Testimony and Advertising

by Brian on November 20, 2003

The response from various right-wing circles about the TCS brouhaha is either charmingly antique or extraordinarily naive. The position seems to be that we should ignore who’s paying the piper and just listen to the tune to see whether we like it. Arguments, they say, can be evaluated independently of the context they appear in. But this relies on views about the nature of testimony that don’t stand up to empirical or philosophical scrutiny. As Grice put it, communication requires cooperation, and since advertising masquerading as honest opinion is not particularly cooperative, it is unlikely to be communicative, but without successful communication there simply isn’t a presented argument to evaluate.

Let’s make that all a bit less abstract.

The role of language is not, much as you might believe from the antics around here, to facilitate debate. Just exactly what it is is a matter of some controversy, but it’s a reasonable guess that it’s something much more cooperative than debating. Maybe the primary role of language is the expansion of common beliefs. Maybe it’s the bringing about of shared plans. Maybe it’s the coordnation of those plans. It certainly isn’t adversarial. This is not to say it can’t be used in debating, because of course it can. Plenty of things can be used for other than their basic role. The role of tree branches is not to be instruments for hitting baseballs, but they can be well adopted to that role, as long as one is sufficiently careful. If one is not careful you’ll end up with weak groundouts and broken bats. And language can be well adopted to debating, as long again as one is careful. If care is not taken, all parties to the conversation can be harmed.

When people are engaged in cooperative behaviour, various assumptions can be safely made about their behaviour, assumptions that are not obviously entailed by their actions. If A and B are cooperating on repairing a car, and B walks away from the car for no apparent reason, A should assume that B has a good reason, relative to the shared project, for walking away. Maybe she needs to get a tool, maybe she needs to consult a manual, maybe she is thirsty and needs a drink before she can effectively continue, or whatever. As long as A and B are cooperating, A won’t, and shouldn’t, question B’s motives at every stage. The comparison with a case where A and B are not cooperating, where B is only there under some kind of duress, or for some ulteriour reason, is quite different. If B is a new employee at A’s shop, A might be justified, indeed required, to inquire why B is walking away from the car. The general point is that when we know that the situation is a cooperative one, we can safely make assumptions about the behaviour of other participants, and these assumptions can make our interactions more pleasant and efficient.

The same kind of principle is true of language, with the added twist that it seems to be hard-wired into us to treat conversations as if they were cooperative enterprises. I can’t find the citations immediately (and I’m not sure the evidence is that compelling, but it’s interesting) but there have been experiments suggesting that when a subject hears a sentence, her default behaviour is to treat it as true.

From memory, the important experiment invovled experimenters read a series of not very plausible sentences to subjects while having the subjects perform various distracting tasks. Subjects were more likely to believe the sentences read out than subjects not so distracted. One might have had a model for the mind where we hear sentences and then evaluate/decide whether to incorporate them as beliefs. One interpretation of this data is that’s just mistaken – we hear things as true, and, if and when possible, decide to remove them from our beliefs. Note that this is perfectly rational behaviour if language is basically a mechanism for cooperative action, which fundamentally it is.

This kind of hard-wired practice gets incorporated over time into social norms. There’s a norm of conversation that one should only say what one knows. And this has many consequences.

One, if there are good reasons against a belief you have, even if you think they are outweighed, these might defeat that belief’s claim to be knowledge, so you should not express the belief without mentioning the reasons pointing in the other direction.

Two, you should only speak on areas in which you have some (relative) expertise. In a cooperative enterprise, there is a mutual deference to the experts on the given task at hand. We assume the same is true of language, so anyone who speaks presents themselves as an expert on the topic, one who knows what the hearers do not know.

But now it’s clear how debating scenarios, and especially advertising scenarios, can distort these well-grounded norms. Advertisers do not (unless mandated) tell you about the countervailing considerations. They may present themselves as experts, but this is misleading.Debaters may or may not be as bad, depending on how much they value winning as compared to the growth of knowledge. (And obviously we all favour winning a bit.)

The fundamental purpose of labelling advertising as advertising then is to point out to readers in advance that this is not a cooperative framework. In a non-cooperative setting you don’t assume that the other party is acting to further shared interest. You don’t assume that what the other party is doing is well motivated. You don’t assume that what the other party is doing would not be undermined by more facts that are in that party’s possession. You don’t even assume that the other party has a particular expertise – just a desire to see the debate move in a certain direction. It’s no surprise that we socially evolved rules like labelling advertising as such to deal with the problem of people exploiting conversational norms for partisan, rather than shared, interests. The problem with TCS and its ilk is that it aims to undermine the rules we developed for this problem. But those are good rules, for it is a legitimate problem and the rules are an efficient solution, so it is wrong to undermine them.

