Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Conventional Wisdom

From Freakonomics:
The first trick of asking questions is to determine if your question is a good one. . . It was John Kenneth Galbraith... who coined the phrase "conventional wisdom." . . .the conventional wisdom in Galbraith's view must be simple, convenient, comfortable, and comforting--though not necessarily true. It would be silly to argue that the conventional wisdom is never true. But noticing where the conventional wisdom may be false--noticing, perhaps, the contrails of sloppy or self-interested thinking--is a nice place to start asking questions (p. 90).

Levitt uses as an example Mitch Snyder the homeless advocate. He reported in 1980 that there were 3 million homeless Americans, and furthermore, 45 homeless people die each second (meaning 1.4 billion dead homeless each year. The total US population then was about 225 million). Later on, Synder admitted he made it up, because he didn't want reporters to go away without a number.

Reference: Becker, G. S, & Becker, G. N. (1997). "How the homeless crisis was hyped," in the Economics of Life. New York: Crown, 2000, pp. 60-69.

This is what is so intriguing to me about today; blogging and the internet can catch a lot of mispeak: honest mistakes and intentional mistakes.


Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Another famous made up statistic, still quote quoted constantly in standard feminist texts, is that FBI reports showed that 1 out of every 3 girls is raped before age 18. NOT to minimize rape and other sexual violence WHATSOEVER, but there never was such an FBI statistic. Christine Hoff Sommers, with whom I only partially agree, uncovered this as bogus in her book, Who Hi-Jacked Feminism? Sommers DOES seem to minimize male sexual predation and violence, especially sexual violence, against women in a way that I would never do. But no cause is served by made up claims and statistics. Just the opposite. When their bogus nature is exposed, the cause they were trying to serve is harmed--sometimes irreparably.
We need not only question "conventional wisdom" of all political stripes, but we need to commit ourselves to serving the truth. We need a healthy respect for "informational integrity" so that we neither falsify nor manipulate/distort information--and we allow our views to be challenged by new information that we determine to be as accurate as humanly possible.

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