Monday, October 8, 2012

A Note On BLS Conspiracies and Basic Stupidity

Last week's truther nonsense was without a doubt, one of the most embarrassing events I have ever witnessed.  First, as Barry over at the Big Picture pointed out, its first and perhaps leading proponent Jack Welch was well acquainted with numbers manipulation.  Secondly, the speed with which the concept ran through the right wing blogsphere was astonishing and frightening.

First, the folks at the Liscio report issued this statement regarding the BLS release -- providing some much needed rational analysis:

The large upward revisions to August payrolls released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics this morning (with jobs data for September) drove conspiracy theorists wild. And they were strong, about three times the usual revision. But, as we pointed out in a report we sent to our clients earlier this week, this is a long-standing pattern. It almost always happens, whether there’s an election coming up or not. Facts here:

August’s gain was revised upward by 46,000, and July’s by 40,000. Almost all the revisions, however, came from an upward revision of 101,000 to local government education in August before seasonal adjustment – a recurrent anomaly at this time of year that we wrote about in Wednesday’s report. The concurrent seasonal adjustment technique distributes large changes like that backwards, so the gain was split between July and August in the adjusted numbers. Some excitable types are attributing the upward revision to political machinations, but this pattern has been around a long time. It’s likely something is amiss in the BLS’s collection process, and they are working on it. There shouldn’t be a recurrent pattern of error like this. (Excitable types should also note that the birth/death model subtracted 9,000 jobs in September.)

And then there is this: if the administration was really going to cook the books, why not do so a long time ago -- and in a manner to comply with the now-famous unemployment chart that was part of the stimulus package?  That would have made far more sense because it would have made the administration's actions that much more impressive.

But, there's a deeper story here.  Over the last 5-10 years, there has been a concerted effort on the part of segments of the US to downplay science, scientific knowledge and, in general, high-level educational achievement.  We see it in the  the total rejection by uneducated amateurs of evolution and global warming.  We see it in the rejection of the scientific community of one major political party.  We see it in the continual need to teach "creationism" as a valid scientific theory.  We see in the continual creation and promotion of completely disprovable theories (expansionary austerity anyone?  or how about the birther movement?).   

This is the real enemy and is at the heart of the BLS truther movement.  It is a movement steeped in a celebration of rank ignorance.  When an untrained amateur has the ability to claim that "intuitive knowledge" grants him the ability to legitimately challenge those with a long pedigree in an area of knowledge, we have a big problem.  You see this problem with anonymous comments that continually post the incorrect statistic to back-up their assertions, or those that spew recently heard talking points with absolutely no backing concepts.  And then there are those who continually throw numerous points at the wall in the hopes they will at some point stick.  And finally, there is the "I have talked to so many people and that is sufficient to form an objective opinion based in fact" argument.   I am reminded of Barry's comments section disclaimer which states:

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data, ability to repeat discredited memes, and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Also, be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor even implied. Any irrelevancies you can mention will also be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

Put another way, let's use Paul Krugman  -- who has won a Nobel Prize -- as an example.  He has continually been right in his analysis of the current economic environment.  Yet we see such intellectual titans as the blogs Hot Air and Powerline continually ignore this record in favor of pundits such as Thomas Sowell and Art Laffer who have been continually wrong in their prognostications.  Note how political fealty is far more important than a correct interpretation of the data. 

Yes, the internet has allowed a far greater diffusion of knowledge to develop.  It has also allowed the ignorant to continually throw chum in the waters, thinking they are adding to or explaining a body of knowledge, when in fact they are merely increasing the amount of disinformation in the blogsphere.