A Letter to Gerard Henderson

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I sent the following letter to Gerard Henderson today.

Mr Gerard Henderson
The Sydney Institute

24 September 2009

Dear Mr Henderson,

I am writing to you regarding Issue 28 of your Media Watch Dog newsletter, and your discussion of Joshua Gans’ research. In that newsletter, you discuss what you describe as Professor Gans’ “research” into urinal choice.

As Professor Gans has pointed out this week, the material you have quoted was not in fact his research, but a website that he hyperlinked to from his weblog. Like your own newsletter, Professor Gans’ weblog contains plenty of items calculated to amuse and entertain, as well as to inform. The original source of the urinal analysis was a cartoonist who goes by the pseudonym xkcd.

More than the factual issue, what concerns me about this is your decision to portray Professor Gans to your readers as someone who works on pointless trivia. Having gone to his website, you most likely saw his CV, which clearly demonstrates that he is one of the nation’s leading economists, with over 100 journal articles to his name. Professor Gans has also published seven books, including some of the leading undergraduate textbooks used in economics classes in Australia. He regularly writes opinion articles for the Australian press about issues of economic policy.

Professor Gans’ research is diverse, but he is known internationally for his work on innovation policy – surely not a trivial topic. In 2007, he was awarded the inaugural Young Economist Award by the Economic Society of Australia. Professor Gans is undoubtedly one of superstars of Australian economics today, and likely for several decades to come.

The source of your disagreement with Professor Gans seems to stem from the paper on media slant that he and I have coauthored. In particular, you seem concerned by our use of mathematics to express our methodology. One can reasonably disagree over this point (which perhaps goes back to the Snow-Leavis debate over the extent to which scientific work ought to be comprehensible to generalists). Indeed, as you might have seen from Paul Krugman’s recent article in the New York Times Magazine, there is debate within economics itself about our use of mathematics.

But in a small country like Australia, I would hope that it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable. Ad hominem attacks not only cheapen the debate; they also distract from the bigger and more interesting questions. It is easier to deride one’s critics as fools than to admit that they are thoughtful and intelligent people who have ended up with the opposite view from our own (Question Time suffers from a little of this too, I think).

As I’m sure you are aware, those like yourself who lead public debate not only influence the issues of the day. You also shape how the next generation come to view politics and public policy: whether they view it as a personality stoush, or a larger debate about the nation’s future. A little wit can help make the big issues bearable, but it is easy to overstep the line between an amusing jab and demeaning a person’s entire career.

I hope you might consider extending an apology to Professor Gans, and giving your readers a broader sense of the quality and breadth of his academic contribution.

Sincerely,

Andrew Leigh.

Update: Gerard Henderson has emailed me a response, which I have reprinted in full below – along with my own short reply.

24 September 2009

Dear Professor Leigh

I refer to your fax dated 24 September 2009 – which I received this morning – concerning the coverage of Joshua Gans’ research in the recent issues of Media Watch Dog. I have no record of receiving an email, fax or letter from Professor Gans himself on this matter.  I assume that you are writing on his behalf.

The Sydney Institute has a record of encouraging debate and discussion on our platforms and in our publications.  I am willing to run a letter from you – or Joshua Gans – in MWD. For tomorrow’s edition, I would need copy by 9 am on Friday 24 September.

However, I do not intend to adopt your suggestion and apologise to Professor Gans – for the simple reason that I have nothing to apologise about.

In MWD Issue 26 (4 September 2006), I criticised the paper you co-authored with Professor Gans titled How Partisan is the Press?  Multiple Measures of Media Slant.  I did so because I believe that it is seriously flawed – not merely because of the use of mathematics to express your methodology.

My fundamental criticism of the How Partisan is the Press? paper is that it focused on public intellectuals who are cited in the media rather than on issues and policy. Any proper analysis of journalistic bias (I prefer the word “fashion”) during the Howard years should focus on how the media covered such issues as national security (including Iraq), border protection, climate change and industrial relations (i.e. WorkChoices).