Let’s get even less abstract, though the air will still be fairly thin.

Any argument, and it is agreed all around that TCS commentators are attempting to put forward arguments, has premises and inferences. Unless we are antique foundationalists, the premises will not present themselves with the divine light of reason, and unless we are particularly strident deductivists, the cogency of the arguments may not be obvious. If we want conversation to go anywhere, we have to take at least some of the premises someone gives us on trust, and to some extent we have to take the cogency of the argument on trust either.

Now we are normally smart enough to know not to do this with advertisers. We don’t trust either the premises or the reasoning. That’s why smart advertisers no longer try and persuade us, they mostly try to entertain and leave a positive impression. And it’s why even smarter advertisers try to appear not to be adverstiers so as to activate conventions of trust.

There’s several things that can go wrong when these conventions are broken.

  1. Some writers just make things up. Their premises are false, and they either know this or don’t care. They just hope they won’t get called on them.

  2. Other writers use arguments whose lack of cogency can be detected with some effort, but they hope we won’t make the effort, and that we’ll trust them that their premises support their conclusions.

  3. Other writers again use arguments that are clearly enough not cogent given all the data, but they hide the data that tells against their position, so their argument is apparently good. As long as we are using ampliative inference this is a live possibility.

All three of these things are very annoying to the reader, because they involve a breach of trust. In every case the reader may well prefer to have never had to bother removing the errant beliefs from her belief box. Another reason advertising is labelled as such is to warn the reader to be on the lookout for all of these types of writers, and to read no further if she does not care to have to check for these things.

For there are other kinds of writers out there. Writers who put forward arguments that do try and account for all the evidence, and who use arguments that really are cogent. In those cases it may well be worthwhile investing time and energy in reading their pieces, because the reader may learn something she could not learn without some effort. Even if the writer has a point of view, as long as she’s operating as part of a genuinely cooperative enterprise, the growth of knowledge enterprise at its broadest, then some degree of trust that the writer is not one of the three types alluded to above is in order.

Advertisers, or even people writing in publications that are little more than advertising, do not deserve that kind of trust. But without it there is little to argue about. I cannot evaluate their arguments, because for me it is an open possibility that they are suppressing evidence that tells strongly against their claims. So I’ll keep my reading to those places (unlike TCS) where I can engage with people with different views in good faith.

{ 42 comments }

1

asg 11.20.03 at 11:26 pm

Advertisers, or even people writing in publications that are little more than advertising, do not deserve that kind of trust. But without it there is little to argue about. I cannot evaluate their arguments, because for me it is an open possibility that they are suppressing evidence that tells strongly against their claims.

This comment suggests that it is not only right-wingers who are being “extraordinarily naive”. It is an open, indeed a strong, possibility in any given case, for anyone in the world, that any number of possible biases and irrational elements are skewing the communication. Confirmation bias, “clustering”, rationalizations, etc., are pervasive and hardly associated only with advertisers. Irrationality, particularly regarding issues that have little direct practical consequence to belief-holders, is endemic.

Nor have I seen anyone argue that arguments can be evaluated independent of context. I have seen people say that arguments can be evaluated independent of the arguer’s motives, which is a specific context (and, if you believe the claim, an irrelevant one).

Must some premises be shared at the beginning of any discussion, in order for that discussion to be productive? Of course. And if your willingness to agree with starting premises for the purpose of discussion depends on the trustworthiness of the other person, that seems perfectly rational as well. What is not rational is to say that *given* starting premises, the “context” of an argument can alter its validity. And it is this latter claim that is much closer, I think, to what people have been saying about TCS.

2

markus 11.20.03 at 11:27 pm

by that reasoning, you shouldn’t read the Weekly Standard or NRO, since they are advertising something as well

3

Arnold Kling 11.20.03 at 11:44 pm

I thought that referees for academic journals were supposed to evaluate an idea without knowing who wrote it or what their motive was. I didn’t realize that this concept of objectivity was peculiar to “right-wing circles.”

Anyway, if you don’t want to evaluate the essays that I wrote for TCS, you are more than welcome to evaluate the essays that I wrote *before* I wrote for TCS. Again, the URL is http://arnoldkling.com/~arnoldsk/aimstindex.html

I used to feel wistful about leaving academia, remembering the intellectual discussions I had in college and grad school. This blog is starting to cure me of that.

