myths, which leads to the policy prescription: drill, baby, drill. Reynolds’s Wikipedia article says that he was a Libertarian Party candidate in a 1982 by-election, and it’s clear from his columns that a Libertarian he remains.
Reynolds’s modus operandi is to find some academic research out there – often on the web sites of American Conservative think tanks – that he claims supports the policy positions he advocates. In my view, his arguments are often specious. I will cite three instances, and then connect the dots.
His column of April 17, 2010 argued that the average Canadian household spent almost $15,000 on personal income taxes and the average American household about $2000. This claim was carefully analyzed by Steelworkers’ economist Erin Weir on the Progressive Economics Forum (www.progressive-economics.ca), who showed that when appropriate data were used per capita income taxes were almost equivalent.
His column of July 26, 2010 on the census repeated the claim that the Nordic countries have eliminated their censuses, but without the qualification – made clear by his fellow Globe and Mail journalists – that this was because they use many other data sources. He also repeated the conservative economist Hayek’s argument that the prices produced by the market are society’s most important statistic. Students in first-year economics courses should be familiar with that argument. Students in upper-level economics courses learn that, if there are market imperfections such as pollution, congestion, monopolies, or subsidies, prices provide misleading information.
In his column of August 9, 2010, Reynolds argued that people will adapt to global warming because they have in the past adapted to heat waves. The evidence he gave was an article by economists Olivier Deschenes and Michael Greenstone claiming that the increase from the US annual mortality rate due to global warming by the end of this century would be statistically indistinguishable from zero. He claimed that the paper was “published three years ago by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”
I looked the paper up on Google Scholar. The abstract notes that the predicted mortality rate increases for some subpopulations, notably infants, would be statistically significant, and that annual resident energy consumption would increase by a statistically significant 15 to 30%.
What concerns me more, however, was that the article was not published three years ago by MIT. It was and remains a National Bureau of Economics Research Working paper. Working papers, as the NBER website makes clear, and any academic knows, have not passed peer review. Furthermore, a working paper that has remained in working paper form and hasn’t made it into a journal for 3 years is encountering difficulties in the reviewing process. It should be quoted, if at all, with caveats, and not referred to as published.
Okay, let’s connect the dots. We see a pattern of citing supposedly impeccable sources that, upon examination, doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Reynolds’s Wikipedia entry mentions a long and distinguished career in journalism but makes no mention of any university education. People generally ensure that their Wikipedia entries are accurate. My conclusion is that Reynolds either has had no university education or thinks it isn’t important enough to mention. For me, this is highly problematic for a columnist who relies so heavily on academic research. What he appears to me to be doing is citing research that seems to support his positions without much understanding of the research process. Not only is it important to distinguish between working papers and refereed work, but it is important to look at an overall body of research – the work of numerous scholars – to see if there is any consensus.
The Globe and Mail is English Canada’s newspaper of record. Its columnists should be the best in the country. The Globe is printing Reynolds because he represents the “right wing ideologue” position, just as it prints Rick Salutin (but only on Fridays) who represents the “left wing ideologue” position. I am not claiming that the Globe shouldn’t have a right wing ideologue columnist, but if it wants to have one, it can certainly do better than Neil Reynolds.
This post should in no way be considered an attack on Reynolds’s freedom of speech. He may say whatever he wants to say on his own blog or in whatever organ (perhaps the proposed Fox North channel) will publish him. But, if the Globe and Mail represents prime time in Canadian journalism, then my considered opinion is that he isn’t ready.