Your paper rarely mentions such matters.  Yet many journalists/commentators  openly opposed the Howard Government on the invasion of Iraq, the non-ratification of the Kyoto Agreement, industrial relations (including waterfront) reform and national security (including the handling of the Haneef Case). Any paper on media bias in Australia during the Howard Government which does not cover such issues is intellectually shallow.  That’s what I wrote in MWD and I certainly do not intend to apologise to Professor Gans or anyone else for holding this view.

Also, your focus on the coverage of politics in the lead-up to the 2004 and other elections is misplaced.  It is widely known that, on the eve of the elections, editors and management work hard to ensure that coverage is as fair and balanced as possible. This is particularly the case with the ABC  – where a special committee is formed for this purpose.  The appropriate time to judge media bias – or fashion – is away from election campaigns.  You seem unaware of this. Your paper is flawed as a result.

I am aware of Professor Gans’ distinguished career as an economist – to which you allude to in your letter.  However, if he – or academic economists in general – get involved in the debate on the media, they should expect critique from those who happen to disagree with them.

As previously advised, I am willing to run an explanation in MWD as to how urinal analysis got on Professor Gans’ website. All I can say is that nothing goes on The Sydney Institute’s website without my approval as the Institute’s executive director.

The fact is that a paper titled “Optimal Number of Urinals” and signed by Joshua Gans is on Professor Gans’ website: www.economics.com.au. Moreover, Professor Gans consciously put a hyperlink on his website to the paper titled “Urinal protocol vulnerability” by xkcd.  Professor Gans should have anticipated that someone would make fun of this – which is all I did in MWD.

In conclusion, if Joshua Gans intends to engage in the public debate, he should expect that he will receive criticism as well as praise.  Your How Partisan is the Press? paper was praised on the ABC. Professor Gans even welcomed the fact that it was cited with approval by Jonathan Holmes on the ABC’s Media Watch program. How Partisan is the Press? was criticised in Media Watch Dog.  It’s called debate.

Since you have put your letter to me on your website, I presume that you will also post my reply on your site.

Best wishes

Yours sincerely

Gerard Henderson

24 September 2009

Dear Mr Henderson,

Thank you for your letter. I am sorry to see that I have not persuaded you on the point of apology. I am perfectly happy for you to post the  text of my letter in your newsletter. A copy is attached.

As requested, I shall likewise post your response to my weblog, which is at http://andrewleigh.com (please note that this is different from my academic website, where I post my research, which is at http://econrsss.anu.edu.au/~aleigh/).

Sincerely,

Andrew Leigh.

PS. Re-reading your response, I noticed that you make the inference that I am writing on Professor Gans’ behalf. This is incorrect. The views expressed in the letter are my own, and Professor Gans did not see a copy of my letter before I faxed it to you.

(Also posted at andrewleigh.com)

21 Responses to "A Letter to Gerard Henderson"
  1. Nice. I think perhaps Krugman was talking about mathematics for theoretical purposes, whereas this paper (as far as I can tell) uses statistics for empirical purposes. I doubt whether Krugman has a problem with the latter.

  2. Good for you.  I daresay Joshua’s reputation with serious viewers remains intact, but it’s best to keep these people in their place.

  3. Way, way too polite.  The only reason I don’t see Henderson’s attack as a vicious smear was that it was ridiculously stupid.

  4. to paraphrase Jay Z on his recent album: ” I was gonna kill a couple right wing think tank boffins but they did it to themselves.” Hendo has really executed a huge fail over this. He’s always going on about hyperbole and hypocrisy and people who misquote and misrepresent their sources and present them as a reasonable position. Bloke needs to do a basic IT course or something.

  5. I’ll be interested to see how he responds, he rarelly gives ground to people he sets upon. This despite the tone he writes with, a tone that would suggest an educated individual engaging in civil debate and exchang of ideas. Mind you, going by the fact that he doesn’t include ANY hyperlinks on his blog website, i’m not holding my breath that he would have any idea at all about the issue.

  6. Did Andrew care to point out that Joshua , not having seen the government had dropped, Fuel watch, Grocery watch and Dog poo watch was still furiously defending these appalling government proposals.
     
    Andrew and Joshua are two real funny guys and I can only hope they continue with the comedy sketches they keep doing like suggesting the ABC is liberal biased. The only person who thinks that is Jonathon Holmes and even he seemed to be trying to avoid cracking a smile as his nose was getting longer.
     
