Misconceived theories, preconceived notions

Two items now on our website examine the current real-world implications of prejudicial thinking.First, William Pfaff looks at how the take-your-medicine conclusions reached by economists Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff in 2010 confirmed the untutored intuition of policymakers looking for a reason to slash infrastructure and social spending throughout Western Europethe only trouble being that the prescription for austerity arose directly from the economists' questionable methodology. That, and a spreadsheet error that further distorted the calculations (Paul Krugman last week called the resulting effect on austerity-straitened nations the Excel Depression). From Pfaff:

The blood runs cold when one fully appreciates how vulnerable Western policymakers are to slogans and magical thinking. The Reinhart-Rogoff case is the latest, and certainly will not be the last, in which the credulity and carelessness of experts wreak havoc among millions of ordinary people. [B]ecause of austerity policies their paper was supposed to support, Greece sees hardship and political chaos, the Irish and Portuguese economies have collapsed, Spain and Italy suffer serious crises, the French government totters, and everyone hates the Germans for forcing austerity on everyone else.I am not writing this simply to pile onto the economists whose work was used to justify disastrous policies. What concerns me more is the demonstration of credulity on the part of elected leaders and policy professionals, who eagerly accepted research findings that seemed too convenient to be true.

Next, E. J. Dionne Jr. takes up the issue in the context of the political (and personal) responses to the Boston Marathon bombings, noting that where some were initially eager to pin blame on Islamic terrorists, others saw the hand of right-wing extremists. Once Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were identified as the bombers,however,

[w]e then moved, with dispatch and without pausing for more information, to show how the event proved that our side was right in any number of ongoing debates.Opponents of immigration reform used the fact that the brothers are immigrants as a lever to derail the rapidly forming consensus in favor of broad repairs to the system. Supporters countered, defensively, that if there is any lesson here, it's that our approach to immigration needs to be modernized. In truth, this horrifying episode has little to do with immigration reform one way or the other.We fell back to other familiar ground. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said we should assume these brothers had to be linked with one of our international enemies and that Dzhokhar should therefore be tried by a military tribunal and not in a normal American court, the venue to which his status as an American citizen entitles him.I'd acknowledge that none of us can get through the day without making a lot of assumptions. All of us have intellectual, ideological, and moral commitments that we bring to bear upon what we think about almost everything.But the hyperpolarization of our moment has sped up the rush to (contradictory) judgments, a practice further accelerated by new technologies. We have less patience than ever with the often painstaking task of gathering facts. We are better informed, yet seem more efficient than ever in manufacturing conspiracy theories.

Read Pfaffs column here; Dionnes is here.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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