Most Ph.D. students spend their days reading esoteric books and stressing out about the tenure-track job market. Thomas Herndon, a 28-year-old economics grad student at UMass Amherst, just used part of his spring semester to shake the intellectual foundation of the global austerity movement.
There are several things that are great about this story:
- A “lowly” graduate student was able to take down a highly influential study, by simply looking under the hood at the underlying data and finding simple errors.
- The importance of replicating existing findings.
- Consequently, the importance of sharing data (or making it publicly available).
- The importance of remembering that science is not about definitive answers, but about engaging in a debate.
- The importance of making arguments and counter-arguments based on data, not just mere speculation.
We don’t often push our students to ask questions and challenge the authorities. We should. This guy is inspiration because he had the confidence, persistence, and fortitude to take apart a highly influential study.
You also have to give credit to his professor, who gave the assignment: Go out and replicate and existing study. And then working with the student to refine the findings and double-check the work.
And you also have to give credit to one of the original authors of the study, who sent the student the dataset. Without that dataset, there would be no “take down” and no discovery. The original author knew she was exposing herself, but freely passed along the data.
This is how the scientific method works, and why it’s superior to other forms of knowledge. Science is a collaborative project. The student needed guidance from the professor; the original author shared her data. Together—collectively—they are engaging in a debate and uncovering knowledge (in this particular case: the relationship between public debt and economic growth).
In the end, it doesn’t matter that the student is a “lowly” graduate student at UMass Amherst and he “took down” two Harvard economics professors. In the most scientific sense, they stood as equals and worked together to solve a problem. The idea that “experts” have superior intellects and should not cooperate if they disagree, is the exact opposite of how science is supposed to work.
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