Pursuit of Truthiness

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Archive for the ‘blogging about blogging’ Category

What makes popular academics popular?

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While most academics work in obscurity, we still show up in the media more than most professions, and a few of us approach genuine celebrity status. What makes these outliers so popular?

An article in the latest New Yorker on the Jordan Peterson phenomenon makes for an interesting case study, particularly as he suddenly became internet-famous in his mid-’50’s following relative obscurity in his field and with the public.

Popularity outside the field often stems from success within it; winning a Nobel, for instance, guarantees a lot of coverage. But some academics succeed wildly with the public following an indifferent reception by their peers, as Peterson shows. He has other features common to popular academics- working on topics that a lot of people find accessible and interesting, and speaking with confidence that borders on hyperbole (most of us might as well be in a competition for ‘most nuanced’).

Another important example, especially for people who aren’t already at the top of their fields, seems to be focusing on a new communication technology that the more established players aren’t using yet. A lot of current public intellectuals are those who jumped into blogging, podcasting or Twitter early and put a lot of time and effort into it. In economics, Tyler Cowen has succeeded best at converting this internet popularity into the trappings of more traditional public-intellectual success: best-selling books and New York Times columns.

Of course, now blogging, podcasting and Twitter are relatively saturated, and no longer present such an opportunity for those that aren’t already well-known. Oddly for a platform that most Americans use, Facebook still seems underused as a platform for reaching people you don’t already know; in economics, Robert Reich seems to have gained popularity by realizing this, along with a good dose of hyperbole. For Peterson, the underused platform was Youtube- again, hugely popular but not really used by academics to popularize their work.

The most under-appreciated reason for why most academics aren’t popular is probably that most simply don’t want to be. Either they don’t see fame as a positive, or they recognize that if they get lots of attention, much of it is likely to be negative. At a minimum, anyone with much internet presence is guaranteed to get criticized in the comments, and often in the main articles. Perhaps more importantly for academics, while a few media mentions increase your standing in the field, getting too popular with the public and the press is a near-universal recipe for having your own field turn on you. This can be from jealously, envy, disappointment that you are taking time away from “real work”, or the perception that you are using too much dumbing-down and hyperbole. For instance, economists often express disappointment in Paul Krugman’s journey from great economist in the 1980’s, to good economist and good public intellectual in the 1990’s, to not-an-economist and famous-but-mediocre pundit after turning up the hyperbole in the 2000’s.

Paul Krugman, Slavoj Zizek, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Jared Diamond, Niall Ferguson, Stephen Pinker…. you can debate how much the hate is deserved vs misplaced but it is always there. For Peterson it has come with unusual speed and intensity. Is it that his hyperbole and dumbing-down is really worse than other celebrity psychologists or self-help types? Is it his “anti-radical-left” political stances? Much of it seems to stem from his audience being primarily young men. Focusing on an audience largely ignored by other academics is part of how he succeeded in the first place; most of us are targeting middle-aged NYT-reading, NPR-listening types, without explicitly realizing it of course.

The easiest way to win is always to be playing a different game than everyone else.

Personally, I hope to do work that people will find interesting enough to read and discuss, but this level of fame does not seem appealing.

Written by James Bailey

March 11, 2018 at 11:08 am

Why I Don’t Post About The Latest Outrage

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Most of all, because when a dozen of my Facebook friends are already posting about the same thing, it would be boring to repeat them.

But I also seriously wonder if making that 13th post might do more harm than good. Not just because it might lead people to hasty over-reactions that do obvious harm. But because talking about problems doesn’t always have therapeutic effects; sometimes it can very directly make things worse.

First, because it can be bad as therapy. Second, because making it seem as if the outrageous behavior in question is common makes people more likely to do it– even for the worst crimes. Finally, because making it seem as though more people are victims facing an unjust world they can’t do anything about removes their internal locus of control, leading to all manner of worse outcomes.

Near my house, there is a billboard that keeps a running count of how many transgender people have been murdered this year. I assume it was put there by some well-meaning group that sees raising awareness as a necessary first step to reducing the number of murders. But suppose there was a group whose goal was to make transgender people live in fear, scare others away from transitioning, and encourage more copycat murders- wouldn’t they want to put up the exact same billboard?

