Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Tom Sowell

Tom Sowell has made a career of being right (most of the time) Check this one out.


Studies prove . . .

By Thomas Sowell
Published August 12, 2006

Whenever I hear the phrase "studies prove" this or that, it makes me think back to the beginning of my career as an economist at the Labor Department in Washington.
Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg was scheduled to appear before Congress to argue in favor of some policy that the Labor Department wanted enacted into law. Down at the bottom of the chain of command, I was given four sets of census data that had not yet been published and was told to analyze these data for a report to go to the secretary of labor.
Two of these sets of data seemed to support the Labor Department's position but the other two went counter to it. When I wrote up a paper explaining why this was so and concluded that the statistics overall were inconclusive, there was much dismay among those in the hierarchy between me and the secretary.
They were also puzzled as to why anyone would write up such a paper, knowing what the department's position was on the issues. They took my paper, edited and rewrote it before passing it up the chain of command.
Secretary Goldberg then made his usual confident presentation of the rewritten study to Congress, probably unaware of the contradictory data that had been left out.
It was a valuable experience so early in my career to learn that what "studies prove" is often whatever those who did the studies wanted to prove. Labor Department studies "prove" whatever serves the interest of the Labor Department, just as Agriculture Department studies "prove" whatever serves the Department of Agriculture's interests.
It is the same story on the other side of the Atlantic, where a new book about Britain's criminal justice system exposes the fraudulent methods used to generate statistics about the "success" of various programs of alternatives to imprisonment. The book is titled "A Land Fit for Criminals" by David Fraser.
The numbers may be accurate but the definition of "success" makes them meaningless. When a criminal is put on probation and the probation is not revoked for a violation, that is "success."
Unfortunately, the British criminal justice system does not automatically revoke probation when a criminal commits a new crime.
A criminal on two years' probation can commit a crime after six months, be convicted and sentenced -- and, after serving his sentence, go back to completing the remaining 18 months of his probation, producing statistical "success" for the probation program. That is the whole point of the "study."
On either side of the Atlantic, it is a terminal case of naivete to put statistical studies under the control of the same government agencies whose policies are being studied.
Nor will it do any good to let those agencies farm out these studies to "independent" researchers in academia or think tanks because they will obviously farm them out to people whose track record virtually guarantees that they will reach the conclusions that the agency wants.
Climate expert Richard S. Lindzen of Massachusetts Institute of Technology has indicated that the vast amount of government research money available for studies of "global warming" can discourage skeptics from being vocal about their skepticism.
This is not peculiar to studies of "global warming." Many people who complain about the corrupting influence of money never seem to apply that to government money.
If high government officials were serious about wanting to know the facts, they could set up an independent statistical agency, along the lines of the General Accounting Office, to do studies of the effects of the policies of the operating agencies.
That would mean that the fox would no longer be in charge of the hen house, whether the fox was the Labor Department, the Commerce Department, or any of the other departments and agencies.
It would also mean that various bright ideas originating in Congress or the White House would now be exposed to the risk of being shown to be costly failures or even counterproductive. Whole careers could be ruined among both elected officials and bureaucrats.
Don't hold your breath waiting for it to happen. But do keep that in mind when someone says "studies prove. . . ."

