The Authority of Quantitative Research and its Influence on Austerity Economics

Earlier this week, the findings of a new paper by a hitherto unknown graduate student have created a flurry among mainstream economists. The study published by Thomas Herndon and two of his professors, Robert Pollin and Michael Ash, essentially pointed out that the pro-austerity movement had been relying on shoddy economics.

“At first, I didn’t believe him. I thought, ‘OK he’s a student, he’s got to be wrong. These are eminent economists and he’s a graduate student,'” [UMass Amherst professor Robert] Pollin said. “So we pushed him and pushed him and pushed him, and after about a month of pushing him I said, ‘Goddamn it, he’s right.'” (Kevin Roose)

This fiasco is relevant for a number of reasons, firstly because of its implications for the authority of quantitative research and its relationship to political power, and what happens when the methods utilized by academics in their research are not subject to rigorous critique. Secondly it reminds us that policy-makers often appropriate such research, for reasons ranging from careerist or personal interest, or motivations tied to political ideology. It highlights and reminds us of the ethical responsibility that academia has in reflecting on the body of work it produces, and of the necessity of meticulous peer review.

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