Next time you see some story that makes you angry, think before sharing it with everyone else. If it makes you feel better to post it, then I suppose you might as well, but please don’t post merely out of a misguided sense that you are necessarily making the world a better place by doing so.

Written by James Bailey

October 2, 2016 at 11:59 am

Politics is the Mind-Killer. Are Dark Arts the Solution?

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Politics tends to make people much dumber, or at least much worse at discovering the truth.  There is a good reason for this, and Eliezer Yudkowsky said it well:

Politics is an extension of war by other means.  Arguments are soldiers.  Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back – providing aid and comfort to the enemy.

This is one of the reasons that politics is not about policy.  I wish politics were really all about figuring out what policies are best for everyone and implementing them.  But in reality people are not strongly attached to policies.  It is fun to see everyone change positions on the merits of the filibuster when there is a new majority party in the Senate.  Recently we have been treated to the spectacle of the Heritage Foundation and Mitt Romney disavowing the health reform that strongly resembles the policies they advocated and implemented, because this one was passed by Evil Democrats.  Similarly, all the Democrats who claimed to feel very strongly about the Wars on Afghanistan, Iraq and Terror when the Big Bad Republicans were doing it forgot all about this once their guy was elected and continued the same policies.  Sociologist Fabio Rojas found that attendance by Democrats at anti-war demonstrations fell by more than half after Obama was elected; ironically, this is when the protests may have actually had a better chance at changing policy.

Glenn Greenwald (the currently-ignored conscience of the Democratic Party, or indeed the US) made some great points in this vein recently in a controversial (1700+ comments) article:

Then there’s the inability and/or refusal to recognize that a political discussion might exist independent of the Red v. Blue Cage Match. Thus, any critique of the President’s exercise of vast power (an adversarial check on which our political system depends) immediately prompts bafflement (I don’t understand the point: would Rick Perry be any better?) or grievance (you’re helping Mitt Romney by talking about this!!). The premise takes hold for a full 18 months — increasing each day in intensity until Election Day — that every discussion of the President’s actions must be driven solely by one’s preference for election outcomes (if you support the President’s re-election, then why criticize him?).

You should probably just read the whole Greenwald article, it is a better version of this post.  Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this a lot as we start election season in the US.  How can we be involved in both truth-seeking and politics when they don’t naturally mix?

Two great public intellectuals, Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen, have been openly discussing the merits of their very different rhetorical strategies.  Krugman has a more political style, implying and often outright saying that people who disagree with him must be idiots.  Cowen is more intellectual and abstract.  Cowen implies that Krugman’s style lacks virtue and integrity:

“The issue is not that Krugman changed his mind (I’ve done that plenty, Alex too).  The issue is that Krugman a) regularly demonizes his opponents, including those who hold Krugman’s old positions, and b) doesn’t work very hard to produce the strongest possible case against his arguments….. There is a kind of hallelujah chorus for Krugman on some of the left-wing economics blogs.  The funny thing is, it’s hurting Krugman most of all”

This is a new chapter in an ancient debate; it reminds me of Socrates calling out the Sophists.  Socrates was a purist who thought we should seek truth and the good, while the Sophists realized that their rhetorical Dark Arts could win them money and influence.  Indeed, Krugman’s response is essentially that his style brings him influence, and you can’t argue with success:

I realized that I also wanted to say something in response to the concern trolling, the “if you were more moderate you’d have more influence” stuff. Again, this amounts to wishing that we lived in a different world. First, there is no such thing in modern America as a pundit respected by both sides. Second, there are people writing about economic issues who are a lot less confrontational than I am; how often do you hear about them? This is not a game, and it is also not a dinner party; you have to be clear and forceful to get heard at all.

Basically, Krugman is saying “If only you knew the Power of the Dark Side”.  But is this strategy really so powerful?  I may not be representative, but it certainly loses me.  I can help but notice how Krugman is trying to reframe the debate (and distort Cowen’s argument) in almost every sentence.  Cowen isn’t concern trolling because he practices what he is preaching; and he advocates a moderate tone, not moderate positions.  Krugman sets up false dichotmies: being civil means you aren’t clear and forceful, you can only be respected by one of two sides.  This last may be the most crucial: Krugman assumes that all discussion takes place where there are opposing sides (and only two of them!) and no respect across them.  This puts him squarely in the arguments-are-soldiers camp.

