Hidden in plain sight

Alan Freeman interprets the art of deft manipulation of fact used in painting an unrealistically assuring, yet remarkably convincing picture of international inequality.

In his 1997 book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, astronomer and science populariser, Carl Sagan, drew up a few pieces of advice on spotting dishonest discourse. The advice (see box, A baloney detection kit) applies perfectly to economists, who have made harmful mistakes by ignoring his simple guidelines.

A Baloney Detection Kit
Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.” Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view. Arguments from authority carry little weight. Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. Compare it fairly with the alternatives.

Evidence of this ignorance has a habit of popping up at inconvenient moments, such as the 2008 crash – lending weight to students’ heartfelt pleas for “real world economics”. It also pops up, however, in the global South, where 80% of the world’s population live. Many authors – Amin, Chang, DeMartino, Hickel, or Wade to name a few – point out that structural

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Alan Freeman

Alan Freeman is co-director, with Radhika Desai, of the Geopolitical Economy Research Group (GERG) at the University of Manitoba. He was an economist at the Greater London Authority between 2000 …

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