Yesterday, Bill Easterly and Laura Freschi took Bill and Melinda Gates to task for building an aid success story on dubious African malaria statistics. Perhaps, Easterly and Freschi suggest, the leaders of the largest private endowment ever are stubbornly clutching questionable statistics because they conveniently support the conclusion that "The money the US spends in developing countries to prevent disease and fight poverty is effective, empowers people, and is appreciated." Easterly and Freschi humbly express hope that they themselves meet a higher standard, letting the evidence determine their conclusions rather than the other way around. Whether a person meets this standard of objectivity, they point out, can be judged
...by the response to evidence AGAINST one’s prior position – do you change your beliefs at all? The Gateses seem to fail this test on malaria numbers. We hope we do better when it comes our time to be tested, as we should be.
I'd like to suggest another test of commitment to the pursuit of the truth: whether one challenges the reasoning of one's supporters and dissenters with equal enthusiasm. By this standard, I think Easterly has fallen short. (Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a major funder of the Center for Global Development.)
Last spring, just after Easterly launched the Aid Watch blog, the Zambian-born Dambisa Moyo exploded onto the scene with her book Dead Aid. Maybe you heard about that. Before reading the book, Easterly called Moyo's ideas "fascinating on their own merits." After reading it he said...almost nothing. On March 25, I posted a review calling the book "sporadically footnoted, selective in its use of facts, sloppy, simplistic, illogical, and stunningly naive." Even so, I confessed to "sympathize less with Jeff Sachs than with Bill Easterly": I did not defend the proposition that aid can save Africa. Many others weighed in on Dead Aid too. But not Easterly.
A commenter on Aid Watch challenged Bill E. on his silence:
I have to wonder whether you really subject those whose findings you agree with to the same level of scrutiny as those you don’t. The fact that you’re happy to ignore Dambisa Moyo’s howling errors on African poverty...suggests not.
Bill answered with a non-answer:
I was not trying to argue Moyo Vs. Sachs, that is up to them. I am concentrating on my own disagreements with Sachs’ analysis.
Indeed, while mute on Moyo, BIll had plenty to say about others. He blogged dissension with Jeff Sachs several times, called him a "serial Moyo attacker," criticized the Gateses' use of the malaria statistics two times not counting the new post, and called out Dani Rodrik, a thinker vastly more rigorous than Moyo, on a subtle but important mathematical point (P(a|b) ≠ P(b|a)).
Why the silence on Moyo? One theory is that Bill sees little to quibble with in her book. Another is that he finds it inconvenient to undermine a powerful voice that happens to reach his conclusions, if by a confused analytical path. ("I would pride myself," she stated at a public event in which Bill interviewed her, "in saying I'm on the side of truth, logic, and evidence....which is why I'm very proud to be on the side of Professor Easterly".)
The first theory seems dubious. Bill Easterly has parodied those who claim to know how to end poverty ("What must we do to end world poverty? At last, an answer"). Moyo says she has that answer: if donors call African leaders and tell them aid is ending the continent will prosper. “Is all this as easy as it sounds? One phone call, and it all slots into place? Why not? Development is not a mystery” (pp. 148--49 of Dead Aid).
To put it mildly, Bill Easterly has not challenged the reasoning of his supporters and dissenters with equal enthusiasm. Doing better on this score would help him in his humble aspirations to the scholarly ideal---and raise his credibility in my eyes.