4

Vinteuil 11.21.03 at 12:26 am

Brian–you write like an old maid who has just been goosed for the first time. “It is an open possibility that they are suppressing evidence that tells strongly against their claims.”

Quel horreur! Fetch me my smelling salts!

Of course *no one* writing for The Nation, or The New York Review of Each Other’s Books, or the Times Literary Supplement would ever do anything like that!

Really now, remind me…at what time last night were you born?

But seriously. From time to time I follow a link to TCS. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re not. Just like Crooked Timber. I’m no less on my guard there than I am here. And no more. I recommend the same policy to all and sundry. There are many prejudices afoot in the intellectual world. The purely commercial ones are among the more innocent.

5

Richard Vagge 11.21.03 at 12:28 am

There was an interesting experiment done in which auditions for an orchestra was held, but the judges were not allowed to see who was performing. It turned out that many more African Americans and women were chosen.

I would like to suggest to the people at Crooked Timber that you might want to try this some time. Forget about who pays, or what business the person who pays is in and just look at the ideas.

“Comunication requires cooperation”. Well, yeah. The question is does require the level of coperation your seem to be asking of it.

Did you read TCS? Have you been harmed in some way. Will you need to alter the way you think now?

“Advertising masquerading as honest opinion”. Can I assume that advertisng is dishonest opinion from now on?

This is way beneath the high intellectual capicity of Crooked Timber.

6

enthymeme 11.21.03 at 12:37 am

Sir,

The position seems to be that we should ignore who’s paying the piper and just listen to the tune to see whether we like it. Arguments, they say, can be evaluated independently of the context they appear in. But this relies on views about the nature of testimony that don’t stand up to empirical or philosophical scrutiny.

As opposed to ad hominem, which stands up to logical scrutiny?

You also say:

If we want conversation to go anywhere, we have to take at least some of the premises someone gives us on trust, and to some extent we have to take the cogency of the argument on trust either.

Then you go on to list a few things that can go wrong because of misplaced trust (acceptance of invalid arguments, flawed premises, etc.).

And then you go on to conclude that:

I cannot evaluate their arguments, because for me it is an open possibility that they are suppressing evidence that tells strongly against their claims.

So in summary, you are (so it seems) saying that for conversation to “go anywhere” we have to (1) trust that the premises are true and the argument valid – to an extent; (2) if we trust that a person isn’t passing off false premises and invalid arguments as true and valid, then things could go very wrong if he were doing such a thing; ergo (3) we cannot evaluate the arguments of persons whose motives are suspect — because hey, we’re too lazy to check if the premises are true or if the arguments are valid.

This just sounds to me like an apology for (1) laziness and (2) ad hominem. Isn’t the whole point NOT to take anything on “trust” when evaluating an argument? And how is just “trusting” premise and argument not simply begging the question? It’s also pretty easy for anyone’s motives and arguments to be summarily dismissed in like manner and branded ‘un-evaluable’.

Furthermore, if you “cannot evaluate [arguments]” because some premises are deliberately suppressed, or because some of the facts are hidden on purpose, how do you distinguish this from cases where the the facts or premises aren’t deliberately suppressed, but are just unknown? Are the latter cases likewise ‘un-evaluable’?

Indeed, how do we evaluate arguments at all given that our knowledge of any given situation is incomplete? Absurdum!

7

Vinteuil 11.21.03 at 12:38 am

Oh, and by the way–when the link is to a piece by Arnold Kling, it’s invariably good.

8

Ophelia Benson 11.21.03 at 12:39 am

What does an old maid who has just been goosed for the first time write like? And how does anyone know?

9

Vinteuil 11.21.03 at 12:48 am

Well, Ophelia, she stiffens her back, and looks around in all directions, and crooks her finger *just so*, and solemnly announces that the very reverend Mr. Grice would never, NEVER have put up with this sort of behavior.

And that’s when someone sneaks up and gooses her again.

10

JoJo 11.21.03 at 1:30 am

An assumption of almost all comments above seems to be that people just cannot be fooled or misled if they pay sufficient attention to the matter at hand. What an odd and idealistic thought.

11

Ophelia Benson 11.21.03 at 1:43 am

“Well, Ophelia, she stiffens her back, and looks around in all directions, and crooks her finger just so, and solemnly announces that the very reverend Mr. Grice would never, NEVER have put up with this sort of behavior.”

But that’s not writing. It’s a mixture of behavior and speech, but not writing.

