Friday, February 26, 2010

I know It's silly to take Dana Milbank seriously, but here he is on the health care summit.

The forum matched his lawyerly skills -- and, less flatteringly, his tendency to act like the smartest guy in the room.
Now I'd say that if Obama were the smartest guy in the room, then it would be irresponsible of him to ignore that fact. That question is not addressed at all in the article.

More importantly, no questions of substance were addressed in the article. It was all 100% about style.

It appears that, to Milbank, claiming that someone else's assertion on a matter of fact is incorrect is bad form. If people followed his rules of how not to act like you are the smartest guy in the room, then facts would have no effect on the debate.

The scary thing, is that I think that Milbank knows this. I think he is going meta or horse race, that is, he has noticed that the people of the USA don't like people who know a lot. He clearly thinks that it's not his problem to decide if this is a crippling national neurosis which leads to idiocy like electing George W Bush. If it's not his problem, whose problem is it ?


update: Welcome Krugmen and Krugwomen. Yes I am indeed so vain. My reaction on opening his blog was "another link to Brad... why doesn't he ever link to meeeeee" and then "heeeyyyyy that's my name."

Note (as I didn't in the post I wish I had written better) that Milbank didn't say that Obama acted as if he thinks he's the smartest person in the room. The problem is acting like the smartest guy in the room. As written it isn't a statement about self esteme, but about smartness. I believe that Milbank is thinking of knowledge not intelligence, and that he is saying that it is a mistake for someone to demonstrate that he or she knows more than others.

Also, "going meta or horserace" is two feeble attempts to name the phenomenon. I just learned a much better name coined by David Sirota the "Media's ... Innocent Bystander Fable" so I guess the verb form would be "to stand by innocently" and I should have said that Milbank was "innoncently standing by." or, clarity before elegance, written that Milbank was going all innocent bystander on his readers.

I got to Sirota via Glenn Greenwald's post on Newsweeks discussion of the aversion to describing the IRS attacker Joe Stack as a "terrorist"

This is a good example of the innocent bystander fable.

There could not be a better example.

After that post, various Newsweek employees fiercely protested that they were *not* discussing and endorsing Newsweek's aversion to using the word, but rather innocent bystanders discussing the fact that others don't use the word.

Greenwald notes that the words "terrorist" and "terrorism" do not appear in the Newsweek article reporting on Stack.

I have no doubt that the many Newsweek employees who are furious with Greenwald are absolutely sincere -- that it just didn't occur to them that their magazine could contain the phenomenon which they were discussing.

They don't seem to understand that this is much much worse than conciously choosing to avoid the words terrorist and terrorism for the reasons they gave. They appear to be sincerely dumfounded that the text of newsweek is supposed to be part of the rality with which Newsweek employees should be familiar (at least when they are discussing the discussion).

Think of it. They write "we weren't talking about Newsweek. We were talking about the media organs which won't call Stark a terrorist a group. A group which includes Newsweek, but we couldn't have been expected to notice that (although we are qualified to read the minds of those people other than ourselves who did exactly the same thing we collectively did).

update 2: Pulled back from comments

There is a hidden premise behind the view that pointing out factual errors constitutes "condescension." It is that the purpose of politics is the assertion of identity rather than attaining any concrete objective. I had more to say about that here.

Ben Ross

There was another comment which I didn't like so much.


Steve in comments gives me a whole new appreciation of the word "condescension"

Steve

[skip]

Even assuming that the data is accurate and everybody's using the same dictionary, in a world of incomplete information there are almost always several logically plausible ways to interpret a given set of facts.

"Here are the facts:"
1. The State of Florida has the highest concentration of physicians in the U.S.
2. The State of Florida has the highest death rate in the U.S.

We can interpret these facts a number of ways:

1. Physicians cause death.
2. High death rates attract physicians.
3. Both the high concentration of physicians and the high death rate are caused by other variables (e.g. the high concentration of elderly Floridians).

C'mon, Doc, I shouldn't have to make this point to an econ professor.


[skip]

This is also a comment at Krugman's blog. That would be the Krugman who likes to use the phrase "accidental theorist."

10 comments:

Hans Suter said...

I've seen almost the whole meeting. Not that the Republicans haven't tried, but they didn't succeed. He made them respect him. I was in awe.

Anonymous said...

There is a hidden premise behind the view that pointing out factual errors constitutes "condescension." It is that the purpose of politics is the assertion of identity rather than attaining any concrete objective. I had more to say about that here.

Ben Ross

Steve said...

