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Spotting policy-based evidencemaking

Oxford economist Simon Wren-Lewis has a blog on the subject of macroeconomics called Mainly Macro. I chanced upon it this morning via my Twitter feed.

His latest post is about policy-based evidencemaking and who you should trust. There's plenty of good stuff in there, but plenty to take issue with too. For example, being an academic, he has an overly high opinion of academics:

I know I’ll get it in the neck for saying this, but if the analysis is done by academics you can be relatively confident that the analysis is of a reasonable quality and not overtly biased. In contrast, work commissioned from, say, an economic consultancy is less trustworthy. This follows from the incentives either group faces.  

In the climate debate at least, this confidence is misplaced. We have seen time after time that many (some?) climatologists produce work of extraoardinarily poor quality, jettisoning years of accumulated knowledge of statistics and even the scientific method in favour of publishing papers that give the "right" result. Cherrypicking and data manipulation are seen all too often.

Wren-Lewis's suggestion that economic consultancies are less reliable because of their economic incentives is equally unwarranted. This is not to suggest that the incentives for those working in economic consultancies are benign. My point is that academics are working under precisely the same incentives. Funding is available for work that supports the case for catastrophic anthropogenic global warming, and not for work that challenges it. The Climategate emails reveal at least one instance of environmentalists commissioning studies from climatologists and plenty of instances of climatologists working hand in hand with green NGOs. And as I reported a few years back, the BBC's Sarah Mukherjee has alleged that most climate science is funded by greens. There are few incentives to climatologists to rock the boat and some powerful ones to prevent them - ostracisation and the cutting off of funding being just two.

I don't think there is any rule of thumb that will enable people to spot policy-based evidencemaking. You just have to throw stones at other people's work to see what happens.

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Reader Comments (38)

"And as I reported a few years back, the BBC's Sarah Mukherjee has alleged that most climate science is funded by greens. There few incentives to climatologists to rock the boat and some powerful ones to prevent them - ostracisation and cutting off of funding being just two."

I would agree and add that the quaility of climate "science" is so poor, it would most likely not be published in real science. Climate scientivists need climate "science" so they can use the pal-peer review to get papers published, award their friends with prizes and pretent to be Nobel laureates

Aug 13, 2014 at 9:50 AM | Unregistered CommenterCharmingQuark

acculated > accumulated

There few > There are few
[Thanks, now corrected. BH]

Aug 13, 2014 at 9:58 AM | Unregistered CommenterMark Well

you can be relatively confident

I think he chose his words carefully here. The relatively was italicised for a reason - I think he is fully aware how bad such work can be, and all he's saying is that, compared to a paid think-tank, where you can guarantee bias, at least there is some hope of more integrity from acedemic sources.

Isn't this what we would call "damning with faint praise"?

Aug 13, 2014 at 10:12 AM | Unregistered Commentersteveta_uk

If it entirely supports the policy they desire, and entirely negates any possible criticism of that policy--in other words, if it is too "good" to be true--then it is policy-based. Obama does nothing but put forth such "evidence", otherwise known as pathological lying (i.e., lying about anything and everything, even when he doesn't have to--about any subject that comes up).

Aug 13, 2014 at 10:15 AM | Unregistered CommenterHarry Dale Huffman

[No spamming please Euan]

Aug 13, 2014 at 10:44 AM | Registered CommenterEuan Mearns

"but if the analysis is done by academics you can be relatively confident that the analysis is of a reasonable quality and not overtly biased."

Actually I'd score these fields, based on my readings of them, as of little to no confidence in terms of quality or bias -

Psychology (parts of)
Political Science
Climate Science
Cultural and ethnic studies
Gender and sexuality studies

Although that doesn't mean there aren't good papers done in all these fields.

Aug 13, 2014 at 10:46 AM | Unregistered CommenterWill Nitschke

In fact his field, economics, is one of the least politically biased on the social science side, with a left-right ratio of 3:1 according to this paper.

Aug 13, 2014 at 10:59 AM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

Similar to bloggers having an overly high opinion of their own opinions...just saying!

Aug 13, 2014 at 11:23 AM | Unregistered CommenterRichard

I think one pretty good rule of thumb is that if someone with credentials looks like they're trying to scare us, what they say should be taken with a grain of salt. Government scientists emphasize smoking, fatty or otherwise delicious food, exotic viruses, and putatively fragile parts of the environment; the solution is always more funding, including funding for friendly academic researchers. This is all supposed to protect us against "big business," but there are plenty of big businesses making plenty of money from government spending and research. A major part of boomer bullshit is the belief that there is some establishment that is out to get us, and complacency is both part of the plot, and a big part of the problem. Thus scare-mongering is supposedly justified. One reason social psychology--Lewandowsky's field--may be the worst of all is that it has become a tool to demonstrate the false consciousness of "other" people--the "bad" people. And now climate science, very new and shaky at best, is locked in an intimate embrace with Lewandowsky.

