November 23, 2007
Race, Genes, IQ, and Yawns.
I've not jumped into the latest round of "are black people stupid" because, well, what is there to say? I'd sort of hoped that if this ever came around again, I'd actually have a lot to say, because earlier this year, I read a history of the concept of IQ (which, let's be clear, is all IQ is -- a constructed, mutable, oft-changed concept), but aside from leaving me with a generalized distaste for an opaque metric often used to advantage certain subgroups at the expense of others, it didn't leave me with tons of insightful paragraphs to write. The moral of the story is that reading books is a waste of time. That said, a couple disconnected points:
• I'm not down with the Atrios view that anyone who enters this discussion is a racist. I'm pretty sure Saletan isn't a racist. Rather, this whole discussion, as it so often is, seems motivated by the desire to be a Brave Truthteller, not by a hatred of black people. Read Saletan's first article in the series, which is about how liberals are too scared to face the evidence in this matter, not about the actual evidence in this matter. You can learn a lot from a lede. In this case, the studies about IQ and "g" are secondary to demonstrating that Saletan, though a liberal, isn't a herd animal, and is willing to courageously stride into intellectual thickets where ideologues fear to tread. "Race, genes, and intelligence" isn't a particularly descriptive title for the series. "How I, William Saletan, am Willing to Engage the Touchy Subject of Race, Genes, and Intelligence," is.
• Saletan really doesn't seem to have a good grasp of the science involved here. For instance: Is "g" a statistical artifact? Is it meaningful at all? If "g" is intrinsic to intelligence, how come controlling for "acquired knowledge" erases the IQ gap? How come rewriting studies -- not their content, but their wording -- into language more natural to the children (ebonics, say) wipes out the gap between races? Saletan sort of handwaves this stuff away, saying that whatever this IQ thing is, it seems to correlate with outcomes. Well, fine, but we're not talking about outcomes, we're talking about intrinsic intellectual capacity, and that's a claim weighty enough to require a pretty robust measurement. Saletan never tries to prove that "g" is up to the task, or answer the evidence against its existence and viability.
Point being: This issue is complicated, and there's nothing close to scientific consensus on it. Saletan appears to have dived into the subject about two weeks ago, when the James Watson stuff broke. So take your motivation -- proud, independent intellectual sees scientist being pilloried for a statement that has prima facie plausibility -- and your lack of study in the area, and you have a series that's not terribly worth trusting. If Slate wanted to host a debate between hereditist Arthur Jensen and Cosma Shalizi, or Eric Turkheimer, that might be interesting. But Saletan parachuted into an immensely complicated, sensitive issue, not because he had a full command of the relevant literature, but because he intended -- even if slightly subconsciously -- to make a particular intervention in what he saw as a one-sided debate. That's not necessarily the best way to engage this subject.
• Throughout the series, Saletan repeatedly warns that group data does not predict individual cases. Indeed, it's the first of Saletan's 10 conclusions, and the one meant to protect him. "If you think it's safe to guess that a white job applicant is smarter than a black one," he writes, "consider this: The most important job in the world is president of the United States. Over the last seven years, the most important judgment relevant to that job was whether to authorize, endorse, or oppose the use of force in Iraq. Among the dozen viable candidates who have applied for the job, one is black. Guess which one got it right?" In other words: Black people may be stupid, but that's not reason to believe the black person in front of you is stupid. (The actual implication of his argument is actually sort of the opposite, but let's stick to Saletan's weak version of his own claims.)
Okay then: So what's the point of all this? What're the implications? So far as I can tell, there are none. We don't deal with people in aggregate groups. We deal with them as individuals. If "individual IQ can't be predicted from race," then none of this actually matters. One could argue that improving group IQ should be a societal goal and thus we need this data, but since Saletan is arguing for an immutable, racial, component to IQ, that obviously isn't an option. If the various races were moving in opposite directions on IQ scales, we could get really worried about that, but instead, we're seeing convergence, and everyone expects more as cultural/economic/educational disparities improve. So, again, what's the implication here?
There is none. Not if you take Saletan's premises seriously. He wants to create a problem for liberalism which he can seem brave for facing up to, but this just isn't a particularly troublesome issue. Liberals have long been aware that there's a spread of IQ across society. I've lived a life which could plausibly be interpreted as one long prep course for some eventual IQ test, and I don't find my sense of egalitarianism challenged because I might outscore someone whose parents made a little less. Indeed, it's liberals who think society shouldn't be viciously darwinistic, that all jobs deserve dignity, that all workers deserve unions (and thus the power to wrest dignity), and so on, and so forth.