12

Ophelia Benson 11.21.03 at 1:48 am

“An assumption of almost all comments above seems to be that people just cannot be fooled or misled if they pay sufficient attention to the matter at hand. What an odd and idealistic thought.”

Ah yes – isn’t it though. But it’s a very, very pervasive one. You get the same thought with reference to advertising, PR, political rhetoric and (again) advertising, and so on – the endlessly repeated mantra that the audience is not that naive, they know advertisers are trying to sell them things, they can see through it. Really!? It’s that easy, is it? Advertising doesn’t work at all then? Just sheer money thrown away? Who knew!

I certainly didn’t, and I don’t believe a word of it. I think advertising and manipulation damn well do work.

13

enthymeme 11.21.03 at 1:59 am

An assumption of almost all comments above seems to be that people just cannot be fooled or misled if they pay sufficient attention to the matter at hand. What an odd and idealistic thought.

Sure, people can be fooled or misled. This doesn’t make manipulative arguments in(un?)-evaluable, though.

14

JoJo 11.21.03 at 2:35 am

I think advertising and manipulation damn well do work.

Of course they do. What we can’t have is any widespread appreciation of that fact.

15

Brett Bellmore 11.21.03 at 3:21 am

Must be a bit of a culture clash, I suppose: Conservatives don’t tend to regard having monetary motives as evidence of moral depravity. So the idea that companies might subsidize the speech of people whose ideas support their aims doesn’t given them the horrors. They’re more interested in whether the people speaking honestly mean what they say, than whether the guy paying for the soapbox has ulterior motives.

16

epist 11.21.03 at 5:12 am

Allow me to ask the dissenters here a question:

How would you feel if you found out the investment advisor you had been paying for stock tips was also taking money from the firms that he was recommending to you?

Alternately, how would you feel if your doctor turned out to be on the PR payroll of the drug company whose products he had been prescribing to you?

What Brian is saying here is banal. If you don’t put advertising in a seperate (read far inferior) category as a source of possible information, you’re hopelessly naive.

17

Keith M Ellis 11.21.03 at 5:17 am

Conservatives don’t tend to regard having monetary motives as evidence of moral depravity.

Maybe not. But I have tremendous difficulty imagining them restraining themselves from the same criticism were the bias in the other direction. Furthermore, were TCS’s DCI ownership unrevealed, I also have trouble imagining that they’d be sanguine about DCI taking on a variety of liberal clients and TCS cherry-picking articles from conservative writers to support the liberal clients’ agenda.

Frankly, I am astonished at this right-wing commentariat defense of TCS/DCS. I really am. Even the people I most respect on that side of the aisle keep disapointing me.

18

Keith M Ellis 11.21.03 at 5:28 am

Epist, your examples should be modified somewhat. We are, for the sake of this argument and because there’s not an indication otherwise, granting the TCS writers’ good-will.

So, imagine that in both cases, the broker and the doctor are giving you advice that they believe to be good advice. However, also in both cases, they are restrained by higher-ups from recommending stocks or drugs other than those whose interests are paying the bills.

And, from the doctors and brokers standpoint, they’ve been told that whatever constraints they’re operating under are something other than what they really are. For example, the brokerage company may claim their philosphy is to favor low-risk stocks when, actually, they favor stocks of companies in which they have a financial interest.

These are imperfect analogies.

19

epist 11.21.03 at 5:38 am

Um, it seems to me that Brian is making precisely the point that we can’t take the TCS writer’s goodwill as a given. Let me quote you the final two lines of his essay:

“So I’ll keep my reading to those places (unlike TCS) where I can engage with people with different views in good faith.”

Doesn’t that sound like he is complaining about his inability to grant good faith on the part of TCS writers?

Further, whether or not your doctor or broker is actually giving you sound advice is not the point of the examples. The point is your intuitive reaction to the epistemic situation upon discovereing the link, i.e. you automatically suspect and downgrade the information from those sources, precisely because of the fiduciary relationship you discovered between them and those whom they recommend.

20

Keith M Ellis 11.21.03 at 5:41 am

Yes, but you addressed your comment to the dissenters, and I was trying to anticpate their objections and strengthen your example.

21

epist 11.21.03 at 5:51 am

Thanks, Keith, but I’ve gone back over the comments, and I don’t see this assumption made anywhere. The standard defense I see runs something like: ‘Other people have biases too’ which, like all tu qoque, grants the initial claim.

