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.
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.
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/).
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)