Journalists believe anything

Christopher Joye makes a good point in the AFR:

Before I started writing on the subject, I was struck by journalists’ dependency on the central bank. Many relied on the RBA for their interest rate predictions before board meetings and for much of their economics content.

Notwithstanding all too human mistakes – such as hoisting rates to 18 per cent in the late 1980s, presiding over a major inflation break-out before the global financial crisis, and the ongoing Securency scandal – many, but not all, in the media are eager to impute super-human capabilities to our monetary policy mandarins.

He is right. But it gets worse – our journalists will believe any mandarin on almost any topic.

I can think of a number of examples. On Fuelwatch I told a journalists that the ACCC modelling was dodgy. He said no way [a well-known Australian economist] would tolerate dodgy modelling. Well, he did. I told a journalist that the Treasury mining tax modelling assumed the RSPT had a zero dead weight loss and hadn’t demonstrated that fact. Surely not he said. I told several journalists that the 2010 budget papers had a dodgy graph and nobody was interested until Treasury admitted the error in Senate Estimates. People were shocked when I told a Senate inquiry that of course the RBA governor supports government policy, he is a public servant after all. And so on …

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29 Responses to Journalists believe anything

  1. Bruce

    Well, he did

    A model is a perfect magician’s trick. Models tend to be opaque and difficult for anyone to fisk properly. Yet they have this mystique for laypeople which is very convincing.

    They also, as is my personal experience, pay well. Very well. Computer modelling is much more lucrative that science.

    The catch is you can hide or fake anything in a model because it takes a degree of anal bloodymindedness to audit them for accuracy. No one wants to. So they are trusted without any justification.

    This is one reason why in industry formal spreadsheet models (eg for BFS’s) are not allowed to use macros, so that it is easier to understand what they are doing.

    On the other hand people are wising up to this, with the politicised Treasury and the climateers being two causes for loss of faith in the things.

  2. Skuter

    Damn straight Sinc. Pointing stuff like this out in Canberra, either to politicians, journalists or bureaucrats is like publicly announcing you have syphillis. No-one wants to know you.
    This kind of evidence charlatanism is routinely used in Canberra. It is a cloak to hide behind and is highly sought after. If you can produce it to the desired specifications, you are highly rewarded, either by promotions within the APS or through lucrative consultancy contracts for private sector agencies.
    It is funny though how any modelling commissioned by the private sector/lobby groups is derided as being ‘dodgy’ by our journalistic elite, yet anything that comes out of Treasury/other government agencies (whether produced in-house or by consultants) is treated as gospel.

  3. Rodney

    Taleb pointed out in “The Black Swan” that the more complex the model, the more certain it becomes that at least one key assumption is wrong and therefore the conclusion is wrong.

    Why would anybody take treasury opinion seriously? Apart from their idealogical bias, no sensible person takes sex advice from a eunich.

  4. Scott

    There are some who do pretty well fisking the models. Steve McIntyre comes to mind. It’s a thankless task though. We are all indebted to him for his good work.

  5. johno

    Has Treasury published their dodgy climate change modelling yet?

    You would think that all those warmerist scaremongers would be demanding that the modelling they relied on to scare the government into imposing a tax on plant food should be made publically available so it can be peer reviewed.

  6. johno

    People were shocked when I told a Senate inquiry that of course the RBA governor supports government policy, he is a public servant after all.

    Can we have this emblazened into the skull of every economics journalist and love media employee who write about economics or finance.

    The same applies to the head of Treasury, the ACCC and the Productivity Commission. None of them are independent. They are all paid by the government.

  7. Bill

    Modelling aside there are more sneaky ways to manage stories and narratives. Take for example Peter Martin’s and Tim Colebatch’s role in Treasury’s quest to get the 2011 employment story changed. There are a few commenters on P Martins blog calling him out and he is yet to reply. Have a look.

  8. ar

    Was a time credulity would get a journo sacked…

  9. Just Another bloody Lawyer

    Well, hang on, I thought 17% or so interest rates were the bank mortgage rates and not the RBA rates and that was caused at least in part by the capping of the interest rates of pre-existing mortgages at 13%.

    Was this not so?

  10. William Bragg

    Finding half a dozen instances when mandarins may have gotten it wrong is hardly scientific. The reality is that, compared to private sector advocates or other sources of information, mandarins get it far more right, far more often.

  11. Skuter

    William Bragg, it is not just about getting it wrong. Forecasts are almost never right. What is being discussed here is the deliberate misuse of modelling techniques to add a layer of opacity to policy discussions. The intention is to move the discussion beyond the capacity of the man in the street and thereby appeal to experts/authority. Anyone who challenges the results on the basis of the techniques used is accused of being biased or at worst, the discussion becomes too technical for laymen to follow. In a nutshell, it is a technique designed to deceive and mislead…

  12. Pedro

    “The reality is that” you’re making it up. I’ll bet pretty much nobody has a good forecasting record. Anyway, the point is not whether somebody is more likely to be correct, it is whether you get a second opinion before publishing such claims.

  13. johanna

    Correct, Skuter and Pedro. Worse still, oftentimes the forecasters refuse to submit their models to any external analysis – they just say “trust us, it’s a good model.”

