More on Fake Scholarship


Reflecting a bit more on the subject of my article, “Fake Scholarship on Fake News,” I have now come to a couple of conclusions, (1) economists make very poor propagandists, and (2) I was too easy on Professors Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow.  The article in question is my analysis of their published working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) entitled, “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election.”


The very idea that they would elevate the notion of fake news, which they define as “news stories that have no factual basis but are presented as facts,” to a subject worthy of study for what effect it might have had on the election raises one’s suspicion right off the bat that they have a propagandistic purpose.  The term originated, after all, with the losers of the election as they stretched to find one reason after another why they had lost, other than that it was the plain will of the voters.  The notion that the Trump victory might have been caused by voters being deceived by fraudulent news reports fits all too neatly into the portrait painted by the news media of his supporters, that is, that they tend to be poorly educated and simply stupid.


They further raise the suspicion of a propagandistic purpose when they set up their study, making it appear to be something worth looking into in a “scientific” way, by citing an alarming article by the highly partisan online news service BuzzFeed with the extremely misleading title, “This Analysis Shows How Viral Fake Election News Stories Outperformed Real News on Facebook” and the fantastic claims of one of those inventors of fake news, touted by the virulently Trump-opposing Washington Post, that his Hillary-tarring fabrications inadvertently turned the election because Trump supporters were just dumb enough to believe them.


Then, when their more sober investigation arrives at the quite unsurprising conclusion that this newly discovered phenomenon of “fake news” was inconsequential, the good economics professors change the subject by telling us in their formal concluding section that, by golly, incorrect information believed by the citizenry must have had some import in the election because we can see that lots of people have believed various “conspiracy theories” through the years.  Never mind that, as the authors say, “These conspiracy theories are slightly different than most of the fake news we study, in the sense that many fake news articles can be traced back to a single person who invented the article without any facts to back it up, whereas some conspiracy theories could in principle be true and often have no unique origin.”


Merely “slightly different?”  Really?  Just “often have no unique origin?”  How about “never have a unique origin?”  And what could they possibly mean by the expression, “in principle be true” as opposed to simply “be true?”  


You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard to write such silliness, but I think it helps.


Misrepresenting Opinion about the Kennedy Assassination


Looking a bit further into their presentation of their conclusions and its supporting Figure 7 entitled, “Share of Americans believing historical [sic] partisan conspiracy theories,” I have made the discovery that my previous characterization of them as ignorant and simple minded, though bright, doesn’t go far enough.  If they were just economist-type nerds doing their thing they would not have used their source, the American Enterprise Institute’s article entitled “Public Opinion on Conspiracy Theories,” in the devious way that they have.


Allcott and Gentzkow’s Figure 7 lists 13 examples of “conspiracy theories” on a bar chart with the percentage of the American public believing each of them in the year in which the survey was taken.   They are arranged chronologically by year of survey.  The first two are from 1963: (1) “President John Kennedy was assassinated by a segregationist or extreme right-winger” (2) “President John Kennedy was assassinated by some Communist or other radical.”  The tenth one on the list is from 2003 and it is “Lyndon Johnson was involved in the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963.”  Not surprisingly, a safe minority of the public believed each of these propositions. (The around 18% figure for that last one would no doubt be a good deal higher these days, since a number of books have come out in recent years placing the blame squarely on LBJ.)


But the most important thing in that AEI article, the thing that virtually jumps out at you as you read it, is that the majority of the American public, from the first day right up to the last poll taken rejects the official story that the assassination of President Kennedy was the work of Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone.  The JFK assassination is the lead topic, and in the very first table we have, among lots of other things, the following answers to poll questions:


“Do you think the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was the work of just one man or were other people involved, too?”


                                         One man        Other people             Don’t know

November 1963               24%                  62%                             14%


“Do you think there was an official cover-up to keep the public from learning the truth about the Kennedy assassination?”


                                         Yes                             No

October    1988              61%                            17%

January     1992              75%                            13%

October    1993              81%                            12%

May          1998              74%                            18%

November 2003             68%                            13%


These findings are completely consistent with Gallup polls showing that an overwhelming majority of the American public has believed that there was a conspiracy in the JFK assassination for quite a long time.  This is what one must call a mainstream belief, and it is so for very good reasons.  It is a quite remarkable fact because the public had to have arrived at that conclusion in spite of what everyone in the so-called “mainstream” press has told them they are supposed to believe all those years, going so far as to ridicule doubters as “conspiracy theorists,” “grassy-knoll nut-jobs,” or worse on a regular basis.  It is safe to say that without the determined propagandistic work of the press, virtually no one would believe that the Kennedy assassination was the work of just one man.


Honestly representing what was in that AEI article concerning public opinion about the Kennedy assassination would not have comported with the portrait of belief in “conspiracy theories” as in the same league as believing “fake news,” so dishonesty became the authors’ order of the day.