Indeed, not only do I believe the meritocracy to be a vicious myth, but I believe it to be a bizarre way to conceive of your society. Abstract intellectual capacity does not seem like the most important skill in the world. Egalitarianism doesn't collapse atop IQ variations; it exists to deny their relevance, along with the relevance of class, culture, race, creed, family lineage, etc, in guaranteeing every individual a dignified, secure life within which they can pursue peace and pleasure. Saletan, of course, has to deny this, because having dived into hereditarian literature to show his bravery, it wouldn't make much sense to come back with the conclusion of, "well, either way." But that's basically what his argument ends with.
November 05, 2007
The 5 Bloggers You Miss The Most
Since it's the season for navel-gazing blog lists (see here, here, etc), let's add this question: Which blogs, or bloggers, do you miss the most? There's been a fair amount of churn in the past few years, and some pretty remarkable talents have bowed out, wandering off towards other jobs or more free time. So with that in mind, who are the five whose absence you find most intolerable?
1) Jesse Taylor; my old co-blogger at Pandagon. He was a scholar and a gentleman. Also, very, very funny.
2) The Mighty Mighty Reason Man. There really isn't anyone around writing things like this anymore: "Anyone who has actually heard Limbaugh speak for more than 10 minutes knows that causing Limbaugh to go deaf (or dumb..preferrably dumb) should be, priority wise, somewhere between balancing the budget and defending the country against terrorist attacks. Yes, it's that important." And remember the world's greatest Corner parody?
3) Fafblog. The only blog that's ever really mattered. Remember when they interviewed the Democratic Party?
4) Nick Confessore. Used to write for Tapped. The reason you know what the "K Street Project" is. My first boss in journalism. Was swallowed by the New York Times, and so now does real reporting. It's sad.
5) Spencer Ackerman. Now doing excellent muck raking at TPM, I miss Iraq'd, the blog where Spencer would helpfully tell me exactly what to think about the Iraq War. Thinking on my own is surprisingly taxing.
Other 5) Max Sawicky. A great economist, a beautiful writer, and an actual leftist. Not a Democrat, or a liberal, or someone who hated Bush, but a leftist. We have too few of those around.
Okay kiddies, your turn.
August 10, 2007
You can watch the segment at ye old Crooks and Liars. This was definitely the most, uh, contentious of my Hardball appearances. The blond consultant type I was matched up with essentially spent the first two topics arguing that criminality within the GOP is utterly acceptable because it's not always illegal. She didn't even attempt to defend the ethics of the actions; she simply fell into "everybody does it." I was genuinely embarrassed for her cause. Additionally, I tend to think that when an opponent falls apart to the point that they focus in on my age, I've done my job.
But this was certainly a more-heat-than-light sort of exchange. Neither of us were briefed on the day's topics before the show. This is, it should be said, a rarity in my experience, as Hardball has always told me the issues lineup in the past. But for whatever reason, we were sent in blind. And, sadly, it showed. I just don't know much about the US attorneys scandal and the wrongdoings of Alberto Gonzales. I can only track so many topics in a day, and the time spent reading health policy is time not spent reading Senate testimony. I'm aware enough that I can speak to Gonzales's actions as unethical, but without preparation or any preexisting familiarity with the penal code, I can't speak to the specifics of their legality -- and I don't want to get anything wrong on air, where I can't correct it.
It was the last segment that struck me as the saddest, though. Matthews pointed to a recent poll showing a Democratic advantage on "which party is best at handling taxes?" This was, he said, astonishing. Taxes go up under Democrats! I pointed out that being good on taxes was not the same as cutting taxes -- that was a poisonous conflation. He argued that in the American psyche, the two are the same. I argued that this is why our bridges fall down, that the government needs sufficient revenue to carry out essential tasks, and that I hoped Democrats would raise taxes. He laughed, and said you heard it there first. Some of you agreed, and lambasted me in comments for saying Democrats would raise taxes.
This, to me, was all monumentally disappointing. Our government does need more revenue. I understand that Matthews was making a political point -- though my hunch is that the voters have concluded that blind tax cuts are not wise policy -- but there's a normative issue at hand here, which Matthews seemed utterly allergic to addressing. Should taxes be higher? I think so. And I don't want to beat around the bush, or talk about fairness, or about taxing the rich, or in any way dodge the question. Those of us who need not fight for election should try and build support for unpopular but necessary policies.
