When an academic, or student, thinks they have found a mistake in an academic paper or book, what do they do? Check their calculations again and again, or course. Ask someone else to do the same, maybe. But then they will write to the authors of the original work, and ask them to comment. What they will not do, in that letter or email, is to give the original author a deadline of one day to respond. That was how much time Chris Giles of the Financial Times gave Thomas Piketty to respond to his long list of alleged errors and unexplained adjustments.
I think it might have been very different if Chris Giles had written a piece about the difficulty of interpreting wealth inequality data, and had wanted to get clarification of what Piketty had done and why. I suspect in that case the paper would have given Piketty more time to respond (what was the urgency?), and the article would have benefited greatly from that dialog.
But that was not the article that Chris Giles chose to write and the Financial Times chose to publish. Instead they wrote an exposé, in much the same way as you would expose some wrongdoing by a politician. (Is an academic making a spreadsheet error the equivalent of a politician having an illicit affair?) The phrase they use in football is playing the man and not the ball.
Now, in the unlikely event that I ever warranted a headline story, I know I would not want to be treated in the way Giles treated Piketty. There were only two possible justifications for writing a story of that kind. One was if the paper had clear evidence that Piketty had fiddled the numbers to get the results he wanted, and it is obvious they did not have that evidence. The other is that they had found so many simple mistakes that this discredited Piketty as an academic. Again this was not the case. 
I also get very cross with academics who suggest that, because his book had become a bestseller and he had accepted invitations to talk to White House staff, he somehow deserved this kind of treatment. This seems to me like hypocrisy at its worst. Given this treatment, both Thomas Piketty’s initial response and his more detailed response issued yesterday are remarkable and impressive in their restraint.
So the mistake the Financial Times made was not that they allowed one of their best investigative journalists to look at Piketty’s spreadsheets (which Piketty had, to his great credit, made publicly available). As I said in my earlier post, a FT article that looked at the alternative sources for UK wealth inequality data, and questioned the idea that wealth inequality was inevitably rising in most countries, would have been an interesting piece.  The paper’s mistake was to write the story as an exposé.
Why did the Financial Times want to run a ‘gotcha’ piece in the first place? Of course Piketty has become something of a celebrity, and tabloids love to knock celebrities down. But the FT is no tabloid, and to think it was just about celebrity may be politically naive. As Henry Farrell and Mike Konczal noted in a typically acute pair of posts, a focus on inequality as a central issue in economics is very threatening to some, and many of those who feel threatened will read the Financial Times.
 It is worth noting that if we look at the Atkinson and Morelli database, among the six European countries where there was recent data for the top 1% wealth share, I counted three where there seemed to be an upturn in wealth inequality over the last few decades, and three where data showed no clear trend over the same period.
 Chris, in a first response to his critics, says that “Academic economists have got themselves into a bad spot if undocumented data, errors and tweaks are considered by some acceptable research practice.” As my original post pointed out, the best academics make mistakes, although in this case it is not clear any were made. So do the best journalists, and at the end of that post Chris acknowledges one of his own. If you want academic research in economics to scrupulously document every detail, you will either get a discipline that is so narrow as to be useless, or you will have to give academics a lot more resources!