    The Treasury’s carbon dioxide tax modelling is a disgraceful example of this. We do know that they fed wildly unrealistic assumptions into it – like that the rest of the world would follow suit in the next few years. But AFAIK, the black box itself remains a secret. Since taxpayers funded it, and are wearing the consequences, I can see no justification for keeping it and what was fed into it under wraps.

  14. .

    Finding half a dozen instances when mandarins may have gotten it wrong is hardly scientific. The reality is that, compared to private sector advocates or other sources of information, mandarins get it far more right, far more often.

    This is the most dishonest thing I’ve read in my life.

  15. wes george

    Humbug! Journalists don’t believe everything!

    Why just the other day I heard a Radio National feature which was highly sceptical about the claim that natural gas is 10x ‘cleaner’ than coal. Their hard hitting investigative reporting showed “the science is not settled” on fugitive natural gas emissions using a sketchy Southern Cross study that has yet to go through the peer review process.

    Fact is… “journalists” only believe a narrow set of propositions which confirm their cultural, economic and political prejudices.

    Science – the once rational inquiry into nature – has been demoted to a mere hand maiden in service of whatever the state-owned media’s narrative is at the moment. That’s why endless drought can be the signature of CAGW one year and cyclonic flooding the next. All pretence at objectively has been abandoned based on the theory that people are too brainwashed to notice….which might be increasingly true as our schools turn out the latest generation, which has been taught what to think rather than how.

  16. Econocrat

    Have a look at the crap emanating from the Orwellian titled “Office of Best Practice Regulation.”

    Total junk.

  17. .

    7 December 2012
    Regulatory Reform Package to Improve Productivity – Final Response

    …guys, here’s a simple suggestion to improve productivity.

    STOP regulating.

    Laissez-nous faire, ne pas trop gouverner

  18. Econocrat

    …guys, here’s a simple suggestion to improve productivity.

    STOP regulating.

    You don’t understand. The Office of Best Practice Regulation is pro-regulation. It’s Twitter account is full of behavioural economics crap.

    I’m glad I pay taxes to employ public servants to play on Twitter all day.

  19. .

    What a pack of bludging, thieving arseholes.

  20. Econocrat

    Would love to see Judith go to town on these fools in The Oz.

  21. Jannie

    The reality is that, compared to private sector advocates or other sources of information, mandarins get it far more right, far more often.

    Thats the kind of “reality” you get with a postmodernist “education”.

  22. stevo

    “Would love to see Judith go to town on these fools in The Oz.”

    –> seconded.

  23. Beginning to think that the whole structure of our society has been so corrupted by the Left that it will all have be destroyed, as it it is beyond repair.

  24. Jannie

    Beginning to think that the whole structure of our society has been so corrupted by the Left that it will all have be destroyed, as it it is beyond repair.

    Funny but thats how I feel Winston. I rationalise that the decline will be gradual for the next 25 years, and when it hits tipping point I will be out of it anyway, hopefully. Does not make me feel good about my kids though, who have been infected by the postmodernist illusion of Green prosperity. When todays youth wake up, they will have to deal with the next generation of disempowered cargo cultists fighting for access to the drying public teat. Their struggle for access to resources will end in disappointment and pain.

  25. mareeS

    Winston, Jannie, that’s a very defeatist attitude you have. I’m in my 50s, and I don’t see anything so bleak, especially as our offspring and many of their cohortare hard-hearted conservatives who have no intention of allowing Australia to slide off the cliff. They want what we have: a nice house, a nice family and secure jobs to pay for it all. I think they will get it, too, because they all have the right attitude.

    Btw, that attitude includes getting rid of Gillard and labor; you would have been interested to have heard these 20-30-somethings around the bbq at the weekend, it would really wake you up about the attitudes of young tradies and self-employeds.

    They want Howard/Costello back. Seriously.

  26. Jannie

    Hey mareeS, yes it is a bit defeatist I am afraid, but sometimes it feels necessary to avoid disappointment by lowering expectations.

    Its great that you have some 20-30 somethings showing promise, mine (20s) have yet to make that loop. I did in my early 30s, so theres a chance they will come around.

    My concern is that the Gramscians have taken over the institutions, particularly education and large parts of the media, and the system is churning out underskilled Leftist clones. Boys/Men in particular will find it hard to adapt. The regulated and inflexible economy will not be able to compete with Brazil, not to mention our Asian neighbours, and debt servicing will increasingly eat away potential growth. On top of this the armies of Entitled will grow, and will be encouraged to grow by the welfare sellers, who benefit from it and pay for it with more borrowed money. Its probably worse in the US and Europe.

  27. mareeS, It’s not defeatist – it’s realistic. I’ve just turned 60, and the youngsters I see do not inspire me to optimism.
    So the tradies sit around the BBQ and complain about the Government? Every generation does that mareeS. It’s not something to get optimistic about until they become politically active.

  28. davey street

    People believe what they want to believe. Journalists are no different. The days of independent unbiased reporting are long gone and that is why the media will wither on the vine and die out. Information today is of much poorer quality than it was two hundred years ago because today it is all manipulated agenda driven nonsense and therefore not worth a pinch of shit. Some new form of reliable and believable information and dissemination of same will emerge out of the ruins but it is decades away.

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