The Common Commenter Problem (Guest Post for Josh Divine)

(originally posted on The Divine Perspective)

Let’s start with this chart showing average weekly working hours for OECD countries from 2008:

There doesn’t seem to be anything controversial here. It’s OECD data, so it’s probably better reported than what you’d find from China or India. It includes 28 countries, which should give some perspective about… something. Whatever, perspective is always good, right? The chart also lists a source for its data, which is nice. The only place the authors could be accused of editorializing is where they say the chart “[shows] us which countries have their nose to the grindstone and which ones are more often found smelling the roses.” Really, authors? Which have their nose to the grindstone? Only the South Koreans? The South Koreans and the Greeks? The South Koreans, Greeks, Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians? Still, a little imprecision that doesn’t significantly affect the meaning of the chart is acceptable.

With that said, somehow the commenters managed visceral reactions. “K” contributes “American says wtf? no way. I work twice that.” “not important” attempts to kick off conspiracy discussions with “they probably don’t want to put up china and india’s [sic.] numbers because it’ll just be ridiculous,” as if the OECD is sitting on the China and India data, terrified that someone might find out what they’re holding back. Mike cautions not to trust “any statistic you haven’t forged,” which is poetic, I think, and gives statisticians a better claim to material engagement with the world than they may have had previously. Most concerning is Teiosanu George’s comment: “Hmm…guess I am the one crazy working 70-80 hours per week. Or the rest of the world is lazy…”

What’s striking to me is that even those commenters who have beliefs that can be factually verified – “spanish: Sorry, it’s not correct. In Spain all workers work at least 1750 hours per year.” – are completely certain that they’re right and that the data are wrong. “Spanish” doesn’t even think the data are only a little wrong. If all workers worked at least 1,750 hours per year, that is to say if the least hours worked anyone worked were over 1,750, Spain’s average would be substantially higher than the 1,627 reported. And can Teiosanu George really believe that everyone who works fewer than 3,640 hours per year is lazy?

This common man problem is unique to the social sciences. No one, for instance, much cares if the common man has an opinion about whether the particle found Wednesday is “an impostor, a single particle or even the first of many particles yet to be discovered” (New York Times) because the common man has no idea what he’s talking about. Social scientists could make the same claim, but the common man has easier retorts available: “I’m not an economist, but I have a bank account and I live in the economy;” “I’m not a psychologist, but I’ve been around people my whole life;” “I’m not an English major, but I’ve read some books.”

I think the most problematic is the common man in economics. Rick Perry has a bachelors degree in animal science, but for some reason we had, for about two weeks, to take him seriously when he suggested that Ben Bernanke should be hanged. Ron Paul has an M.D. from Duke and is a Randian,1 but we’re supposed to take him seriously as a debate opponent for Paul Krugman. Bernanke, by the way, is one of the best recession economists on the planet, and Krugman received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science in 2008 for his work in international macroeconomics. Both received tenure at Princeton, and while I’m skeptical about rankings in general, the evaluation process for tenure at the third-ranked economics program in the world is probably stringent.

But at least Perry and Paul aren’t wandering around with “Taxed Enough Already” signs. To these people, we ought collectively to pose a simple question: how do you know?2

It’s probably true that some of the people who post senseless comments below graphs have sensibilities similar to mine. I wish they would stop too. The economy is too big for someone who hasn’t seriously studied economics to understand intuitively, and don’t even ask about business experience.

Zizek tells a story about Niels Bohr in probably two-thirds of the books he’s published:

seeing a horse-shoe on his door, the surprised visitor said that he doesn’t believe in the superstition that it brings luck, to what Bohr snapped back: “I also do not believe in it; I have it there because I was told that it works also if one does not believe in it!” (from here)

The difference, of course, between the horse-shoe and the Federal Reserve is that while neither Niels Bohr’s nor anyone else’s beliefs affect the credibility of the horse-shoe, the fact that institutions like the Fed can change real conditions makes the hands-over-ears response even more problematic. It’s stupid, of course, to say that “The Fed doesn’t work because you don’t believe in it,” but we can say “The Fed is terrified to do anything because you don’t believe in it and because Marco Rubio has just enough clout somehow to ‘do something’ about the Fed if he doesn’t see results in two weeks, and then where will we be.”

1 – Economically, this basically means classical microeconomics without any nuance

2 – And then, of course, we could ask how much they think they’re being taxed currently, to hilariously inaccurate result (in Forbes, by the way, who lean right, so I’m totally not cherry-picking CNN articles about how uninformed the Tea Party is)


7 thoughts on “The Common Commenter Problem (Guest Post for Josh Divine)

  1. Maybe the tea party people didn’t realize how many people don’t pay taxes, leading them to assume the total was larger. Really, the knowledge that the average person contributes so little is hardly an endorsement for “progressive” policy.

    • Two things:

      Not sure where you found the argument for any particular policy here, so I’m not sure what causal link I’m supposed to be defending.


      Are you suggesting that they had consulted solid data but did the calculation wrong/excluded certain numbers for statistical reasons? Not sure what you’re trying to say.

  2. I know you haven’t directly advocated a policy, but there is a subtext to the jokes made at the Tea Party’s expense that I am cutting directly towards (and at).

    Also I know they haven’t consulted numbers, but a good fraction of them probably are forming judgment based on personal experiences, ie seeing a considerable portion of their earnings taken from their paychecks every two weeks.

    As an aside, I wouldn’t be too surprised if OWS is arguably more data-driven than the tea party, but the tea party has probably paid a shitton more into society than OWS.

  3. They should have added some info about holidays and vacation time to that chart. The weekly hours thing is quite misleading. For example, I have a friend starting a new job and she only gets one week vacation, while in the Netherlands, Misha gets 8 weeks. They probably both work 40 hours a week or more though.

    • That’s actually included! The weekly averages presented are just the average weekly component of the yearly totals. If you look at the comments where the chart was originally posted, people had a lot of trouble with that idea.

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