But is Krugman’s strategy effective in general?  He certainly has a large audience, which is valuable (in terms of income and status).  It is hard to say whether this results in much influence on policy though.  It is hard in general to determine the effect of individuals on policy, but I can’t think of a single issue where Krugman was a leader in getting a policy changed.  Cowen previously argued that most intellectuals, including Krugman (and himself), have little real influence.

Can we become more influential through the use of Dark Arts in general, and ridiculing the other side in particular?  I think the jury is still out here.  Milton Friedman was influential while being unfailingly civil and assuming the best of his opponents, and I think that this helps his work stand the test of time.  It is easier for people to adopt your position if this doesn’t mean they were being idiots before; as Brad Delong said (ironically, since he is guilty of the same vice) “No, Paul, No! You Don’t Slaughter the Returning Prodigal Son, You Slaughter the Fatted Calf!!”  The easiest way to convince people is not to change their mind, but to convince them they agreed with you all along; this is easier if you don’t call them names.

Even if the Dark Arts do confer the power to influence and persuade, it is likely that they erode the ability to find the truth.  In theory you could have a persuading public persona and a truth-seeking private persona with different beliefs.  But to reduce cognitive dissonance people must start believing their own propaganda.  Further, the best way to learn is often through open, honest debate that cuts to the heart of the issues; you don’t learn by beating up strawmen.  The power of the real Dark Arts, just as in so much literature and mythology, comes with a great cost.

Update: One big thing I missed in this post is the need to know your audience; there is no one form of argument that is most convincing to everyone.  My implicit assumption (and that of Kantoos, who made me realize this) is that you should target the median reader out there, just as politicians should target the median voter.  But of course, in primary season you do not target the median of the whole electorate.  Krugman is in a perpetual primary season.  He is not trying to convince the average reader that his “side” is better, but to educate, entertain and radicalize those already on his “side”, by noting that the other side is not even worth considering.  This should have been obvious since he named his book and blog “Conscience of a Liberal”, but I do catch on eventually.

Written by James Bailey

January 5, 2012 at 12:06 am

Macro Flame War

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There are lots of Great Internet Debates- over operating systems, video game consoles, or politics.  This last week, a similar sort of name-calling verbal brawl broke out among prominent macro-economists.  But that exchange featured long posts and highly technical arguments.  To simplify it for you, I will summarize the debate as the flame war it was at heart.

Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman: Who is to blame for the failure of economists to respond effectively to this crisis?  Well, there are two types of economists: freshwater and saltwater.  It sure wasn’t us saltwater people, so it must be that the freshwater types are to blame.  They are so detached from reality that they think the Great Depression was just a Great Vacation for workers, resurrecting absurd fallacies I thought we had dispatched for good 70 years ago and thinking they must be right because their ideas are gussied up with fancy equations.  Saltwater Keynesianism is the only game in town.

John Cochrane: Paul Krugman wants us to ignore the last 40 years of work in economics.  In science, he would be the global warming skeptic of the HIV-AIDS denier.  Only a paranoid, calumnous, superficial, idea-less schlock would rely on name-calling and personal attack like he did.  Us freshwater types do not, in fact, deny the reality of bubbles, recessions, and other such real events.  Krugman has no idea what caused the crash, and just advocated fiscal stimulus because he wants the government to be bigger. “So what is Krugman up to? Why become a denier, a skeptic, an apologist for 70 year old ideas, replete with well-known logical fallacies, a pariah… The only explanation that makes sense to me is that Krugman isn’t trying to be an economist, he is trying to be a partisan, political opinion writer…. Krugman wants to be Rush Limbaugh of the Left. I still want to be Milton Friedman, but each is a worthy calling.”

Brad Delong: John Cochrane’s 9-page response had one sentence that was TOTALLY wrong.  The rest of what he said? I don’t feel like talking about it.

Paul Krugman: Nobody likes the freshwater people.  They have no idea what Keynesians even said.  I, by contast, know the literature so well that I finally cited a paper.  Maybe next post I will cite two!

Brad Delong: Freshwater types haven’t read Keynesians?  Of course, but more than that they haven’t read anyone.  They commit fallacies which show they haven’t read Knut Wicksell, Irving Fischer, (fellow Chicago-school monetarist) Milton Friedman, or David Hume’s First Economics Paper Ever.  Today’s Chicago school is an intellectual train-wreck.

