In a Washington Times editorial today, Professors Todd Zywicki and Gail Heriot wrote an op-ed entitled "Junk Social Science Index" in which they criticized the testimony of Professor Elizabeth Warren and Dr. David Himmelstein before the U.S. House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law. Zywicki and Heriot attack Warren and Himmelstein's work on medical bankruptcies. Warren has posted a reply here on the Talking Points Memo blog where she thoroughly addresses the spurious claims Zywicki and Heriot make about her data. In the academic journal where their article first appeared, Warren, Himmelstein and their co-authors wrote a reply to their critics. Zywicki and Heriot do not discuss this reply, which begins with a critical point--all of Warren and Himmelstein's data are reported in the article and open for researchers to do their own interpretation, which is all Zywicki and Heriot did. They have no new data of their own.
What bothers me most is the tone that Zywicki and Heriot adopt. Rather than acknowledge that they are offering their own interpretation of Warren and Himmelstein's data, Zywicki and Heriot descend into a fit of innuendo and name-calling. They condescendingly refer to Warren, the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, as "Miss Warren" and to Himmelstein, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a practicing physician, as "Mr. Himmelstein." Zywicki and Heriot characterize Warren and Himmelstein's work as "junk" and "one of the most misleading pieces of research ever placed before Congress." They dismiss the entire committee hearing, and Warren and Himmelstein by association, as "just another arm of the publicity leviathan behind Michael Moore's new 'documentary' titled 'Sicko.'" Zywicki and Heriot apparently cannot even acknowledge Sicko as a documentary without some qualification.
Who is the publicity leviathan? It's only fair that people realize the source of these harsh characterizations. The Washington Times is well known for its radically conservative political views. Other commentary in the paper today included an op-ed suggesting that U.S. failure to stop Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons was tantamount to France's failure to stop Hitler before World War II and an editorial not merely disagreeing with but actually accusing congressional Democrats of undermining the war effort. Zywicki will be known to many readers of this blog as the one legal academic who continually testifies to Congress in support of the consumer credit industry. For example, under the auspices of the pro-business Mercatus Center, he recently joined a report arguing against any restrictions on the subprime lending industry. Zywicki also served as head of the FTC's Office of Policy Planning in 2003-2004. Heriot is a member of a blog called "The Right Coast," where she recently blogged about her "conservative/libertarian instincts" (ironically enough in a post about when she was a volunteer for George McGovern). According to her web site, Heriot was counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee under Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, a strong proponent of the 2005 bankruptcy law.
Views are not wrong merely because of the politics of the persons who hold them. But the politics of academics who hurl invective and call others' work "junk" while doing no data collection of their own should alert us when we have polemicists rather than dispassionate analysts.
FULL DISCLOSURE OF MY OWN: I should be so flattered to be part of the publicity leviathan for anything, but I'll make clear that Warren is a colleague, a co-author, a co-blogger with me here on Credit Slips, and a good friend. Both Warren and Himmelstein are collaborators of mine in the research project that led to the data collection involved in that article and an ongoing data collection effort.