But Matthews' insistence on examining only and solely the political side of the poll accepted and reinforced a disastrous policy consensus which may no longer even be true. In refusing to engage the premises of the issue -- should taxes be higher? -- and focus only on the political CW -- Democrats raise taxes and aren't trusted on them! -- the show simply buttresses preexisting narratives. It cements the status quo, rather than examining it. And that's a shame. The reason I was aggressive in a way some of you found politically unwise -- "Democrats should raise taxes! -- was that I was trying to force the non-political conversation, the one that actually asks what taxes are for rather than which political party they benefit. Disappointingly, I failed.
July 26, 2007
Woe Is The Media!
I agree with Ankush that newspapers will have to change to survive, and that many of them will. But, working in media, it's almost impossible to overstate how resistant they are to that process. The degree to which folks appear to believe that every newspaper is a special little snowflake, its value incalculable and its presence critical, is remarkable. I can't tell if this is straight rationalizing for a situation that, as Matt says, "is very good for newspaper writers," or because of some odd status quo bias, or simply the internalization of journalistic mission statements, or what. Hear it often enough, though, and you begin to wonder if these institutions have even a hope of changing enough to survive.
But the old ways really do need an overhaul. Take coverage of presidential speeches. We do not actually need 40 different reporters from 26 different outlets writing the same story according to the same stylistic conventions about a useless address. Six would do just fine. Particularly in an age where the transcript -- and the reports of the other six -- can be easily accessed online. It's now much cheaper, easier, and more possible for a large slice of the population to directly access the primary documents, transcripts, and video clips that could, before, only be provided by on-location reporters and newspaper distribution systems. That leaves the newspapers adding less value than before, and it means we need fewer of them
Having fewer of them is something that many people appear desperate to head off. And I think it's possible, if not terribly likely, that most will survive. But only by becoming something different. The Tallahassee Reporter can't compete with The New York Times at news gathering. And until now, they haven't really had to.
The heyday of newspapers had them operating amid a scarcity of information. The average citizen in Omaha, Tallahassee, or even Los Angeles simply couldn't collect information from DC or Nairobi, couldn't call up yesterday's presidential speech, couldn't choose from thousands of content sources and millions of blogs and dozens of cable news channels. Newspapers, due to their wide array of reporters, their investment-heavy text transmission infrastructure, and their near-monopolies in individual markets, added a ton of value in getting consumers information they couldn't otherwise access. That's changed.
Now information is abundant, even too abundant. What readers need is interpretation, filters, guides. The media -- dare I say it? -- needs to mediate. That's where they can add the value. The basic stenography that was valuable in one age isn't worthless in this one, but it's simplistic, and not nearly enough.
Further, we're not merely dealing with an era in which information has become overwhelmingly abundant, we're caught in a moment when all sides have become exquisitely sophisticated at spinning it, at publicizing what they want heard, distorting what scares them, drowning out what hurts them, discrediting what attacks them. So not only is there too much for the average consumer to deal with, it's not even clear what they should deal with, what's honest, who can be trusted. This is dicier territory, of course, but I think those who fret over the newspaper's capability to serve this guiding function give insufficient thought to how odd the concept of objective news coverage has always been, and how much more potential there was for abuse when there was nearly no in-market competition.
But instead of moving in that direction, what you see is a profession articulating an enormous resistance to those trends. The response to blogs has been a sort of occupation-wide condescension to those who opine rather than call people, who express opinions rather than seek objectivity. And that's natural: Traditional reporters have responded to an occupation challenge by emphasizing what sets them apart from the newcomers. But the reason these new types of media are proving successful is because they fill a need, they serve a market that, right now, isn't being well-served. If newspapers are to survive -- particularly the smaller ones -- they have to stop operating from a business plan which only succeeded because bigger, better newspapers were unavailable, and start thinking about what actual value they can add to a broad information market that they no longer monopolize, and in most cases, can't compete in.
May 14, 2007
"Reporting" and Credentialism
Sigh. I really need to get away from all this media navelgazing, but this is a very smart post by Kagro X on the constraints facing traditional journalists. There is a decidedly odd absence of self-consciousness on the part of many journalists about the limitations of their profession's approach to information gathering, and the way in which they really can be bested by both experts and amateurs engaged in sustained study of an issue. But that's to be a bit too kind: It's half a lack of self-consciousness, and half a projected arrogance born of status anxiety.
