« Klein Smackdown Watch | Main | It's Not Really Clear To Me What A Blog Is For »

July 24, 2007

A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing

Duncan is worried about the class of folks who listen to NPR and read Time magazine and thus consider themselves informed, not really realizing that these outlets have a sort of establishment bias and produce a studied obfuscation of certain crucial facts in the political atmosphere.

This, incidentally, helps explain why I'm spending so much time on the Brooks article from earlier today. The median reader doesn't actually have the time, inclination, or resources to personally fact check and footnote every article they read. So they tend to use certain heuristics to help them navigate the media sphere -- chief among them trusting that authors operating out of established media outlets are being basically truthful. Conversely, they can rely on the aggregate disreputation of an outlet -- the reason I don't read or critique the Wall Street Journal editorial page is that most everyone I can reach already knows it's a stew of lies and disinformation.

But Brooks is different. He's a respected writer, perched on the world's most respected op-ed page, and making his argument through frequent references to established and credible outlets like the CBO and the Brookings Institution. It's a rare reader indeed who wouldn't trust that product. But that product is not trustworthy. Nor, for that matter, are some of his past columns on economics, which misleadingly invoked trusted and even liberal sources to add illusory credibility to conservative, controversial pronouncements. So you actually need to create an instinctive skepticism in readers as to his economic arguments -- enough so that if something sounds wrong, they'll check to see whether it is in fact incorrect, rather than just believing the air of credibility Brooks so artfully produces.

And incidentally, I agree with Duncan on one other thing: Brooks was fed this data. The slipperiness of the arguments relies on fairly sophisticated manipulation of the data, and more even than that, an ability to know where to look in the data to manipulate it. It's very smartly done, and all the more dangerous for it.

July 24, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

Ezra:

You *do* realize, of course, that using the term "establishment bias" inherently brands you as One Of The Dirty Effing Hippies and A Very Unserious Person.

Posted by: Captain Goto | Jul 24, 2007 2:55:13 PM

So you actually need to create an instinctive skepticism in readers as to his economic arguments -- enough so that if something sounds wrong, they'll check to see whether it is in fact incorrect, rather than just believing the air of credibility Brooks so artfully produces.

Good goal. That doesn't justify calling Brooks a liar, or being one-sided in your goal. Even Krugman should be read with a good degree of skepticism, and he actually knows what he's talking about, which you seem to think makes him more dangerous.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 24, 2007 2:58:26 PM

ciao, great blog! :)

Posted by: Miss Welby | Jul 24, 2007 3:10:49 PM

That doesn't justify calling Brooks a liar

Sure it does, if he's being wilfully careless with the facts in order to mislead. That's what we call people who do that.

Would you consider "mendacious" or "BS'er" to be preferable?

Posted by: Tyro | Jul 24, 2007 3:13:09 PM

Sanpete:

One more time--
Eighty-five percent (at least!) of what a certain pundit writes is misleading bullshit that *just happens* to slavishly follow right wing talking points, only restated in a relaxed, just-us-guys writing style, and is constantly *proven* to be misleading bullshit. Which he would know, if he bothered to read and process any opinions other than the ones generated on his side of the aisle.

Given the above, arguing that the guy 'isn't a liar' is just about the biggest waste of keystokes I can imagine. Not that that will stop you, likely enough, but they say it's a free country.

Posted by: Captain Goto | Jul 24, 2007 3:13:26 PM

I think you're the one worried about the "class" of folks. I think Duncan is just worried about the people themselves.

Posted by: anon | Jul 24, 2007 3:24:05 PM

Would you consider "mendacious" or "BS'er" to be preferable?

I would prefer that the same standards and terms be applied to both sides, including yourself.

Cap'n, I don't think Brooks is any worse than a good many liberals, even right here in these discussions. People are generally unwilling to even try much to see both sides with the same skepticism.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 24, 2007 3:26:54 PM

Yes, if you find me examples of Paul Krugman blatantly misrepresenting or distorting economic data, we'll talk. But for now, all you're doing is asserting that he does.

Posted by: Ezra | Jul 24, 2007 3:40:38 PM

I would prefer that the same standards and terms be applied to both sides

Hey, Sanpete, that isn't what I asked. If your delicate sensitivities can't handle "the l word," do you think it would be acceptable to say that Brooks is being "mendacious" or that he is "BS'ing"? Because, well, most people would find those terms to be perfectly apt descriptors.

Posted by: Tyro | Jul 24, 2007 3:46:37 PM

I think that finding the sources is relatively easy, and even a person of moderate intelligence could quickly get most of what Brooks has done here. What does suggest being fed the facts is that the identification of which years to aggregate requires a rather more devious mind.

Posted by: dlcox1958 | Jul 24, 2007 4:06:17 PM

But Brooks is different. He's a respected writer

He is?

I used to be able to entertain my fiancee's daughter by reading David Brooks' columns to her. But about the time she turned one, she outgrew David Brooks.