22

markus 11.21.03 at 6:26 am

Frankly, I am astonished at this right-wing commentariat defense of TCS/DCS. I really am. Even the people I most respect on that side of the aisle keep disapointing me.
that’s what I don’t get as well. It looks like slime and defend. Heck if they said they’re unsure, they’d have to think about it or that they have -after much deliberation- decided that they’ll continue to use the tainted outlet, hoping readers will focus on the merits of their arguments, then I wouldn’t like that, but I think I could accept that. But the deliberate misunderstandings, the burnt strawmen, I just don’t get it.

23

Jack 11.21.03 at 7:31 am

It’s not exactly the same but compare the reaction to ANSWER, Paul Krugman and “Liberal Media Bias”.

The possibility for abuse and the real conflict of interest are clear but it would be useful to see what has actually been done.

I think looking at TCS views on global warming, linux, intellectual property and trade tarriffs would be interesting.

Nevertheless it is only different from other media that accept advertising by a matter of degree.

24

Doug 11.21.03 at 7:33 am

To the defenders of bought commentary: The ownership situation does affect the discount rate on the ideas presented. Doubly and triply so because there is no separation of “church and state” in the way the operation is run.

People discount what the Washington Times writes about the Moonies, because they know the Moonies own the paper. People discount National Review because they know it’s the mouthpiece of movement conservatism.

Now we know to discount what TCS says (or what writers on TCS say) about the issues near and dear to their sponsors’ hearts (presuming existence of same), because the site is owned and operated by a lobbying shop. The closer an article is to the point of view of a sponsor, the greater the discount.

For all any reader knows, an author may genuinely hold views that align 100 percent with the sponsor’s position. But for all any reader knows, an author may have been selected for precisely that reason. Or an author may have been paid to espouse that position. How can we tell?

TCS was pretending to publish views that people honestly held. Some of them are honestly held, but some of them, in all probability, are not. With the way the enterprise is run, how can a reader separate the believers from the shills? (The useful idiots from the Bolshies, if you will.)

From an author’s point of view, writing for a political mag (National Review or TNR) is different from writing for a foundation’s house organ (Cato or American Prospect). And writing for a house organ is different from writing an organization’s PR piece (RJR Tobacco or Greenpeace). If someone tells you that you’re writing for a political mag but doesn’t tell you that other people are writing PR that will look just like your piece, that is, as Brad has said, very bad manners indeed. It keeps you from making an informed decision about who to align yourself with and can leave you looking like a chump.

25

Chris Bertram 11.21.03 at 8:14 am

There’s an amazing level of resistance from the right-wingers here, isn’t there? I’d have imagined that some of them would be quite cross to have their integrity compromised by TCS, but it seems not.

The suggestion that TCS articles are all like academic journal articles and to be evaluated on the merits of their alone is absurd. Sure, sometimes we can do this. But often the articles trade on the expert-authority (alleged, purported, imagined …) of their author in true “A doctor writes …” fashion. That appeals to the trust of the reader, a trust that would be harder to elicit were the reader made aware that the “doctor” had been selected for the proximity of his opinions to the interests of corporate sponsors.

26

Richard Vagge 11.21.03 at 9:03 am

Crooked Timber has had five post on TCS. People are “disappointing” the commentors.

Perhaps it’s for you to move on. If you’re going to say that the other sides opinions are worthless because of the website they appear on, you’re not going to convince anyone.

27

Thomas Dent 11.21.03 at 9:27 am

Consider the following: X wrote a piece for a newspaper Y without knowing the ownership or funding structure of said newspaper and without examining its previous output. X has it on authority from his friends who also write for Y that the newspaper is a good thing.

But X, along with the rest of the public, later discovers that the newspaper is owned by an industry lobbying group, and apart from the sensible opinion pieces written by his friends, newspaper Y contains a significant proportion of worthless hack work on behalf of the bodies who fund it.

X, however, says this makes not a single bit of difference. X is happy to have his pieces published right alongside the worthless hack work. The public should continue to buy newspaper Y and examine in detail every article, comparing its statements with other factual sources, just in case it’s a well-written one by X instead of a hack piece.

The fallacy is obvious. Any particular publication is associated in the public mind with a certain level of journalistic ethics and due diligence.

Although attempts to deceive are detectable by a reader with lots of time and lots of alternative sources of information, most readers are *of necessity* too lazy to do this for every article they read. Reading a newspaper is not supposed to be a full-time job.

The great majority of readers place implicit trust in the journalistic ethics of a particular publication, in lieu of detailed forensic investigation. This isn’t a perfect solution but it’s the best most people can do.

