Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Pick a Number, Any Number

A new post on Chasing Aphrodite continues the scolding of the press and of those who are passing on unsubstantiated claims about just how much money ISIS is making from the sale of looted antiquities.

I'm all for data-informed policymaking; I'm an academic, after all. But with regard to the "second largest source of revenue to ISIS" meme, it is worth remembering a few things:

1. In the long term we are all dead, said Keynes, and in the short term getting attention paid to archaeological looting has had very positive stimulative effects in the area of heritage protection at least (witness the White House Coordinator law just proposed).

2.  More generally, the notion that credibility will be sapped by the flogging of dubious factoids is not supported by any evidence I know of in public policy studies, and indeed there's plenty of evidence that even outright lies have very long tails and only sap credibility when they lead to what are retrospectively recognized to have been disastrous policy decisions.

3.  There are, of course, two, not just one policy decision in play: one having to do with heritage protection efforts, the other, much bigger one having to do with how to deal with the challenge posed by ISIS. Here we need to make a distinction that I don't see Felch making between information that drives and information that helps sell policymaking. The policy decision to escalate, while perhaps disastrous (time will tell), may have been justified ex post facto by the meme about antiquities looting, but it surely wasn't caused by it.  What got that decision made was not the lopping off of the heads of statues but the lopping off of human heads.

4. What we need more than strictly accurate numbers is a general sense of the scale, drivers, and vectors of looting and the market that can help guide policymaking to intervene in the most effective ways possible.