Posted by: DAS | Jul 24, 2007 4:07:51 PM

Ezra, I don't limit my point only to economic data, and I don't read Krugman often enough to have many examples handy, but here is one I recall. There are two other examples that I link to in that thread, as I recall. My point here isn't that Krugman is dishonest, in any case. It's that he too should be read skeptically. He has his slant too.

Tyro, again, what I'm concerned with is that the same standards and terms be applied to both sides. I think that will pretty well solve any language issues. If you're willing to call yourself a liar, then go ahead and use the term for others too. But I suspect you'll be more cautious about using the word if you have to apply it to yourself as well.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 24, 2007 4:10:37 PM

I would prefer that the same standards and terms be applied to both sides, including yourself.

And curiously enough, Sanpete has taken it upon himself to ensure that every conservative receives the benefit of the doubt, not matter what he or she says.

You are Ann Althouse, and I claim my ten shillings.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Jul 24, 2007 4:11:24 PM

Ezra - a little Learning is a dangerous thing - not knowledge. As a proud Johnnie that misquote drives me crazy!

Posted by: lemma | Jul 24, 2007 4:17:08 PM

After Watergate, the malefactors of great wealth (led by Rupert Murdoch) realized that if they wanted to retain power in the future, they would have to subvert the journalistic class.

This proved much easier than they had expected. All they had to do was make a couple of unethical "journalists" into celebrity millionaires - and make sure they knew who they were beholden to. These so-called journalists would then pollute the public discourse, backing up whatever arguments the malefactors wanted them to.

Posted by: Josh G. | Jul 24, 2007 4:26:10 PM

And curiously enough, Sanpete has taken it upon himself to ensure that every conservative receives the benefit of the doubt, not matter what he or she says.

Um, no, pseudo. Try responding to something I actually say sometime, just to see if you can.

Josh, your theory is more than a little paranoid.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 24, 2007 10:03:35 PM

Sanpete,

Krugman writes with a point of view, as does Brooks. There the roads pretty much diverge. Brooks is mendacious as well as shallow, smug and complacent. A typical Brooks piece would state that "the stock market under Bush has been great with multiple years of double digit gains." Well, the double digit gains part would be accurate This would be technically true -- the broad market was up by double digits in 2003 and 2006 and may well end up there this year. However, the market was down by 36% in 2001 and 2002 combined, and the annualized return on the S&P 500 since Bush came into office through the end of December 2006 is about 2.5%, many times below its historical norm. (I don't by the way much blame Bush for this.)

My point is that statistics can be manipulated and used in bad faith and you can almost be certain that when Brooks presents a rosy picture like he did in this column that it will be intellectually dubious.

Again, show me an example of Krugman doing this. The Friedman book review didn't really illustrate anything like this.

Posted by: KTLN | Jul 24, 2007 10:15:55 PM

It's not paranoia when they openly admit it:

http://www.makethemaccountable.com/coverup/Part_04.htm

Jack Welch and Rupert Murdoch are not exactly hiding their agendas. What they rely upon is having enough money to throw around that no one is willing to call a spade a spade.

Posted by: Josh G. | Jul 24, 2007 10:17:57 PM

Mr. Nut, the example from Krugman's Friedman piece (actually a review of Friedman and his work soon after his death) is a fine example of cherrypicking facts/quotes, the chief of which was not only taken out of context but used to say the opposite of what it meant--this in the last place that should have been done. But, as I said, I don't follow Krugman enough to know how common that kind of thing is with him--I just haven't been impressed with my limited experiences with him. You should be more skeptical of your own reactions to Brooks and Krugman, though, knowing that you're more likely to be annoyed by and notice problems with the former than the latter.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 24, 2007 11:23:36 PM

"It's a rare reader indeed who wouldn't trust that product. But that product is not trustworthy"

When all one has is a tool, one's going to get nailed . . .

(although granted, that might be better off: When all one reads is a (Kraut)hammer . . .

Posted by: Dan S. | Jul 25, 2007 2:09:47 AM

Everybody needs to remember that Sanpete has a pathological need to see himself as the arbiter of all that is fair and balanced. There's no point in engaging him in discussions of media presentations, because his only purpose in the discussion is to prove to us all how much more neutral he is that we are.

Posted by: Meh | Jul 25, 2007 10:02:28 AM

*than we are

Posted by: Meh | Jul 25, 2007 10:02:53 AM

Meh, it would actually harm you to consider the arguments and reply to them instead of just making something up.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 25, 2007 12:01:17 PM

Meh, it would actually harm you to consider the arguments and reply to them instead of just making something up.

Come up with some and I'm sure they will recieve all due consideration. Also, because I'm a helper, I'll add 'A pox on both your houses' is not an argument

Posted by: Fledermaus | Jul 25, 2007 4:26:29 PM

'A pox on both your houses' is not an argument

It's also manifestly not what I've said. The arguments are there if you care to read them. But thanks for try to be helpful.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 26, 2007 2:17:23 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.