A Columnist Recants, but the WSJ Edit Page Won’t Hear it

The paper runs a flawed column and declines to publish the retraction

A year and a half ago, George Mason University economics professor Daniel B. Klein wrote a column about his finding that liberals scored much worse on a test about basic economics than libertarians and conservatives. The Wall Street Journal trumpeted it with this sneering headline:

Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

Self-identified liberals and Democrats do badly on questions of basic economics.

The problems with the column were obvious, as left-leaning publications were quick to point out. It was based on responses to eight questions that were almost all tilted toward conservative ideas. In some instances, it counted the correct answer as the wrong answer or counted answers as false that are in fact unfalsifiable (meaning, can’t be proven false one way or another; e.g. “blue is the best color”). For instance:

5) Third World workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited (unenlightened answer: agree). 6) Free trade leads to unemployment (unenlightened answer: agree). 7) Minimum wage laws raise unemployment (unenlightened answer: disagree).

If there’s more than one Third World worker being exploited overseas by an American company, then “agree” is the correct answer to No. 5. Surely there are two people somewhere being exploited by American firms. Less narrowly: Whether somebody is being exploited is opinion that’s not falsifiable until everyone agrees on what exploitation is. While Wall Street Journal editorial page and Mercatus types might not agree that exploited is a fair word for, say, the twenty-nine Bangladeshis who died last year sewing clothes for the GAP and Target for 28 cents an hour (after management locked them inside to prevent theft), I would, and so would most everyone else.

And there are lots of “unenlightened” economists who disagree with the premise that the minimum wage raises unemployment and that so-called free trade doesn’t kill jobs.

But regardless of the merits of his first effort, Klein ought to get some kind of award for the remarkable intellectual honesty of his second one, which recounts how he got it wrong the first time. Klein revisited his earlier findings, going back to confirm them only to find out that what he’d been confirming was confirmation bias:

But one year later, in May 2011, Buturovic and I published a new scholarly article reporting on a new survey. It turned out that I needed to retract the conclusions I’d trumpeted in The Wall Street Journal. The new results invalidated our original result: under the right circumstances, conservatives and libertarians were as likely as anyone on the left to give wrong answers to economic questions. The proper inference from our work is not that one group is more enlightened, or less. It’s that “myside bias”—the tendency to judge a statement according to how conveniently it fits with one’s settled position—is pervasive among all of America’s political groups. The bias is seen in the data, and in my actions.

But you won’t find that retraction in The Wall Street Journal. It’s in The Atlantic this month. I thought that was odd, so I asked Klein if the Journal had declined to run it. He emailed back:

Back in May I approached the WSJ person I had worked with. They declined the idea of a follow-up.

Klein, for his part, says that he isn’t “inclined to fault them for that decision.”

The WSJ, dealing with the first survey study, had great difficulty dealing with 8 policy questions (plus the ideology question) and the results.

The idea of a new op-ed, dealing with 17 policy questions, and two sets of results, is very hard to imagine.

It’s not hard for me to imagine. Actually, it’s hard to imagine a publication not finding a way to run a piece by someone effectively retracting a column it has published. All seventeen questions don’t need to be in the piece, and 800 words is plenty of room to tell the story.

I asked the Journal for comment and will update if I hear back.

I can’t say I’m surprised that the Journal’s edit page would decline to do so—disappointed, yes. We’ve seen many times how ideology trumps the truth there. As Jonathan Chait wrote back in May, when Klein’s paper came out (and the WSJ declined to run an op-ed on it):

I think they genuinely deserve credit for taking into account the objections and making the effort to correct them. The interesting question is whether the Wall Street Journal could be shamed into publishing another op-ed correcting the first one. Probably not, but you never know.

Now we do know, and that, and the contrast with how honestly Klein grappled with his findings, says a lot about what you need to know about The Wall Street Journal editorial page.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,