The “Hogwash” Argument

Posted on July 26, 2006 by

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So far The Wages of Wins has been reviewed in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and at SI.com (Sports Illustrated on-line).  In general these reviews have been quite positive.

Still, if you look really hard, you can come across a few comments on our book which are not so positive.  And these comments often use words like “ludicrous” or “hogwash.”  Unfortunately, the substance offered in these comments is often lacking. 

And I do not think this is a coincidence.  Often “hogwash” arguments lack real substance.  And the reason for this can be found in a story. 

As we note in the book, Marty, Stacey, and I each attended Colorado State University.  The economics program at CSU is known for its eclectic approach to the discipline.  Yes, at CSU you are exposed to a great deal of math and econometrics, just like in any other Ph.D. program in economics.  CSU, though, also emphasizes the historical roots of economics and the diversity of thought that can be found in the discipline.  As you read The Wages of Wins you will note that we mention Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, and Alfred Marshall.  Our familiarity with these names is a result of where we chose to study.

Okay, enough advertising for our alma mater.  Here is my story.

One day in graduate school I was sitting in Steven Shulman’s advanced labor economics seminar.  Shulman, who is now the chair of the CSU economics department, was lecturing that day on Nobel Laureate Gary Becker.  Now Shulman studied economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  Becker is at the University of Chicago.  Although this might not be common knowledge, Amherst and the University of Chicago historically have been on opposite sides of the political spectrum. So it is not necessarily the case that Shulman was sympathetic with Becker’s views.  Still, if you are going to teach labor economics, you must confront the work of Becker, who is THE major writer in this field over the past several decades.

As we went through a specific work by Becker – and no, I can’t remember which one, and no, that is not relevant to the point of this story (and yes, there is going to be a point to this story) – one of my fellow students responded that the particular Becker paper we were reviewing was “stupid.” 

Shulman stopped the class and said something to the effect, “Becker won a Nobel Prize in economics.  You are going to have to do much better than ‘that’s stupid’ to win an argument with Becker.”

Now the lesson Shulman was teaching that day was not that one should not try and debate Becker – although that might be true.  No, there was a more important lesson being conveyed.  Specifically, it may be the case that you do not like someone’s theory.  You may not believe someone’s results. But if you are going to debate a topic, words like “ludicrous”, “hogwash”, and even “stupid” are not going to help you carry the day.

The signal you send when you use this language is that you don’t have a valid counter argument.  Why is that the signal?  Because if you had evidence that could refute the claims offered, you would simply present that evidence.  And your new evidence, if it truly was valid, should be enough to win the debate.  In other words, comments like “stupid” are not necessary when you have evidence on your side.  The fact that you are wasting time on such words suggests that you have a problem articulating your point of view.  And when you can’t articulate your viewpoint, then your prospects in an honest debate are quite poor.  In essence, the “hogwash” argument is often just so much, well…..”hogwash.” (okay, you had to see that one coming, didn’t you?)

— DJ

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