One of the topics I touch on in The Social Atom is the embarrassingly loose relationship between observations and beliefs in social science, especially among those driven by ideology. I've always thought it odd that there are "conservative" and "liberal" economists, when economists are supposed to be scientists approaching the workings of economic systems with the same dispassionate methods as physical scientists do nature (or so I thought). Nothing can send you toward ridiculous conclusions more rapidly than a conviction that you already know the truth.
Here's a most amusing example that I came across at Cosmicvariance (linking to Mark Thoma and Brad Delong). A while back, apparently, the Wall Street Journal, soon to be Rupert Murdoch's prize possession, published the figure above to illustrate the relationship between corporate tax rates and GDP. The Laffer curve is a theoretical construct (held in great respect by "conservative" economists) which purports to depict how the amount of overall tax revenue a nation collects first rises with increasing tax rates, and then ultimately falls -- showing how too-high taxes can be bad for the economy.
The Journal published this figure, fitting the Laffer Curve to the data for a number of real countries, apparently with a straight face. Or were they laffing? It doesn't take immense mathematical intuition to doubt whether the curve really matches the data very well; it certainly doesn't look like it.
Here, in contrast, is Mark Thoma's rather more realistic attempt at fitting the data with a relatively simple curve. I think most physical scientists would look at this and say that this curve too is rather hard to take seriously; what the data really seems to show is an awful lot of scatter, suggesting that the tax rate alone just doesn't account for much of the variation in tax collected. Other factors must be more important.
But Thoma's curve (and he offered only as an illustration of how easy it is to do better than the WSJ's completely ludicrous fitting) at least isn't a purposeful distortion of reality. Oh, but perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. Apparently the "original" research quoted in the WSJ editorial was carried out by economist Kevin Hassett at the American Enterprise Institute, self-proclaimed to be "a private, nonpartisan, not-for-profit institution dedicated to research and education on issues of government, politics, economics, and social welfare."
I'm not sure what Dr Hassett learned about curve fitting during his education, and experience, which certainly seems impressive. From the AEI website:
Before joining AEI, Hassett was a senior economist at the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and an associate professor of economics and finance at the Graduate School of Business of Columbia University. He was an economic adviser to the George W. Bush campaign in the 2004 presidential election and the chief economic adviser to Senator McCain during the 2000 presidential primaries. He has also served as a policy consultant to the Treasury Department during the former Bush and Clinton administrations.