Narayana Kockerlakota: What are you talking about guys?  Macro is fine.  If freshwater economists are so clueless why do we dominate the journals and provide most new hires at top universities?  Really there isn’t even a freshwater/saltwater divide anymore.  Here are links to a bunch of papers that Krugman thinks don’t exist, because they are about things he says we ignore.

Brad DeLong: Richard Posner is Uranus!

Justin Wolfers: All these old dudes are just cranky, Narayana is right that the new hires are moving past these problems and these flame wars.  But macro isn’t really ok until the new generation starts paying attention to policy, and policymakers start paying attention to them.

David Levine: Paul Krugman is clueless about economics and just wants to expand government.  It makes me feel physically ill that a distinguished economist could be so ignorant of his own profession.

Brad DeLong: David Levine is so clueless he is not in our galaxy.  His piece is so bad the Huffington Post [not exactly the newspaper of record! JB] should not have published it.

Bob Murphy: A pox on both their houses! Paul Krugman is a jerk and offers horrible policy advice. But John Cochrane’s response is no friend-of-the-court brief in the Austrian critique of Keynesianism.

Scott Sumner: A pox on all their houses! Old Keynesians, New Keynesians, Monetarists, New Classicals, and Austrians are all wrong, and I am right.

Eric Falkenstein: All macro-economists are wrong!  They have tried to fit their business cycle theories to the same ten data points, and the appearance of an eleventh one is not about to solve anything.  It may eliminate some theories, but this is not so helpful since there an infinite number of ways to be wrong.  Macroeconomics is the triumph of hope over experience, and has been no more successful than sociology [the ultimate insult to economists! JB].  At least private companies have figured out how useless this is and stopped hiring macro-economists.

Tyler Cowen: What the hell guys, you really thought you were going to fix macro with a flame war?  I look forward to seeing some peer-reviewed journal articles.

Yoram Bauman: Maybe macro flame wars are a good thing, because the three most terrifying words in the English language are “macro-economists agree that”.  The trouble with macro is built in to the definition of the field: micro-economists are wrong about specific things, while macro-economists are wrong about things in general.

Me: It is a bit traumatic for a young economist like myself to see this go down.  I wonder, why do Mommy and Daddy have to fight like this?  This is weird even by internet standards, because incivility is usually attributed to anonymity, but everyone here uses their real names and goes to the same conferences.  What happened to the good old days when Milton Friedman and Paul Samuelson could lead opposing schools but still be friends?  Do real sciences ever get this divided- was there ever a string theory flame war?  But as economist/comedian Yoram Bauman says, maybe this will turn out for the best.  Perhaps Krugman and Cochrane will do a joint show at the AEA humor session this January in which they reveal that this was all a hoax, and ask whether that wasn’t the most epic trolling ever.  But it seems more likely that the reconciliation will be slow.  Indeed, we may see a repeat of the late 70’s, when the two main factions (Keynesians vs Chicago Monetarists then, New Keynesians vs Chicago Ratex/RBC/New Classicals now) so effectively discredit each other that a third school will seize control of the policy arena.

Written by James Bailey

September 22, 2009 at 6:09 pm

Devil’s Dictionary, Revised Edition

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Blogger (n): A creature which ingests information and excretes blog posts.

Written by James Bailey

June 21, 2009 at 7:30 pm

Our highest praise yet

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According to Eleanor, this blog is “not meaningless”!

Which to her means that it has ceased to deserve the epithet “blog” and is in need of a new moniker.

Of course, she might be a bit biased.

Written by James Bailey

July 1, 2007 at 12:50 pm

Shout out to the World

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The internet is a loud and bustling place, I’m sure no one is listening to my birth-cries. That’s alright with me. I’ve had a Livejournal and Xanga, used them only to keep in touch. WordPress seems much less likely to become a social-networking phenomenon.

Having come home to Maine, I now have little in the way of friends, work, or entertainment to distract me; hopefully a blessing is lurking somewhere underneath this disguise, and with all the extra time to read and cognate I might conceive of something resembling an original thought.

This is where, I hope, I’ll be recording and sharing the things that cross my path in the pursuit of truthiness, and bringing them before the community so as to gauge just how boring they are.

Written by James Bailey

May 30, 2007 at 2:36 am