Comparing Apples with Cows

by Erik Voeten on March 28, 2011 · 4 comments

in Uncategorized

Sometimes we despair a bit about the level of political debate in this country (the U.S.) and the degree to which it is informed by actual analysis. Perhaps especially on the liberal side of the ideological spectrum, there is a presumption that things are better in the enlightened countries of Europe. Enter the PVV, Geert Wilders’ party that won massively at the last elections and is a critical party in support of the Dutch minority government. In an earlier post , I predicted that they would likely make lots of outlandish proposals on immigrant issues, which would not necessarily affect policy. They have not disappointed. Some of their recent demands include action against immigrants who feed birds, and against foreign animals ,such as Scottish highland cattle, which are apparently a threat to replace good old fashioned Dutch cows. They are affecting policies, such as on dual nationality, but for the most part they have been too busy deflating scandals.

Aside from foreign people and animals, the PVV also seems to dislike social science. During parliamentary debates last week, a PVV parliamentarian was asked what she thought about studies that showed that among people who were convicted of the same crimes those who received alternative forms of punishment were less likely to become recidivists than those who went to jail. She rejected the studies and said that comparing what happens to person A and person B is like comparing apples and cows (h/t several Dutch Facebook friends). A charitable interpretation would be that she is simply restating, in her own way, the fundamental problem of causal inference or that she is siding with Brian Leiter’s critique of empirical legal studies. Yet, her actual stumbling and strange array of accusations at statistical comparisons defies belief (hard to fully appreciate without speaking Dutch, the video has over 100,000 views on youtube already. Note: she is a trained lawyer).The stunned responses of her fellow legislators offer a ray of hope. Perhaps the fact that a mini uproar is created around a legislator’s rejection of social science is evidence of a civilized society after all.

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