The breaking of intellectual superstars

I’ve blogged a few times recently about Thomas Piketty and the making of intellectual superstars. I find his elevation to “rock star” status fascinating, not least of all the deeply performative nature of this silly epithet, revealing as it does many interesting trends about the status of intellectuals in contemporary circumstances. The case has become even more fascinating with the alleged takedown of his data in the FT last night:

Now, in a move that has delighted his manifold critics on the right, who view Piketty’s tome as a dangerous, modern-day successor to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, the 43-year-old French economist has found himself attracting a less welcome form of attention. The Financial Times has suggested that Piketty’s work contains a series of errors that appear to fatally undermine large parts of his thesis. The normally restrained paper claims that some of the data Piketty uses to support his arguments about yawning inequality in Britain and Europe are dubious or inexplicable. Some of this, the paper suggests, may be down to straightforward transcription errors. More damningly, the FT claims, “some numbers appear simply to be constructed out of thin air”.

The paper goes as far as to suggest its findings are similar to those last year that undermined the work of the Harvard economists, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, which analysed the relationship between growth and debt and was subsequently found to have been based on a flawed spreadsheet.

Bloomberg described the claims as a bombshell and there has been no shortage of commentators suggesting the story is huge. Some on the right have also been gleeful, suggesting the FT‘s story will scupper Piketty’s chances of landing a Nobel prize. But, as the dust settles, even many of his critics have been reluctant to claim that Piketty has been left badly wounded by an impenetrable row over the selection and interpretation of data, nor do they accept that the FT‘s claims have done much to damage his over-arching thesis.

http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/may/24/thomas-picketty-economics-data-errors

Much as I expected, I got 50 pages into the book before getting distracted by other things and haven’t been back to it since. I’m deeply aware of not having read the book when reading the coverage of the FT’s attack. I’m also wondering how many other people commenting upon it have actually read the book in depth. I find myself nodding approvingly at Krugman’s critique of the critique, vaguely aware of feeling ‘my side’ is under attack, despite this being a book I only bought because I was intrigued by all the hype surrounding it. I find the whole Piketty affair fascinatingly strange. It all seems so obviously overblown and yet the issues at stake are clearly consequential. Nonetheless, there’s a subtle theatricality pervading the endless stream of verbiage being generated in response to this book, as if the book could in reality consist of 600 blank pages without making a difference to the sentiments underlying the detailed arguments.

I’m really not very clear about what I do think is going on here, perhaps explaining why I’m so gripped by it, but I’m certain I’ll be rehearsing this in my mind for years to come as a case study for considering the causal power of ideas within social life. I think it illustrates an acceleration of the process by which ideas can find material sponsors, concerned to promulgate a way of understanding a contested phenomena and promote it socially. There’s also something interesting going on about the way in which the meditation of this process by the blogosphere contributes to its rapidity, amplifying certain voices through a dynamic which is superficially democratic (bringing lots of people into the process) but basically exclusionary, given pervasive tendencies (e.g. not having read the actual book for quite understandable reasons) which leaves opinion formation in the hands of Krugman and comparable ‘thought leaders’.

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