Debunked And Well-Refuted

byScott Alexander5y13th Dec 20142 comments

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I.

As usual, I was insufficiently pessimistic.

I infer this from The Federalist‘s article on campus rape:

A new report on sexual assault released today by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) officially puts to bed the bogus statistic that one in five women on college campuses are victims of sexual assault. In fact, non-students are 25 percent more likely to be victims of sexual assault than students, according to the data. And the real number of assault victims is several orders of magnitude lower than one-in-five.

The article compares the older Campus Sexual Assault Survey (which found 14-20% of women were raped since entering college) to the just-released National Crime Victmization Survey (which found that 0.6% of female college students are raped per year). They write “Instead of 1 in 5, the real number is 0.03 in 5.”

So the first thing I will mock The Federalist for doing is directly comparing per year sexual assault rates to per college career sexual assault rates, whereas obviously these are very different things. You can’t quite just divide the latter by four to get the former, but that’s going to work a heck of a lot better than not doing it, so let’s estimate the real discrepancy as more like 0.5% per year versus 5% per year.

But I can’t get too mad at them yet, because that’s still a pretty big discrepancy.

However, faced with this discrepancy a reasonable person might say “Hmm, we have two different studies that say two different things. I wonder what’s going on here and which study we should believe?”

The Federalist staff said “Ha! There’s an old study with findings we didn’t like, but now there’s a new study with different findings we do like. So the old study is debunked!”

II.

My last essay, Beware The Man Of One Study, noted that one thing partisans do to justify their bias is selectively acknowledge studies from only one side of a complicated literature.

The reason it was insufficiently pessimistic is that there are also people like the Federalist staff, who acknowledge the existence of opposing studies, but only with the adjective “debunked” in front of them. By “debunked” they usually mean one of two things:

1. Someone on my side published a study later that found something else
2. Someone on my side accused it of having methodological flaws

Since the Federalist has so amply demonstrated the first failure mode, let me say a little more about the second. Did you know that anyone with a keyboard can just type up any of the following things?

– “That study is a piece of garbage that’s not worth the paper it’s written on.”
– “People in the know dismissed that study years ago.”
– “Nobody in the field takes that study seriously.”
– “That study uses methods that are laughable to anybody who knows statistics.”
– “All the other research that has come out since discredits that study.”

They can say these things whether they are true or not. I’m kind of harping on this point, but it’s because it’s something I didn’t realize until much later than I should have.

There are many “questions” that are pretty much settled – evolution, global warming, homeopathy. But taking these as representative closes your mind and gives you a skewed picture of academia. On many issues, academics are just as divided as anyone else, and their arguments can be just as acrimonious as anyone else’s. The arguments usually take the form of one side publishing a study, the other side ripping the study apart and publishing their own study which they say is better, and the first side ripping the second study apart and arguing that their study was better all along.

Every study has flaws. No study has perfect methodology. If you like a study, you can say that it did the best it could on a difficult research area and has improved upon even-worse predecessor studies. If you don’t like a study, you can say “LOOK AT THESE FLAWS THESE PEOPLE ARE IDIOTS THE CONCLUSION IS COMPLETELY INVALID”. All you need to do is make enough isolated demands for rigor against anything you disagree with.

And so if the first level of confirmation bias is believing every study that supports your views, the second layer of confirmation bias is believing every supposed refutation that supports your views.

There are certainly things that have been “well-refuted” and “debunked”. Andrew Wakefield’s study purporting to prove that vaccines cause autism is a pretty good example. But you will notice that it had multiple failed replications, journals published reports showing he falsified data, the study’s co-authors retracted their support, the journal it was published in retracted it and issued an apology, the General Medical Council convicted Wakefield of sixteen counts of misconduct, and Wakefield was stripped of his medical license and barred from practicing medicine ever again in the UK. The British Medical Journal, one of the best-respected medical journals in the world, published an editorial concluding:

Clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare … Who perpetrated this fraud? There is no doubt that it was Wakefield. Is it possible that he was wrong, but not dishonest: that he was so incompetent that he was unable to fairly describe the project, or to report even one of the 12 children’s cases accurately? No.

Wakefield’s study has been “refuted”. The rape study has been “argued against”.

III.

I saw this same dynamic at work the other day, looking through the minimum wage literature.

