More on the “News from Nowhere” Problem in Anticorruption Research

One of my all-time favorite academic papers — which should be required reading not only for those who work on anticorruption, but on any topic where people casually throw around statistics — is Marc Galanter‘s 1993 article News from Nowhere: The Debased Debate on Civil Justice. Professor Galanter’s paper doesn’t have anything directly to do with international corruption. Rather, he sets out to debunk a series of widely-held but mostly-false beliefs about civil litigation in the United States, and in the process he traces the origins of many of the statistics often cited in debates about that topic. He finds that many of these statistics come from, well, nowhere. Here’s my favorite example: Around the time Professor Galanter was writing, it was common to hear claims that the civil justice system costs $80 billion in direct litigation costs; indeed, that figure appeared in an official report from the President’s Council on Competitiveness. The report’s only source for that estimate, however, was an article in Forbes; Forbes, in turn, had drawn the figure from a 1988 book by Peter Huber. But Huber himself hadn’t done any direct research on the costs of the system. Rather, Huber’s only source for the $80 billion figure was an article in Chief Executive magazine, which reported that at a roundtable discussion, a CEO claimed that “it’s estimated” (he didn’t say by whom) that insurance liability costs industry $80 billion per year. So: A CEO throws out a number at a roundtable discussion, without a source, it gets quoted in a non-scholarly magazine, repeated (and thus “laundered”) in what appears to be a serious book, and then picked up in the popular press and official government reports as an important and troubling truth about the out-of-control costs of the US civil justice system.

I thought about Galanter’s book the other day when I was reading the Poznan Declaration on “Whole-of-University Promotion of Social Capital, Health, and Development.” The Declaration itself is about getting universities to commit to integrating anticorruption and ethics into their programs; I may have something to say about the substance of the declaration itself in a later post. But the following assertion in the Declaration caught my eye: “Despite the relative widespread implementations of anti-corruption reforms and institutional solutions, no more than 21 countries have enjoyed a significant decrease in corruption levels since 1996, while at the same time 27 countries have become worse off.” Wow, I thought, that seems awfully precise, and if it’s true it’s very troubling. Despite the fact that I spend a fair amount of time reading about the comparative study of corruption, that statistic is news to me. It turns out, though, that it’s news from nowhere. Continue reading