     

  7. A lot politer than Gerard deserves.
    The bit about the hyperlink is amusing. It sounds as if someone has finally explained to Gerard how they work. In his MWD it was obvious he had no idea of the difference between a link to another site and the site itself. Now he is saying that Gans “consciously put a hyperlink on his website…” Huh? What exactly does “consciously” mean here? That Gans might have inadvertently put the link there? How does that change Henderson’s obvious confusion as to research by Gans and research by others linked to by Gans?
    Henderson really is a relic of a by-gone era.  Alan Jaspan might not have done much right as editor of The Age, but getting rid of Henderson was one of them.
     

  8. I think you’re all being too kind assuming that Henderson didn’t know what a hyperlink was.  I think malicious misrepresentation is a more likely explanation.

  9. Tye, the main point of Andrew’s letter was that ad hominem attacks detract from what should be a debate about the issue at hand.  If you disagree with their arguments, then do so.  Personal attacks don’t help your case.

  10. Mathew:

    Andrew is defending what will go down as possibly the worst study ever conducted by two Australian academics.  To suggest through a study that the ABC is liberal biased is actually quite offensive. They should apologize.

  11. Are you mad? Has no-one warned you not to enter the bottomless pit of pedantry that is Gerard Henderson’s MWD?
    Extract yourself now…

  12. So Hendo wanted the analysis of bias to concentrate on the key issues which the Howard government was critiqued on in order to determine baseline bias?   WTF? It’s like he doesn’t even know how analysis is performed.   Oh – and since Hendo is curiously shy on stating this fact when he comments in the press he was Chief of Staff to John Howard in the 1980s. He’s also a sometime presenter on ABC and guest panelist on Insiders.

  13. No, that’s just not right. Henderson carefully explains why arguably the worst paper in Australian (and possibly the world)in academic history was wrong .
    Read his letter and see for yourself.
     
    You don’t have to be conservative to agree with Henderson. You only have to be fair minded and analytical to see this paper for what it is, which is  pure, unadulterated nonsense.
    The problem with these things is that programs like RightWing Watch picked up the paper and ran with it in an attempt to provide cover for ABC hard leftwing bias. That’s why what these two jokers did makes it so unforgivable.
     
     
     

  14. tye, the fact is, Leigh and Gans have attempted to cut through the bullshit and unbacked claims to try and answer the media bias question in an empirical manner.  Even despite any misgivings over the exact methodology, this is an entirely admirable approach.
    If you find the methodolgy suspect, the appropriate answer is to design a study with a better one.  Retreating back into claims based only on gut feeling or “everybody knows” is not.  It’s tired but true – the plural of anecdote is not evidence.

  15. Oh Okay thanks for the lesson in not having the need to use common sense  and rely Leigh and Gans to think for you.   Their method was a crock of crap and when they realized it was a crock of crap they should have stopped there instead of passing it around.   There are 2/12 programs that count for political message on the ABC. 7.30 report, Lateline and the regular news.   Tell me with a straight face the those programs are right wing biased. Go on I dare you. For instance I would guess that the mention of academics on say Landline would occur frequently. How in hell’s name would that qualify for a political position? Leigh and Gans should apologize to the public for peddling that nonsense.

  16. Ahh yes, “common sense” – as Einstein described it, “the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.”
    Look, I do have problems with the methodology – I’ve described them elsewhere along with suggestions for ways it could be done better – but the basic concept of attempting to determine the facts through empirical means rather than bald loudmouthed assertion is an obviously good one.
    Oh, and by the way, I do think it’s entirely plausible that in an attempt to appease its various critics from the Right that ABC TV has bent over backwards to include so much Right commentary that the pendulum has swung too far.

  17. <i>Oh, and by the way, I do think it’s entirely plausible that in an attempt to appease its various critics from the Right that ABC TV has bent over backwards to include so much Right commentary that the pendulum has swung too far.</i>   Rofl… Nothing like the cheap appearance of a \study\ to give authenticity a dirty name, hey?   I didn’t ask you to navel gaze. I asked an easy question. Do you think, the 2 1/2 programs that count for news on the medium (7.30 report, Lateline, the news) list right? Yes or no?

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