Aug 13, 2014 at 11:24 AM | Unregistered CommenterLloyd R

As you say, Bish, the incentives matter more than the institutional setting. So does the character of the people involved: presumably the global warming scam has attracted to it people who are just crooks looking for mugs.

Aug 13, 2014 at 11:53 AM | Unregistered Commenterdearieme

It isn't difficult to spot real academics.

Aug 13, 2014 at 11:58 AM | Unregistered CommenterSteve Jones

Another point to consider about the analysis is how useful it is.
If it only finds the expected it will add to the sum total of human knowledge – a little - but it won’t make much difference.
Yet everyone wants to do something significant. So everyone wants to find something that is either:
(A) Unexpected
(B) Readily accepted by those with power
Obviously, (B) is easier to find and defend.

It isn’t all about money.
People want to have meaning in their work. And that is particularly hard to find in the ineffectual cloisters of academia.

Aug 13, 2014 at 12:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterM Courtney

Is it possible that there is little funding available to academic economists and accordingly little corrupting influence?

A lot of us, here, believe that if a grant application is not thermally correct, it is less likely to be successful. Has anyone from within academe revealed a specific instance of this?

Aug 13, 2014 at 12:49 PM | Registered Commenterjferguson

Googling Simon Wren-Lewis we find that he writes for a journal called Social Europe, which is "the leading eJournal addressing issues of critical interest to progressives across Europe and beyond." In one of his recent articles he asks "If Minimum Wages, Why Not Maximum Wages?"

His twitter stream also looks like that of someone who clearly is "overtly biased".

Aug 13, 2014 at 1:20 PM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

His twitter stream also looks like that of someone who clearly is "overtly biased"
Aug 13, 2014 at 1:20 PM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

He can't possibly be biased, Paul. He sees the truth as it is because he is a good socialist. It is the rest of us who are biased. ( case it is not obvious)

Aug 13, 2014 at 1:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterIvor Ward

Any educated person could see the pack of lies that is climate science by reading Mr Montford's excellent book and other writing on e.g. climategate. It is disturbing that academia can sink so low.

Aug 13, 2014 at 1:56 PM | Unregistered Commenteresmiff

My father in law for whom I had immense respect for his engineering skills, his inventiveness, and his business acumen, said that you should never trust an expert and even less one who says he is an expert. I think he included academics.

Aug 13, 2014 at 2:00 PM | Unregistered Commenterferdinand

Someone has pointed out to Wren-Lewis that his Grace has posted this blog piece. Wren-Lewis says in comments

"Ah yes, that well known global conspiracy by climate scientists to fool us into believing we are suffering from man made global warning. Much better to trust the 'research' produced by those funded by the carbon extraction industries."

Seems our Simon can suspend his critical faculties when it suits him. Mediocrity is alive and well and living in Oxford.

Aug 13, 2014 at 2:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterH2O: the miracle molecule

I had a strange dream last night...

I met up with my old geology lecturers and fellow students for a beer. But then we were in one of the lecturer's houses and I was helping him to flymo his carpet. (It was a light blue carpet.) Then I was talking to one of my lecturers and also fellow students who have studied CO2 sequestration and made careers out of it and they were asking my why I gave them a hard time. They agreed that it ("climate science") was all a load of bollocks.

And then I woke up.

Aug 13, 2014 at 3:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterJimmy Haigh

I wonder why it is assumed buy those of "a certain mindset" that research that is funded by the "carbon extraction industries" has to be suspect in some way.
I also wonder if that applies to all such research including that by the likes of those at UEA who were funded by oil companies.
I also wonder why "research" carried out by academics and funded by government (probably the most prominent organisation in any country to have a vested interest in a particular outcome) should be any less suspect. Perhaps Simon would like to explain these small discrepancies in his thinking.

Aug 13, 2014 at 3:27 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

I tend to trust engineers, scientists in industry and academics involved in applied sciences. I also trust medics who treat patents.

What they are trying to achieve may not be possible, but it is generally easy to recognise success, failure and the quality of the attempt. They are aware of this. They also know that the output will be used in some way, so there are consequences which may be beneficial or harmful. They recognise that they have a shared responsibility for downstream events related to their work. Quality is of supreme importance and they must highlight the uncertainties and the flaws.

Economists don't fit into this category. Business leaders know that economists are almost always wrong, but it useful to hear their analysis as another input since it may have useful elements.

