Friday, March 16, 2012

How our inability to distinguish between independence and contrarianism encourages Steve Landsburg to be, let's just say, a less effective pundit

[I decided that the tone was getting a bit sharp in this debate so I'm dialing things down a bit. This entailed some very slight rewriting but none of these changes the substance of the post]

Before getting to the main thesis, let's confirm just how bad this incident was. A radio personality with millions of listeners grossly misrepresented the comments of a private citizen speaking out on an issue then used those distortions to make offensive and badly-reasoned attacks on the the woman. The situation at that point was bad enough but we don't really achieve horrible until Landsburg jumped in. Not only did Landsburg throw his reputation behind Limbaugh's illogical and factually challenged comments, he actually added additional [poor] arguments to the abuse this woman has had to put up with.

Noah Smith, Scott Lemieux, my co-blogger and others have done an excellent job addressing the lies and idiocy of this affair (check out how this blogger dismembers the I'm-mocking-the-postion-not-the-person defense) . The question for now is how this happened. How did a mid-level economist manage to reach such national prominence by writing a series painfully sophomoric books and articles?

Part of the answer, I'd argue, lies in the way journalists and editors now treat the counterintuitive. Publications like Slate give us a steady diet of pieces that take some claim that seems obviously true and argue the opposite. These publications would have us believe that this practice is a sign of intellectual independence and healthy diversity of opinion. It's not.

Contrarianism is closer to the opposite of independence, a point that's easiest to explain if we think in the idealized terms of a simplified fitness landscape. and draw an analogy between the defensibility of an argument associated with a certain position and the fitness of a phenotype associated with a certain genotype. (more on landscapes here)

Of course, it would take a lot of variables to realistically describe this landscape but the basic concepts still hold even if we simplify it to a bare-bones x, y and v(x,y). For every position (x,y) you can take, there's a resulting viability (v). Some positions are easy to defend (v is high). Some are difficult (v is low). Pundits and news analysts who try to find the best positions to argue are therefore performing an optimization algorithm (though most probably never thought about it in those terms).

For the most part, we can place this commentary and analyses in three general categories:




The neighbor searcher tries to find the most defensible position within the neighborhood of a starting point. The best example I can think of here is the work David Frum specialized in until fairly recently. Frum was not being independent with his pieces in the Wall Street Journal or public radio (the terminal point of his searches was almost always within the neighborhood of the established conservative consensus) but he was arguably doing something as or more important, thoroughly exploring the landscape of the region and encouraging evolutionary shifts to sounder, more defensible positions.

The independent searcher, by contrast, goes where the search leads regardless of the starting position. The semi-independent searcher adds the condition that the terminal point has to be original (in other words, you can't end up on a point that someone else has already argued). Technically, originality and independence are in opposition here but in practice, they tend to complement each other.

And the two categories tend to complement each other as well. To grossly oversimplify, one group searches x+1 to x-1 and y+1 to y-1; the other group searches everywhere else. Given the fact the consensuses originally form around what seem at the time to be good ideas, it makes sense to explore their neighborhoods (if it helps, you could think of this in terms of Bayesian priors), but it also makes sense to keep exploring new territory. David Brooks and Frank Rich refine and improve their relative corners of the political landscape while writers like Jonathan Chait or William Safire range further and are more likely to reach unexpected conclusions.

The contrarian approach is to start with a position (x.y) that seems obviously true (often because it is true) then jump to either (-x,y) or (x,-y) and argue from there. It can, at first glance, look like the result of an independent search,but it is actually far more constrained than the neighborhood searches of Frum and Rich. Both of those writers would shift positions based on their reasoning and would insist on finding a defensible point before sitting down to the keyboard.

The typical contrarian piece hews so closely to its initial (-x,y) that there's no indication of a search at all. By all appearances, the writer simply jumps to the contrarian position and starts typing.

Contrarian writing crowds out good journalism and pumps misinformation and faulty arguments into the discourse. This would be bad at any time, but in the current state of journalism, it's disastrous. Here's a list of dangerous trends in journalism from an earlier post (with a link added from a different paragraph):

1. Reliable information sources like the CBO are undermined;

2. An increasing amount of our information comes from unreliable subsidized sources like Heritage;

3. Journalists suffer no penalty for publishing inaccurate information;

4. Journalists also fashion for themselves an incredibly self-serving ethical rule that lets them, in the name of balance, avoid the consequences that would have to be faced if they honestly assigned responsibility for screw-ups;

5. A growing tendency to converge on a narrative makes the media easier to manipulate.
All of these factors make it more difficult for our society to deal with bad data and contrarians are a rich source of some of the worst.

In a healthy journalistic system, counter-intuitive claims would be held to a higher standard (at least if we think like Bayesians) and if a logically or factually flawed argument made it through, both the authors and the editors would feel pressure to see that it didn't happen again.

In our current system, counter-intuitive claims are held to a lower standard (because they generate traffic) and serial offenders can actually build careers by badly arguing points that probably aren't true. Editors have lost all interest in fact-checking and outside efforts at debunking are usually treated as he said/she said.

It's easy to object to the positions Landsburg takes, but perhaps the truly offensive aspect here is the way Landsburg and the other contrarians reach those positions.


  1. Mark:

    Regarding your item #3 above: Gregg Easterbrook is actually no longer writing at Reuters! On the other hand, those "Dow 36,000" guys are still around.

  2. Andrew,

    True, but Eaterbrook is still listed as a contributing editor on the mastheads of the New Republic and the Atlantic. Under the circumstances, losing the Reuters gig is a not a severe penalty.