The primordial titanomachy of the minimum wage literature goes like this. In 1994, two guys named Card and Krueger published a study showing the minimum wage had if anything positive effects on New Jersey restaurants, convincing many people that minimum wages were good. In 1996, two guys named Neumark and Wascher reanalyzed the New Jersey data using a different source and found that it showed the minimum wage had very bad effects on New Jersey restaurants. In 2000, Card and Krueger responded, saying that their analysis was better than Neumark and Wascher’s re-analysis, and also they had done a re-analysis of their own which confirmed their original position.

Let’s see how conservative sites present this picture:

“The support for this assertion is the oft-cited 1994 study by Card and Krueger showing a positive correlation between an increased minimum wage and employment in New Jersey. Many others have thoroughly debunked this study.” (source)

“I was under the impression that the original study done by Card and Krueger had been thoroughly debunked by Michigan State University economist David Neumark and William Wascher” (source)

“The study … by Card and Krueger has been debunked by several different people several different times. When other researchers re-evaluated the study, they found that data collected using those records ‘lead to the opposite conclusion from that reached by’ Card and Krueger.” (source)

“It was only a short time before the fantastic Card-Krueger findings were challenged and debunked by several subsequent studies…in 1995, economists David Neumark and David Wascher used actual payroll records (instead of survey data used by Card and Krueger) and published their results in an NBER paper with an amazing finding: Demand curves for unskilled labor really do slope downward, confirming 200 years of economic theory and mountains of empirical evidence (source)

And now let’s look at how lefty sites present this picture:

“…a long-debunked paper [by Neumark and Wascher]” (source)

“Note that your Mises heroes, Neumark and Wascher are roundly debunked.” (source)

“Neumark’s living wage and minimum wage research have been found to be seriously flawed…based on faulty methods which when corrected refute his conclusion.” – (source)

“…Neumark and Wascher, a study which Elizabeth Warren debunked in a Senate hearing” (source)

So if you’re conservative, Neumark and Wascher debunked Card and Krueger. But if you’re liberal, Card and Krueger debunked Neumark and Wascher.

Both sides are no doubt very pleased with themselves. They’re not men of one study. They look at all of the research – except of course the studies that have been “debunked” or “well-refuted”. Why would you waste your time with those?

IV.

Once again, I’m not preaching radical skepticism.

First of all, some studies are super-debunked. Wakefield is a good example.

Second of all, some studies that don’t quite meet Wakefield-level of awfulness are indeed really bad and need refuting. I don’t think this is beyond the intellectual capacities of most people. I think in many cases it’s easy to understand why a study is wrong, you should try to do that, and once you do it you can safely discount the results of the study.

I’m not against pointing out when you disagree with studies or think they’re flawed. I’d be a giant hypocrite if I was.

But “debunked” and “refuted” aren’t saying you disagree with a study. They’re making arguments from authority. They’re saying “the authority of the scientific community has come together and said this is a piece of crap that doesn’t count”.

And that’s fine if that’s actually happened. But you had better make sure that you’re calling upon an ex cathedra statement by the community itself, and not a single guy with an axe to grind. Or one side of a complicated an interminable debate where both sides have about equal credentials and sway.

If you can’t do that, you say “I think that my side of the academic debate is in the right, and here’s why,” not “your side has been debunked”.

Otherwise you’re going to end up like the minimum wage debaters, where both sides claim to have debunked the other. Or like the Federalist article that says a study has been “put to bed” as “bogus” just because another study said something different.

I think this is part of my reply to the claim that empiricism is so great that no one needs rationality.

A naive empiricist who swears off critical thinking because they can just “follow the evidence” has no contingency plan for when the evidence gets confusing. Their only recourse is to deny that the evidence is confusing, to assert that one side or the other has been “debunked”. Since they’ve already made a principled decision not to study confirmation bias, chances are it’s going to be whichever side they don’t like that’s “already been debunked”. And by “debunked” they mean “a scientist on my side said it was wrong, so now I am relieved from the burden of thinking about it.”

On the original post, I wrote:

Life is made up of limited, confusing, contradictory, and maliciously doctored facts. Anyone who says otherwise is either sticking to such incredibly easy solved problems that they never encounter anything outside their comfort level, or so closed-minded that they shut out any evidence that challenges their beliefs.

In the absence of any actual debunking more damning than a counterargument, “that’s been debunked” is the way “shuts out any evidence that challenges their beliefs” feels from the inside.

V.

Somebody’s going to want to know what’s up with the original rape studies. The answer is that a small part of the discrepancy is response bias on the CSAS, but most of it is that the two surveys encourage respondents to define “sexual assault” in very different ways. Vox has an excellent article on this which for once I 100% endorse.

In other words, both are valid, both come together to form a more nuanced picture of campus violence, and neither one “debunks” the other.

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