A Civilized Debate

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Anyone who’s interested in how — and how well — stimulus dollars are being spent should read the exchange between Veronique de Rugy of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center and Nate Silver of 538.com about some pivotal data and quality issues. Of course, we could summarize their points; but we think you’ll find it much more illuminating to read through the exchange itself, and let the authors’ speak for themselves.

We suggest that you read the four pieces in reverse order (starting with number four and moving back to number one) Trust us, it’ll make more sense that way. But here they are in the original order:

  1. de Rugy’s paper, which got the ball rolling
  2. Silver’s first response
  3. de Rugy’s reply
  4. Silver’s second response

The exchange is worthy of attention because it highlights two great points:

1) We really like seeing smart people getting past their initial suspicions of each other in order to begin hammering out some fundamental questions about the quality of Recovery.gov data and potential issues in the stimulus package itself.

We’ll never get very far in understanding what works and how well it works if we can’t get to points of basic agreement across partisan or ideological aisles about the ground rules of analysis. This civilized debate underscores how partisan and toxic much of the discussion over the stimulus (and other recent government plans) has become.

It has also been suggested that this is a model for the quick, effective peer-review that the internet facilitates.

2) In the course of their discussion, de Rugy and Silver raise some very good and sobering questions about the quality of the data for analytical purposes provided by Recovery.gov.

Note these two comments, for example:

“I worked within the confines of $18 million Recovery.gov website, a website that we were promised would allow us to track the money to the last cent. Obviously, that is not the case. The money trail ends at the level reported, and from the website one cannot tell where the money went next.”–de Rugy’s reply

and:

“I share de Rugy’s disappointment with the quality of the data available at recovery.gov. Frankly, I am not sure that testing her hypothesis to a peer-reviewable level of robustness is possible given the middling quality of data and the inherent ambiguity with how particular projects must be assigned to particular congressional districts.”–Silver’s 2nd response

We  hope that the officials working on Recovery.gov are paying attention. We were excited by the recent appointment of data presentation guru Edward Tufte to the ARRA Recovery Independent Advisory Panel, and hope that that might be a good step in making Recovery.gov more useful to citizens and researchers alike.

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