The revelation that TCS has been hiding its source of funding, and a certain proportion of its articles are corporate hack pieces, inevitably diminishes the credibility of *all* articles published there in the eyes of the public, whether or not they truly deserve this.

I’d like to know how the people defending TCS select articles they’re going to read. My guess is that they look to particular sources and publications, because they too have more implicit trust in them than other sources. But this goes against the principles they announce, which require that they select articles and publications at random, without any prejudice, read them all and then evaluate them all on the merits.

I look forward to their unprejudiced evaluation of, say, the Socialist Worker, or American Renaissance (an online white racialist site). Given their arguments, they are hypocrites if they refuse to read either of these.

28

enthymeme 11.21.03 at 10:29 am

Epist,

How would you feel if you found out the investment advisor you had been paying for stock tips was also taking money from the firms that he was recommending to you?

I’d expect the advisor to disclose his holdings/interest in the firms. I’d feel that advisors who don’t are somehow unethical. But of course, my feelings have nothing to do with the merits of his advice. My feelings also have nothing to do with whether said advice is ‘evaluable’ or not. These are logically distinct.

What Brian is saying here is banal.

Sure, as reasons for an expression of preference (what to read and what to skip), what he is saying is banal. However, it does not follow that “[b]ut without [trust] there is little to argue about” or that “[one] cannot evaluate their arguments” because they have questionable motives.

The former is a question of practice, the latter a question of logic. Stop conflating the two while attempting to justify the former.

Chris,

The suggestion that TCS articles are all like academic journal articles and to be evaluated on the merits of their alone is absurd.

Again, what one ought to do is distinct from the question of whether one can do it. Brian invoked an argument which purportedly showed that it can’t be done. This addresses the logical question, instead of the normative. I wrote with regards to the reasoning leading to an answer to the former question. I made no comment about the normative question of how one should manage one’s reading preferences.

Indeed, what one ought to read hardly needs to be justified. What is absurd is the attempt to justify such a preference by suggesting that there is nothing to argue about, or that arguments cannot be evaluated because of the motives of the publisher.

This is just bad reasoning.

29

Anthony 11.21.03 at 10:44 am

Ophelia Benson says:

You get the same thought with reference to advertising, PR, political rhetoric and (again) advertising, and so on – the endlessly repeated mantra that the audience is not that naive, they know advertisers are trying to sell them things, they can see through it. Really!? It?s that easy, is it? Advertising doesn?t work at all then? Just sheer money thrown away? Who knew!

I certainly didn?t, and I don?t believe a word of it. I think advertising and manipulation damn well do work.

Advertising works, because people have desires for things. Advertising merely serves to inform those desires, and direct them among competing suppliers. For example: I own a car, I live on my own, and I’m not in a financial position right now where I could get a car loan even if my current one were paid off. Unless my car is wrecked, no amount of car advertising is going to convince me to buy a car.

However, at some point in the future, I will have more money, and will want to replace my current car. Advertising will not be creating in me the desire to have a new car. But at that point, I will start paying attention to car advertising, because I will want to know what is available to me. I know perfectly well that all the advertisers are trying to sell me their cars. Because I’ll want to buy someone’s car, I’ll pay some attention to them. Then I’ll buy a car, and I’ll ignore car ads again.

Regarding the TCS issue: an analogy can be made with the NRA’s contributions to legislative candidates. Studies have shown that NRA funding is an effect of a candidate’s pro-gun views, not a cause. If the editors of TCS run articles which either won’t offend their sponsors (like the recent chess article) or stories which actively support their sponsors (or their sponsor’s clients), one cannot infer that therefore the authors have been directed to produce articles with those particular opinions. One can find a reasonably good writer somewhere to support almost any political opinion out of personal conviction, rather than as an exercise for pay. TCS, at worst, is finding authors whose political views already agree with TCS’s owners’ clients, and propagating those ideas. TCS doesn’t pretend to be ideologically neutral, unlike, say, the New York Times, so anyone reading an article there knows a) he’s reading an op-ed, and b) he’s reading a libertarian publication.

Only a deluded leftist would believe that nobody could hold libertarian viewpoints or opinions which intersect with the interests of corporations without being paid to hold those opinions.

30

raj 11.21.03 at 12:38 pm

Let’s see….

How much criticism of Disney’s interests is there on the Disney network, ABC?

How much criticism of General Electric’s interests (including its huge defense business) is there on its network NBC?

How much criticism regarding Archer Daniels Midland interests is there on ANY network (ADM is a huge advertiser on all of them)?