When Brian Williams says that "[a]ll of my life, developing credentials to cover my field of work" -- and what field of work would that be, by the way? -- "and now I'm up against a guy named Vinny in an efficiency apartment in the Bronx who hasn't left the efficiency apartment in two years," what he's saying isn't that his years as a reporter better equip him to cover traffic patterns than a guy who's spent years in a cramped space studying urban planning. He's a generalist whose reputation for "reporting" gives him the credibility to range widely over subjects he can't possibly have studied in-depth. He's saying that those credentials make him better than some nobody in a basement somewhere. But if someone else has better credentials -- a tenured professorship, say, or published books to his name -- the quiet study approach is perfectly accepted by mainstream journalists. For instance: The punditocracy has enormous respect for Paul Berman, who looms large in George Packer's history of the Iraq War, The Assassin's Gate. Packer admiringly describes Berman's spartan, life-of-the-mind existence: “Berman lived alone in a walk-up apartment that was strewn with back issues of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review and volumes of French literature and philosophy in the original,” and writes that, "I listened, occasionally asking a skeptical question, admiring the dedication of his project (who else was really trying to figure this stuff out?)."
Brian Williams, of course, would never demean Berman as "some guy named Paul who lives by himself in a walk-up and hasn't shaved in three months." Berman is credentialed and respected. And that's what separates him from Vinny, and protects him from the same dismissal. Reporting has a talismanic quality in this town, to be sure, and for good reason: There's no substitute for real reporting. But too often, picking up the phone and calling three people does not magically grant omniscience, and nor does studying issues in a half-hearted and generalist way. Too often, reporting is really just a word that paid writers use to separate themselves from the unwashed, typing masses. Indeed, it's telling that Sy Hersch is usually upset about the lack of reporting among self-described reporters, rather than among bloggers.
Tom Grubisich believes that every commenter who wants to use a pseudonym should have to apply for the privilege on every blog she visits. "This would require sites to make decisions on a case-by-case basis," he continues. "How often would such intervention be required? Not enough to require most sites to hire extra staff." Of course not. In my free time, I totally have the resources and energy to verify the backgrounds and personal stories of hundreds of commenters. That makes perfect sense. If by perfect sense, you mean "it's quite possibly the worst idea I've ever heard."
But look: It's time to call a spade a spade. Grubisich thinks the public square has become too open, and he wants to erect some new barriers to entry. That's what the pseudonymity discussions are always about: Privileged members of the media feeling great anxiety that they're no longer set apart simply by access to microphones and looking for ways to keep the barbarians off the stage. But whatever, I'm willing to meet them halfway. I'll start running background checks on my readers if Grubisich and his colleagues consents to some symmetrical constraints: If they write something stupid, inflammatory, or wrong, they will lose their jobs. If what you want is for new entrants to the public sphere to feel more vulnerable when participating, it's only fair that you do the same.
Ask Not For Whom The Whip Snaps; It Snaps For Thee
"A 20 year-old college junior with little in the way of reporting skills to offer simply couldn't break into the blogosphere these days," writes Matt. "Thus, I think you'll find that folks like me, Ezra Klein, Julian Sanchez, etc. are blazing a trail that nobody will follow."
Oh, I don't know about that. I was just involved in the hiring process for a writing position, and we not only searched out online experience, we demanded sample blog posts. And I doubt we're particularly unique. Given that every major pundit-type magazine now has a blog, you'll probably see some familiarity with the form become a prerequisite, if not necessarily the primary credential. Magazines need constant content, and they particularly need young writers willing to provide it, as older writers remain, by and large, reluctant and infrequent bloggers (there are obvious exceptions to this rule). The effect of this need for blogging among new hires, however, is fairly immense.
It used to be very hard for a young writer to make a name. The question wasn't one of talent, or brains, or style, but of simple opportunity: A traditional magazine has X number of pages a year, which are split between many authors and topics. A new hire gets neither the best stories nor the finest assignments. Her writing is edited and reshaped, homogenized into the voice of the magazine. Given these constraints, it's not impossible that she'll break through, but it's unlikely.
Blogs and websites change all that. Now there's an unlimited appetite for content and endless opportunity for young writers to speak and report on high-profile issues. As Matt says, "It used to be that the closest thing to a reliable way to get glamorous pundit work was to pay your dues as a reporter." While there's no guarantee of glamour in blogging, it's certainly the easiest path to playing pundit, and offers the most opportunity for a young writer to make a name in that field. And given how much more content is offered, there's proportionately more room for well-known and high-performing authors. The economics of the profession remain a bit uncertain, but insofar as one of the relevant scarcities was how much room there was for publishing content, the infinite expanse offered by the web offers a lot more opportunity for success.
Additionally, my guess is you'll see a sort of long-tail phenomenon as young writers make names focusing on specific issues. No generalist magazine could or would publish the amount of health care commentary I offer, but it's nevertheless become something I'm known and read for. With more space for specialization, more writers can become go-to pundits on specific topics, and thus carve out niches that would've been nearly impossible when they had to be magazine generalists.