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

Studies prove: Part II

By Thomas Sowell
Published August 13, 2006

My late mentor, Nobel Prize-winning economist George Stigler, used to say that it could be very instructive to spend a few hours in a library checking up on studies that had been cited. When I began doing that, I found it not only instructive but disillusioning.
A footnote in a textbook on labor economics cited six studies to back up a conclusion it reached. But, after I went to the library and looked at those six studies, it turned out that they each cited some other study -- the same other study in all six cases.
Now that the six studies had shrunk to one, I got that one study -- and found that it was a study of a very different situation from the one discussed in the labor economics textbook.
Some years back, there was a great flurry in the liberal media because a study showed that (1) black pregnant women received prenatal care less often than white pregnant women and that (2) infant mortality rates were higher among blacks.
There were indignant editorials in the New York Times and The Washington Post blaming the government for not providing greater access to prenatal care in order to stop preventable deaths of infants.
After getting a copy of the original study, I discovered that in the same study -- on the very same page -- statistics showed that (1) Mexican American women received even less prenatal care than black women and that (2) infant mortality rates among Mexican Americans were no higher than among whites.
A few pages further on, statistics showed that American women of Chinese, Japanese and Filipino ancestry also received less prenatal care than white women -- and had lower infant mortality rates than whites.
Apparently prenatal care was not the answer, though it was the kind of answer that suited the mindset of the liberal media and provided an occasion for them to wax indignant.
More recently, the National Academy of Sciences came out with a study that supposedly proved beyond a doubt that human activities were responsible for "global warming." A chorus of voices in the media, in politics and in academia proclaimed that this was no longer an issue but a scientific fact, proven with hard data.
The NAS report not only had statistics, it had an impressive list of scientists, which supposedly put the icing on the cake.
The only problem was that the scientists had not written the report and in fact had not even seen it before it was published, even though they had some affiliation with the National Academy of Sciences.
At least one of those scientists, meteorologist Richard S. Lindzen of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, publicly opposed the conclusion and has continued to do so. But that fact was largely lost in the midst of the media hoopla.
Besides, what is a mere meteorologist at MIT compared to Al Gore and his movie?
Nobody can afford the time to check out every claim of what "studies prove." Even with the help of outstanding research assistants, I can only check out some.
However, the big television and print media have ample financial resources to check out claims before they present them to the public as "news." But when "60 Minutes" didn't bother before basing a story about President Bush's national guard service on a forged document, do not look for a lot of zeal for facts when that could kill a juicy story or the political spin accompanying it.
Let's face it. There is not much payoff to checking original sources.
Once a minister was explaining to me the structure of his funeral orations. He said, "At this point, you are expected to say something good about the deceased. Now, Tom, if I were preaching your funeral, what would I say good about you at that point?"
He thought and thought -- for an embarrassingly long time. Finally, he said gravely: "In his research, he always used original sources."
I'll take that.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

Studies prove: Part III

By Thomas Sowell
Published August 14, 2006

Often we hear that "all the experts agree" that A is better than B or that "studies prove" A to be better than B. But one of the reasons for this can be that only people who favor A over B are likely to get the money to conduct studies or be given access to the data needed for a study.
A few years ago, a book by William Bowen and Derek Bok paraded various statistics that they interpreted as proving the success of policies of preferential admission of blacks to colleges and universities.
A chorus of praise for this study was heard throughout the media and echoed in academia and among liberal politicians. The study was later cited in a landmark Supreme Court decision on affirmative action.
Not everyone thought this was a great study, however -- or even an adequate study. But no one was allowed access to the raw data on which the Bowen and Bok study was based. So no one else could run the numbers for themselves and reach their own conclusions.
Those who sought such data included Harvard professor Stephen Thernstrom, whose long and distinguished record of scholarship included being one of the creators of the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. He was refused access to the data.
When only people with one set of views are allowed to do certain studies, do not be surprised if "studies prove" that set of views is right.
I was not surprised that Mr. Thernstrom was refused access to the data. I had had similar experiences.
Back in the 1970s, I tried to get statistical data from Harvard to test various claims about affirmative action. Derek Bok was then president of Harvard and he was the soul of graciousness, even praising a book on economics that I had written. But, in the end, I did not get to see one statistic.
During the same era I was also researching academically successful black schools. I flew across the country to try to get data on one school, talked with board of education officials, jumped through bureaucratic hoops -- and, after all this was done and the dust settled, I still did not get to see one statistic.
Why not? Think about it. Education officials have developed explanations for why they cannot educate black children. For me to write something publicizing outstanding academic results in this particular black school would open a political can of worms, leading people to ask why the other schools can't do the same.
Education bureaucrats decided to keep that can sealed.
Critics of affirmative action have long said that mismatching black students with colleges that they do not qualify for creates wholly needless academic failures among these students, who drop out or flunk out of colleges that they should never have been in, when most of them are fully qualified to succeed in other colleges.
Has the ending of preferential admissions in the University of California system and the University of Texas system led to a rise in the graduation rates of black students, as critics predicted? Who knows? These universities will not release those statistics.
This is not peculiar to the United States. In Britain, the claim has been repeated endlessly that putting criminals in prison "doesn't work" and that various rehabilitation programs "in the community" are more successful in reducing criminals' repetition of their crimes.
When statistical data from the Home Office showed the direct opposite of what was being proclaimed by the Home secretary, other high officials, the media and academics, the solution was simple: Such data were no longer released.
Sometimes it is not the data but the money that is used to limit who can do studies on controversial issues. Advocates of "global warming" have access to all sorts of government research money but skeptics and critics can depend on no such largess and may even be risking their careers by angering bureaucrats who have staked a lot on this crusade and who control the purse strings.
Even when the taxpayers' money is used to collect data or finance research, those who dispense that money and control that data often treat these things as if they were their own private property, to be used to promote research congenial to their own ideologies or interests.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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