None.

But those interests were well known. And the mute not unexpected.

But with TCS, it appears that its ownership and advertizer interests were more than a bit surrepticious.

One might expect that a publication–print, media, or web–be up front about its interests. If they are not, well, I guess all of them need to be approached with more than a bit of skepticism.

Actually, I was wondering why a publication with a name such as TECHcentral station would have columns from a huckster like Glassman. Little did I know that he owned the place.

31

Thomas Dent 11.21.03 at 2:53 pm

How does “libertarian” jibe with “industry-owned and -funded”?

On that criterion, are industry lobbyists de facto libertarians too?

A TCS piece on global warming is going to look a lot different in terms of credibility, depending on how much money the site takes from energy companies, for example. Or rather, the totality of TCS’s coverage of global warming is going to look different, since we will get an insight into why certain opinions are expressed on TCS and why others are not. Are we really to believe that the consistency of the anti-environmentalist views expressed is merely due to the libertarian purity of the editor’s heart?

32

aelph 11.21.03 at 3:09 pm

Many here are missing the point. Yes, it’s true that you can evaluate *any* argument without concern for the motives of the speaker. But I wonder how many of TCS’s defenders seriously sit down and logically evaluate every piece of advertising they are exposed to. Do they sit around wondering if a given toothpaste’s claim to be “the best” holds under under serious evaluation? No, I’m betting they do what we all do, and write it off to advertising hyperbole.

And since TCS has now been revealed to be advertising, I’m going to write them off the same way. Yes, I *could* spend time evaluating all their claims, but that sounds like just as much of a giant waste of my time as evaluating every commerical I see. I’ve got more important things to do.

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JoJo 11.21.03 at 3:41 pm

Advertising will not be creating in me the desire to have a new car.

Of course not, advertising just provides data for the rational exercise of free will. Noam Chomsky agrees. Ayn Rand agrees. Who could think otherwise?

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Russell Arben Fox 11.21.03 at 4:57 pm

As he often does, John Holbo just nailed the whole TCS issue (and all the flustered clucking surrounding it) in this post (here: http://examinedlife.typepad.com/johnbelle/2003/11/some_people_sti.html#more) on his blog.
His conclusion? “All the stuff in the Confessore article in which he sort of reads the tea leaves of TCS content like a Kremlin watcher is pretty off. He just found out who owned the place. That’s all he did. And a good thing he did. His article should have been about two paragraphs long. A good two paragraphs. For damn sure the issue isn’t whiny left-wing types unable to deal with intelligent, libertarian opposition.”

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neil 11.21.03 at 7:21 pm

IOW, the medium is the message?

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nick 11.21.03 at 7:35 pm

For damn sure the issue isn’t whiny left-wing types unable to deal with intelligent, libertarian opposition.

I’d snark and say that ‘intelligent libertarian’ was an oxymoron, but I’d rather quote Bill Hicks and say that those who consistently write for TCS are off the artistic roll-call, and every word they write is like a turd falling into my drink.

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neil 11.21.03 at 8:18 pm

The thing that really blows me away is how many people are wilfully missing the point. It’s almost as if they’re giving more importance to Crooked Timber’s liberal leanings and condemnation of TCS than the merits of their arguments. Wouldn’t that be ironic?

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Kramer 11.22.03 at 3:07 am

Thomas:

I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who wonders about TCS’ environmental writing generally and more specifically the virtual exclusion of any one who thinks global warming is real.

This is perhaps a bit of a strained analogy, but I imagine it a bit like if we were trying to build a house out of, e.g., cooked noodles. Because we’re nontechnical we’d consult with noodle architects and engineers and when we did we’d find that virtually every practicing na/ne tells us that its really hard to build anything because they’re so floppy. Of course we love noodles and their might be a few na/ne’s who insist its possible. But when we go to actually decide wouldn’t we want to hear the 99% of the people who tell us noodle’s flop?

In short, TCS is oddly, hugely skewed in their presentation on virtually all climate related issues. It seems only reasonable to believe this reflects an imposed editorial slant. I don’t know who’s doing the imposing but I’m pretty sure it isn’t the Libertarians.