Climate science seems to be in a category of its own. I have never before encountered such a terrible example of a mess pretending to be a science.

It is not just the scientific method that is sacrificed. There are examples where ethics, honesty, logic and integrity have gone the same way. I'm aware of all the usual factors such as peer pressure, funding, saving the planet, noble cause and so on, but I still find the scale of problems in climatology truly amazing.

Aug 13, 2014 at 5:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterSchrodinger's Cat

Mike Jackson

Climategate: George Monbiot, the Guardian and Big Oil - James Delingpole

But who is it that sponsors the Guardian?s Environment pages and eco conferences? Why, only that famous non-fossil-fuel company Shell. (Though I notice their logo no longer appears on top of the Guardian?s eco pages: has the Guardian decided the relationship was just too embarrassing to be, er, sustainable?)

And which company has one of the largest carbon trading desks in London, cashing in on industry currently worth around $120 billion ? an industry which could not possibly exist without pan-global governmental CO2 emissions laws ? BP (which stands for British Petroleum)

And how much has Indian steel king Lakshmi Mittal made from carbon credits thanks to Europe?s Emissions Trading Scheme? £1 billion.

And which companies were the CRU scientists revealed cosying up to as early as 2000 in the Climategate emails? There?s a clue in this line here: ?Had a very good meeting with Shell yesterday.?

Aug 13, 2014 at 5:18 PM | Unregistered Commenteresmiff

BP no longer stands for British Petroleum

Aug 13, 2014 at 6:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterArthur Dent

So, how many economists have ever produced findings unfavourable to those commissioning the research?

How many papers has this Simple Simon published that are unfavourable to his own technocratic fantasies?

Ditto clownatologists, socialist scientists, and the rest of the ego-driven left-infested arse end of academia.

Aug 13, 2014 at 7:13 PM | Unregistered CommenterJake Haye

Spot on, smiffy!
One wonders what is going on in the warmist/environmentalist mind that they cannot understand that "carbon extraction industries" are in business to provide energy and that if someone comes along with an alternative to carbon they will either try to kill it or (depending on which way they see the wind blowing, no pun intended) leap enthusiastically on the bandwagon.
People like Wren-Lewis have a massive blind spot when it comes to this.

Aug 13, 2014 at 7:17 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

I guess Public Choice Theory hasn't made it to Oxford yet.

Aug 13, 2014 at 10:06 PM | Unregistered CommenterBloke in Central Illinois

It was autumn, and the Indians on the remote reservation asked their new Chief if the winter was going to be cold or mild. Since he was an Indian Chief in a modern society, he had never been taught the old secrets, and when he looked at the sky, he couldn't tell what the weather was going to be.

Nevertheless, to be on the safe side, he replied to his tribe that
the winter was indeed going to be cold and that the members of the
village should collect wood to be prepared.

But also being a practical leader, after several days he got an idea. He went to the phone booth, called the National Weather Service and asked, "Is the coming winter going to be cold?"

"It looks like this winter is going to be quite cold indeed," the meteorologist at the weather service responded.

So the Chief went back to his people and told them to collect even more wood in order to be prepared. One week later he called the National Weather Service again. "Is it going to be a very cold winter?"

"Yes," the man at National Weather Service again replied, "it's going to be a very cold winter."

The Chief again went back to his people and ordered them to collect every scrap of wood they could find. Two weeks later he called the National Weather Service again. "Are you absolutely sure that the winter is going to be very cold?"

"Absolutely," the man replied. "It's going to be one of the coldest winters ever."

"How can you be so sure?" the Chief asked.

The weather man replied, "The Indians are collecting wood like crazy."

Aug 13, 2014 at 11:59 PM | Unregistered CommenterManniac

"...all he's saying is that, compared to a paid think-tank, where you can guarantee bias, at least there is some hope of more integrity from acedemic sources. Isn't this what we would call 'damning with faint praise'?" --steveta_uk

It's what I would call 'living in a fool's paradise.'

Aug 14, 2014 at 12:43 AM | Unregistered Commenterjorgekafkazar

There is a guideline that is useful in evaluating claims of scientifc progress and its short name is "accountability."
Accountability is more often demanded from industry than from academia.
Society expects engineers to design and build aircraft that fly .
Society believes global warming academics who have been unable to produce a single, definitive, quantitative, unequivocal paper that mathematicaly defines the link between air temperature and the concentrations of GHG in it. They remain unsure, after billions of dollars of funding, which causes which to change, if there is change in the sense of man-madenglobal warming.
The climate case is the intellectual equivalent of an aircraft that crashes each time a take off is tried.
There is no pressure on climate workers to accept accountability. There are few funded projects with review points where failure to achieve leads to cessation.
Instead, there seems to be little limitation on growth of the academic global warming scheme. Failure to confirm an hypothesis - if one is stated - seems to be of little consequence except that more funding allows more excuses. And so, the monster rolls on, destroying Science as it should be done.
The total benefit of past global warming research is very small, incommeasurate with the cost. Try to list the significant advances in knowledge, but start with a small piece of paper.
Academic research would be tranformed for the better if it became accountable academic research. Sure, I have problems with taking that too far, but its present near absence is a larger problem.
For all my career, future funding depended on my ability to generate real money to support me. Accountability.

