One Year in Kenya [Lesson 2/5]

When reading anything start with the presumption that this is almost certainly wrong.

Being a research assistant really requires you to read and think for whomever’s research you are assisting. Research requires a certain level of non-emotional attitude. Reading must be done quickly and summaries must be with pith. Starting with this presumption helps, it may not be how you read in leisure, but it will make you a more efficient and a more appreciated research assistant.

There is an important caveat to this lesson: Starting with the presumption that everything is almost certainly wrong does not always lead to a contrarian conclusion, questioning everything no matter what is cliché and bullish. True critical thinking knows what to question, when, and where and what to appreciate and objectively support.

An example of this in the negative form comes from Pikettymania: Thomas Piketty, the now-famous French economist, published his take on wealth inequality in his best-selling book Capital in the 21st Century.

The book, as it should, made a huge splash upon its translation into English. Many (I mean, almost everybody who thinks about this stuff) wrote and published their thoughts on the book (and its famous equation: r>g) all over the economics blogosphere in the first half of 2014.

Chris Giles, an economics editor for the Financial Times, wrote his ‘critique’ on the so-called mathematical and statistical errors of Piketty’s analysis. His conclusion, Piketty is wrong, inequality is not actually rising.

Several weeks later, Piketty responded to Giles’s comments clearly (I mean with head spinning statistics) showing that his so-called mistakes were actually regular data maintenance methods accepted by anyone performing analysis on decades long time-series datasets.

While a careful reading of Piketty’s book starts with the presumption that it is almost certainly wrong, quality criticism should not follow the path Giles took: Starting with a pre-set conclusion and combing for a story to support that conclusion. Due to the weight of the implications of Piketty’s book much rigorous criticism must be deployed, but this must be done objectively and credit must be given where credit is due.