The Age of Niallism: Ferguson and the Post-Fact World


Matthew O'Brien in The Atlantic:

People who believe facts are nothing think you'll fall for anything. Call it Niallism.

This is my last word (well, last words) on Niall Ferguson, whose Newsweek cover story arguing that Obama doesn't deserve a second-term has drawn deserved criticism for its mendacity from Paul Krugman, Andrew Sullivan, Ezra Klein, Noah Smith, my colleagues James Fallows and Ta-Nehisi Coates and myself. The problem isn't Ferguson's conclusion, but how Ferguson reaches his conclusion. He either presents inaccurate facts or presents facts inaccurately. The result is a tendentious mess that just maintains a patina of factuality — all, of course, so Ferguson can create plausible deniability about his own dishonesty.

Exhibit A is Ferguson's big lie that Obamacare would increase the deficit. This is not true. Just look at the CBO report Ferguson himself cites. Paul Krugman immediately pointed this out, and asked for a correction. How did Ferguson respond? He claims he was only talking about the bill's costs and not its revenues — a curious and unconvincing defense to say the least. But then Ferguson reveals his big tell. He selectively quotes the CBO to falsely make it sound like they don't think Medicare savings will in fact be realized. Here's the section Ferguson quotes, with the part he ellipses out in bold. (Note: Pseudonymous Buzzfeed contributor @nycsouthpaw was the first to notice this quote-doctoring. The italics below are Ferguson's).

In fact, CBO's cost estimate for the legislation noted that it will put into effect a number of policies that might be difficult to sustain over a long period of time. The combination of those policies, prior law regarding payment rates for physicians' services in Medicare, and other information has led CBO to project that the growth rate of Medicare spending (per beneficiary, adjusted for overall inflation) will drop from about 4 percent per year, which it has averaged for the past two decades, to about 2 percent per year on average for the next two decades. It is unclear whether such a reduction can be achieved through greater efficiencies in the delivery of health care or will instead reduce access to care or the quality of care (relative to the situation under prior law).
Ferguson completely changes the CBO's meaning. Why not just say he finds the CBO's analysis unconvincing, like Andrew Sullivan suggested, and leave it at that? Well, Ferguson tries that later — but not before appealing to the authority of the CBO when the CBO is not on his side. The damage is done.