Aug 14, 2014 at 12:56 AM | Unregistered CommenterGeoff Sherrington

+1 to the Cat comment above.
we all have a gut feeling when "trust" is involved (give me more info then maybe).
not easy to counter this with numbers or % or statements like "we are not overtly biased"

Aug 14, 2014 at 1:23 AM | Unregistered Commenterdougieh

A typical government academic, he is willfully blind to his selection by, and subserviance to, the state and its intersts.
He is but a state stooge, there only to advance the interests of the state, by advancing the totalirian cause - justifying the case for a more state-run society (more taxes and regulations).

Aug 14, 2014 at 7:00 AM | Unregistered CommenterKatisha

Well he was right.....he did get it in the neck :)

Aug 14, 2014 at 8:08 AM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

I am a glaciologist. Once we did a study on the glacier meltwater contribution for hydroelectric power generation. This was partly funded by one of the big hydropower companies in the Alps. The research showed that glaciers contribute between 10 and 15% of total water input. As a result, the hydropower company decided that it wasn't worth keeping on funding those studies. We had to look for funding somewhere else.
This is in stark contrast with the claim that billion of people depends on Himalayan glaciers meltwater for their subsistence. A claim that is incorrect, but generates more attention and probably better funding than our correct reporting.

The "funding by the carbon extraction industries" is a myth. There is not alternative source of funding for climate or environmental related research, only the very large funds of the EU or the NSF, where criticism is very easily eliminated.

Academia is also surrounded by a mythical aura of freedom, pure intellectual enterprise and altruism. This is far removed from reality. Academia is one of the less democratic institutions in Europe, at par with the Army, I would say, but with a much less transparent promotion system.

Aug 14, 2014 at 8:29 AM | Registered Commenterjgc

Looks like he's of the opinion that the good Bishop's in the pay of the evil fossil fuel comapnies!
"Ah yes, that well known global conspiracy by climate scientists to fool us into believing we are suffering from man made global warning. Much better to trust the 'research' produced by those funded by the carbon extraction industries."

Aug 14, 2014 at 10:08 AM | Unregistered CommenterAdam Gallon

Those who impugn Simon Wren Lewis's motivations are wide of the mark. Most or very probably all of his research is funded by the state, but this means he is free to do the research he wants to. The fact that he may be "progressive" is neither here nor there, and we all have our opinions. He was the academic who came up with the rationale for the OBR and who pushed for its creation, I.e., the idea of having an objective body providing analysis at the heart of government, free (ostensibly) from political interference.

Like Alan Peacock he is a highly independent and intelligent commentator. I suspect he would have disagreed with Alan on many issues, but neither would be influenced by anything other than well thought out analyses. The knee jerk anti-socialist response by some here is very disheartening.

Aug 14, 2014 at 10:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoger D.

Roger D : "Most or very probably all of his research is funded by the state, but this means he is free to do the research he wants to."

A definite candidate for Gaffe of the Century.

No, Roger, it means he must do what benefits the state.

Aug 16, 2014 at 7:08 AM | Unregistered CommenterKatisha

Sorry Katisha, but I strongly disagree with you about how this works in most subjects. A tenured academic is usually free to research what they want, and someone like Wren-Lewis would not be dependent on even research council funding as he doesn't need such funds for his theoretical work. To make the point, he is a or probably *the* leading UK academic critic of government austerity policy. If you were correct, he wouldn't dare to be so outspoken.

The reason many of us read this blog is that we recognise that things are very different in climate science, and the skewed incentives that goes with grant funding in this area. But I would argue that this is pretty much an exception.

Aug 16, 2014 at 3:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoger D.


The whole point here concerns climate science, in whch the funder - the state - has an absolutely monumental vested interest. Hence all the alarmist bias and dishonesty. The same would not be true with mathematics, say, since there would probablty is no political ramifications if some theorem was disproved or supplanted.

He who pays the piper can stop paying the piper whenever they don't like his tunes. And pipers know this. We hear the pipers the state wants us to hear.

Aug 17, 2014 at 12:27 PM | Unregistered CommenterKatisha

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