Voodoo Journalism

A Textbook Case of Hoodwinking

The Old World, according to Stefan Theil in the latest issue of Foreign Policy, is succumbing to a dangerous pro-left bias. In an article entitled ‘Europe’s Philosophy of Failure’ Theil surveys high school textbooks, finding them both hackneyed and representative of a larger economic malaise. His evidence seems so compelling that he has generated a vigorous online debate about the limits of European economic sensibilities. But beyond the headline, something is amiss.

Captial and Kapital

Blog posts on Theil’s thesis of despair are fairly easy to find, and troublesomely accommodating. Marshall Jevons’ link-and-comment post on Bayesian Heresy merely points to an “interesting article”. Eric Skilling’s post on Flashcube.Org at least cites a passage, but only offers a similar passing comment on a “great article”.

There is much to be said for traditional linking blogs and their ability to disseminate information. But in this case the minimalist posts obscure a crucial failing of Theil’s piece: it’s not about Europe at all. Skipping from the Europe of his title to specific accounts of French and German textbooks, Theil reveals a sweeping illogic. How can we possibly draw continent-wide conclusions from two states, even if their economies are the backbone of European development?

That hasn’t stopped the web-pundits rapping with Theil on the Eurofools. Last week, Mike Renzulli at Free Libertarian commented on the article and decried “the Marxist dogma children are being spoon fed in European schools.” Taking a less serious though no less pan-European approach last month, Paul Hseih at NoodleFood quipped:

If I were a betting man, I’d sell Europe short. Assuming that I could find any economically-literate Europeans who’d take the other side of the trade . . .

Even Ben Rast at the Bastiat Society Blog, who covered the article’s French and German detail in a précis last week, did little more than repackage Theil’s generalised conclusion. “Europe”, he wrote, “is sowing the seeds of its own economic distress”.

This misdirection of attention isn’t entirely surprising – as a commentator with an established audience Theil has momentum on his side. Earlier this month he contributed a shorter version of the article to London’s Financial Times and a restored but tweaked version to the Dallas Morning News. He is also the European Economics Editor of Newsweek, and in August 2006 wrote a piece about the fight against the malign influence of textbooks on French and German students entitled ‘Capitalist Manifesto’.

Capitalist CaricatureSo the Foreign Policy article sits between the revisions to come and the initial piece. It works as a pivot, drawing together a wide-ranging argument based on a very simple proposition: that the written word has a profound effect. Theil’s point is that students in the two countries don’t learn about economics per se, they learn about a written discourse on economics that pushes enterprise and the entrepreneur to the side, spotlighting the state and the social activist.

This is not an overly dramatic observation of textbooks at work, but by labelling such tactics “voodoo economics” and insisting they reflect a widespread ‘philosophy’, or more to the point an ideological division, Theil quickly shifts attention from the page to the public sphere.

Of 25 posts on a Crooked Timber comment thread covering this subject and its handling by Free Exchange, one of the Economist blogs, textbooks were only directly mentioned twice. More damningly, in the 186 comments that Ian Williams drew for his attack on the article at the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog, only two mentioned textbooks and one of those directly quoted the Foreign Policy commentary attached to the original article.

Far more prominent on both comment threads were conflations of the situations in Germany and France with that of continental Europe, and comparisons with education and curricula in the US. Indeed that was what Theil intended, having gathered his data as a Fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Voodoo dollsVoodoo economics becomes voodoo journalism, and not surprisingly given that Theil only cites four French and two German textbooks in the article, even then leaving one from each country un-named.

Not much of a sample.

But there doesn’t seem ever to have been much of a sample. At an SME and entrepreneurship conference in Portugal late last year, Theil described his larger set of examples – 5 from France, 9 from Germany and 3 from the US for comparison. This, he noted, was as a “non-representative sample”. One should think so.

Everything I have cited here is available on the Internet. All of it. Why, then, have some bloggers missed the flimsy voodoo of claimed ideological division and a clear sample bias?

For all its focus on unsullied information, the blogosphere can be a puzzling world.

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