I just hacked out and posted on Dr. Krugman's blog the following reply to his link to and endorsement of your post:

"Dr. Krugman,

Contrary to the persistant trope religiously adhered to by the Left for the past several years, right-wing thinking is neither universally "anti-logic" nor "anti-fact." Please be tolerant of right-wing skepticism of "facts" put forward by people with a political agenda. I hate to commit the "reductio ad Hitlerium" logical fallacy, but in the 1930's, German athropoligists armed Nazi leaders with quite a few "facts" that they could use in an attempt to justify their policies.

Even assuming that the data is accurate and everybody's using the same dictionary, in a world of incomplete information there are almost always several logically plausible ways to interpret a given set of facts.

"Here are the facts:"
1. The State of Florida has the highest concentration of physicians in the U.S.
2. The State of Florida has the highest death rate in the U.S.

We can interpret these facts a number of ways:

1. Physicians cause death.
2. High death rates attract physicians.
3. Both the high concentration of physicians and the high death rate are caused by other variables (e.g. the high concentration of elderly Floridians).

C'mon, Doc, I shouldn't have to make this point to an econ professor.

I think the accusations of "arrogance" you describe are often a criticism of the speaker's rigid certainty regarding his interpretation of the facts (or the reliability of "facts" like CBO projections, etc.) and dismissiveness of any alternative (i.e. not supportive of his agenda) interpretations. Some might justifiably consider such an attitude to be "arrogant" and "condescending" because, well, it is.

I was in high school when I discovered that I was smarter than most of my teachers, and I remember the anger (augmented by adolescent hormones) I felt when I would voice skepticism of this-or-that bit of curricular nonsense, and the teacher would rebut me not with reason, logic, or additional facts, but by "pulling rank." You know--"someday you'll understand," etc.

I won't deny the existence of an anti-intellectual current within the American Right, but conservatives hardly have a monopoly on simplistic thinking (from my limited experience, left-wingers are, if anything, more likely to engage in "bumper sticker politics.") However, neither does the Left have a monopoly on critical thinking. I challenge you to re-think the stereotypes you perpetuate on this blog."

Anonymous said...

Please use a spell checker program or a dictionary. Your commentary is great, but Americans' language skills are bad enough without writers misspelling so many words in a single post!

Robert said...

Dear Ben Ross

Thanks for the link to your article. It is excellent.

Dear Steve

You make assertions without any evidence. Also you are condescending in the extreme. You don't have to explain to Krugman or me that the fact about Florida doesn't prove that physicians cause death. It is breathtakingly arrogant for you to assume that you do.

your condescending arrogance is particularly astounding since it is directed at Paul Krugman. Try googling the phrase "accidental theorist." You will find that Krugman notes from time to time that people who think they are making predictions based only on facts are, inevitably always, using theory which is all the more suspect for being unexamined.

What are you going to tell him in your next comment ? Maybe that it would be interesting to put increasing returns to scale and imperfect competition into a model of international trade ?

Your objection is that we assert that facts exist. You present no examples of arrogance as you describe it. In particular, you definitely do not argue in anyway that in the summit Obama displayed arrogance as you describe it.

Oddly in a comment on a post about attitudes towards claims of fact you present no evidence. You have impressions about what is perceived to be arrogant and about left wingers and bumper sticker politics but you present no data no facts no evidence nothing with a time and a place.

The closest you come is to note that the fact that the CBO predicts something doesn't mean that it is a plain fact that it will happen, that is to say you note that Doug Elmendorf is not God.

Howver, the fact that the CBO predicted something does imply that the CBO predicted something. The allegedly false claims on matters of fact include false claims about what the CBO said -- not the opinion that the CBO is wrong but the claim that the CBO said something different from what it said.

I am thinking of Alexanders misleading claim about premiums (it wasn't a false claim of fact and Obama didn't say that it was, it was a misleading true statement ab out the CBO's prdictions and Obama pointed out equally true statements about the CBO) and the claim that the bills are forecast to reduce the deficit because the 10 year window includes 10 years of tax increases and spending cuts and only 6 years of spending increases. This is a plainly false claim about the text of the bill made by rep Ryan. The timing of different provisions is clearly written in the bill under debate. This is not about predictions or opionions. Ryan lied.

Alan said...

Here are the facts:
1. The State of Florida has the lowest concentration of physicians in the U.S.
2. The State of Florida has the highest death rate in the U.S.
I therefore propose that Florida adopt a policy of heavy subsidies for new doctors to move to Florida to help lower the death rate.

Is there any reason why someone opposed to this policy proposal, or even just interested in analyzing it, should be debarred from pointing out that (1) is false, however condescending that might seem?

Anonymous said...

Hello, you site is very funny he told me to cheer up .. Merry Christmas.

Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, may all your wishes come true!

Anonymous said...

I think about add this material in my RSS. Do u think its ok?

Anonymous said...

I wanna to decide some of questions in this area. Could u help me to do it?