David R. Henderson  

Scott Alexander Calls Out the New York Times

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Normally, Scott Alexander writes very long posts. This one is very short and well worth reading.

His bottom line:

The correct way to report on this graph is "About twice as many economists believe a voucher system would improve education as believe that it wouldn't."

By leaving it at "only a third of economists support vouchers", the article strongly implies that there is an economic consensus against the policy. But its own source suggests that, of economists who have an opinion, a big majority are pro-voucher.

(note also that the options are only "vouchers will improve education" and "vouchers will not improve education", so that it's unclear from the data if any dissenting economists agree with the reporter's position that vouchers will make things worse. They might just think that things would stay the same.)

I think this is journalistic malpractice. I have no idea how Brian Williams can provoke a national scandal by saying that he was on a helicopter when in fact he was on a slightly different helicopter, but the Times will not get in trouble for reporting the opinion of the nation's economists to be the opposite of what it actually is, in an area with important policy implications.

Now, to be fair, this wasn't the New York Times. It was an op/ed by Susan Dynarski, a professor of education, public policy and economics at the University of Michigan. She has a Ph.D. in economics from MIT and is associated with the National Bureau of Economic Research, which, if anything, makes her statement even worse. She probably knows better. Still, Scott is right to criticize the Times because a good editor would have caught this.

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
ee writes:

This seems like an overreaction on Scott's part. The author's statement is accurate given the data: "only a third of economists agreed that students would be better off". 36% of economists were positive on the question.

In my opinion the survey question asks for affirmation of a relatively extreme position on vouchers: students receive a higher quality education. As a supporter of vouchers, the farthest I would go with confidence is that students receive a similar quality education for less money.

Ray writes:

It's semantics -- but bias-revealing semantics. Not a surprise with the NY
Times though really.

Jon Murphy writes:

Reading the responses in the opinion poll weakens Dr Dynarksi's case even further. Of those who gave responses, only one was in outright objection. Most of the "disagrees" were more "uncertain about the net effect" or felt the question was too ambiguous. But even many of those who are uncertain/lean disagree say it would be a better system then what we have now.

Thaomas writes:

The premise of the article is dubious, anyway as it is very unlikely that the new administration will (or can, since most is state expenditure) propose turning all K-12 educational expenditures into vouchers, which was what the panel was opining about.

Steve J writes:

I have a different reaction to "Generally Don't Buy It" than Mr. Alexander. He excludes the uncertain economists from his reasoning. I would describe uncertain people as people who "Generally Don't Buy It" but he would not. This disagreement on the semantics of "Generally Don't Buy It" apparently means the NYT is guilty of malpractice. Seems reasonable.

Michael writes:

Well, scott Alexander has weakened his terminal paragraph and taken out the 'malpractice' word, so I guess he concedes to the objections that the discussion on this particular piece may be a bit more complicated

Still, his (and David's) main point stands: the NYT Op-Ed was out to deceive. It's always hard to actually prove intent, so caution in criticizing it is OK, but reaction to is piece works as an ideological Turing test.

Given the state of the art and the character of the actors, I really wonder why we need academic programs in education. This kind of article would mostly go away if people didn't get tenure for pursuing their ideology

Steve writes:

Well, by leaving it at "By leaving it at 'Only a third of economists agreed,'" I felt mislead by Alexander. She writes that it's a third of economists ON THE PANEL.

Not sure IGM branding its panel members as all from "elite" universities is the most effective positioning, especially during the next four years.

Bill writes:

This is why I chide my colleagues for making use of Twitter (or any other like social media fad) to discuss policy. See how Dynarski's statement ("only a third of economists support vouchers") fits nicely into 140 characters, ripe for notice by attention deficit college students? Yet even Alexander's much more plausible explanation takes more characters than that to refute. His explanation makes much more sense, and often the more accurate explanation does take more than 140 characters to accurately portray an observation about a complex subject.

And to be clear, assuming this wasn't a mistake in translation somewhere along the line, Dynarski's statement is academic malpractice, whereas the NYT uncritical portrayal of it is journalistic malpractice.

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