In my previous article I fear that I might have left the impression that Professors Allcott and Gentzkow were not quite as bad as the odious and contemptible academic careerist down in Texas, Matthew McNiece.  Recall that I concluded that the worst thing about McNiece was not his manifest ineptitude, but his dishonesty.  Similarly with Allcott and Genzkow, it is clear that they did not use this poll data on the JFK in a sloppy or inept fashion.  They were neither lazy nor stupid in how they chose to present it.  They had to go to some trouble, in fact, to denature and twist it for their purposes.  What this tells us is that they are not just bad scholars.  Putting it in plain, everyday language: very much like the professorial charlatan McNiece and the legions of protectors of the murderers of President Kennedy in the journalistic and academic communities, they are just no damned good. *


Fake Science


Once we come to realize that the purpose of Allcott and Gentzkow is to conceal rather than to reveal important truths, it’s not hard to find other examples of their legerdemain.  The reader had to wonder what their apparent sidetrack was all about as they attempted to determine with some degree of precision the connection between how many television commercials a candidate runs and the number of votes he or she receives.  What a nutty enterprise that is, you must be telling yourself, while asking yourself what on earth that could have to do with the central question of the effect of fake news on the 2016 election.  They finally show you with their concluding paragraph:


In summary, our data suggest that social media were not the most important source of election

news, and even the most widely circulated fake news stories were seen by only a small fraction of

Americans. For fake news to have changed the outcome of the election, a single fake news story

would need to have convinced about 0.7 percent of Clinton voters and non-voters who saw it to

shift their votes to Trump, a persuasion rate equivalent to seeing 36 television campaign ads.


The last minute detour off onto the essentially unrelated “conspiracy theory” question was not a sufficient distraction from the fact that they found that “fake news” was an unimportant phenomenon that had essentially no effect on the outcome of the election. That’s where the “epic fake precision,” as I called it, of that last sentence comes in.  All you have to do is to think about it a little bit and you will realize that it’s complete nonsense, but it accomplishes the task of muddying the water while at the same time sounding like these sharp guys really know what they’re talking about.  For those readers who didn’t bother to check out the Fallacy Files site behind my previous “fake precision” link, here is the key explanatory passage for what Allcott and Gentzkow are up to:


One common effect of overly precise numbers is that they impress some people as scientific. Many people are intimidated by math, and it is easy to awe them with meaningless numbers. Pseudoscientists use over-precision to create a bogus impression of science, whereas genuine scientists avoid overstating the precision of their results. So, overly precise numbers are not a mark of science, but of pseudoscience. They should really lend less, not more, credibility to claims.


“Pseudoscience” is just another way of saying “fake science,” which suggests to us what we might call the exercise that these two NBER economists with their Ivy League pedigrees have performed: an exercise in pseudoscholarship.


* Even when you come across a mainstream journalist who seems like he might be worth a damn, he turns out to be false opposition, or a fake critic.  Such a person is Christopher Ruddy in the Vince Foster death case, and such was surely the case with one of the authors’ primary references in their introductory paragraph.  As support for their observation that media power through the 20th century came to be concentrated in fewer and fewer corporate hands through their control of first radio and then television, they cite the very influential book The Media Monopoly by the dean of the school of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, Ben Haig Bagdikian.  The late Bagdikian is often touted as a major media critic, in the same league with the co-author of Manufacturing Consent, left-wing pied piper Noam Chomsky, but the praise toward him is likely as misdirected as it is toward Chomsky.  Bagdikian, you see, had a checkered journalistic past.  The observation about concentrated media power is unexceptionable, but you have to worry about his book as a whole.  The fact that he worked for a time as a reporter for The Washington Post should be enough to make one wonder about him.  Before that, though, a very important piece he did for the Saturday Evening Post in the wake of the JFK assassination really gives him away, and perhaps explains more than anything how he was able to rise so high in the profession and to be so influential, in a similar fashion to Dan Rather.


Check out the photograph that appeared accompanying his Saturday Evening Post article entitled, “The Assassin,” in the issue of December 14, 1963.  Bagdikian calls the photo “The Assassin’s View,” and it purports to show what Lee Harvey Oswald saw as he peered through the telescopic sight of his cheap Mannlicher-Carcano rifle down Elm Street in Dallas from his perch on the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository.  But as Michael Rivero, the proprietor of the What Really Happened web site explains, that photograph had to have been taken from around the second floor of the Dal Tex Building, across Houston Street from the Schoolbook Depository.  You can see the distinctive faćade of the latter building in the lower right corner of the photograph.  The angle is such that it explains how the first shot could have passed through Kennedy’s neck and then Texas Governor John Connally’s torso as the governor sat directly in front of him.  It prefigured young, ambitious lawyer Arlen Specter’s magic bullet theory for the Warren Commission by several months. 


The young reporter Bagdikian, as he wrote up his story about the lone assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had to have known that that was a fake photograph.  Like I said, “no damned good,” the lot of them.


David Martin

March 1, 2017





Home Page    Columns    Column 5 Archive    Contact