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john c. halasz 11.22.03 at 11:07 am

There’s an odd inversion in the terms of the above discussion. A lobbying firm sets up a web-site publication to give its highly interested, tendentious positions resonance from supposedly disinterested argument for those positions, (at least, in a significant number of cases and so that blatently tendentious arguments can partake of the luster of such disinterestedness). Now arguments about public policy or other matters of general public import are supposed to take place from some sort of universalizing perspective, the common interest: hence the supposed prohibition on naked interest, the claim for disinterestedness. The abuse of this convention for narrow partisan gain- and specifically by draping such partisan interest is the cloak of “disinterestedness” to increase the efficacy of lobbying operations- is what is at stake here. To claim the the venue and context of an argument does not vitiate its “logical” validity- (or to counter-claim guilt-by-association)- is to miss the point- or perhaps to sidestep it by adopting a narcissistic/self-righteous stance. In fact, I should think that it is those who were hoodwinked or snookered (or choose your preferred dead-metaphor semantics) into writing for this site should be the most outraged. Argument is a human activity with a point: to persuade by virtue of reasons and evidence. And like any human activity, to claim that context and venue are irrelevant is to de-nature any consideration of said activity. Unless one believes and is willing to argue that there is some timeless, placeless “foundation” for argument on which its “logical” validity can securely rest. Otherwise, the motives of those who placed their argumentitive trust in working for this web-site are not what is impugned by the revelation of its provenance; it is the very intention of their arguments that has been impugned, (presumably unwittingly). It is in the vitiation of intention that context plays its part in impugning the claim to “logical” validity, (since the intention to argue, in this view, must necessarily be engaged and imlicated with other activities and intentions, whether personal or institutionally mediated, that give rise to the occasion for argument).

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Anna 11.23.03 at 1:22 am

Seems to me it could be of great benefit to the blogosphere if someone [else] were to put up an “ethical conundra” test – one which allowed the test taker to rank the various scenarios by severity, and specify where s/he would draw the line of acceptability. Then encourage/challenge the various A&B list bloggers to take it and publicise their answers. That way we could get the ethical issues dealt with/debated/decided ahead of time, before reality stepped in and polluted people’s reasoning.
Also you could then a) know just what sort of person you were dealing with and b) compare their response to a particular event with their evaluation of similar scenario on the test. And those with great divergence might lose a bit of credibility.

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epist 11.23.03 at 9:02 am

Enthymeme,

In response to my analogy about the investment advisor, you say:

“I’d expect the advisor to disclose his holdings/interest in the firms. I’d feel that advisors who don’t are somehow unethical. But of course, my feelings have nothing to do with the merits of his advice. My feelings also have nothing to do with whether said advice is ‘evaluable’ or not. These are logically distinct.”

Neither Brian nor I have claimed that the logical evaluation is impossible without knowledge of the context of the argument or arguer. Brian explains in some detail how the standard measures of trust that go into evaluating arguments cannot be justified for advertisements, and how these trust measures, while not strictly necessary for evaluation per se, are necessary for reasonable evaluation times and efforts.

Further, Brian’s (and my) arguments concern what is reasonable to expect from an interlocutor. The ‘feelings’ you speak of are not meant to be insensible emotions, but rather reasons for this or that action.

Brian offered up a banal set of reasons to lower the trust standards for advertisements. On this basis he claims that it is rational to do so. You propose to rebut this by claiming that it is, in fact, possible to assess the merits of an argument, despite its being an advertisement. True, but irrelevant. What we need is an argument that it’s not a good idea to downgrade advertisements, and the fact that it’s merely possible to overcome the standard epistemic deficiencies in advertisements isn’t enough for that. It’s possible to do all your washing on a rock by the river. That’s not a good reason against recommending against such a practice.

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enthymeme 11.23.03 at 12:17 pm

Epist, I think you’re misunderstanding me, or vice versa. You said:

Neither Brian nor I have claimed that the logical evaluation is impossible without knowledge of the context of the argument or arguer.

Am I misunderstanding the part in bold?

“Advertisers, or even people writing in publications that are little more than advertising, do not deserve that kind of trust. But without it there is little to argue about. I cannot evaluate their arguments, because for me it is an open possibility that they are suppressing evidence that tells strongly against their claims.”

You then say:

. . . these trust measures, while not strictly necessary for evaluation per se, are necessary for reasonable evaluation times and efforts.

Isn’t this precisely my point? I made the distinction between actual practice and the logic of the situation. I read Professor Weatherson’s “I cannot evaluate . . .” as an assertion that an evaluation cannot be done, and therefore ought not to be evaluated at all. Involved in this assertion are two claims. The former – that the evaluation cannot be done – addresses the logical situation. The latter – what ought to be done as a result of the logical situation – is a matter of practice. When you say that these “trust measures [are] not strictly necessary for the evaluation per se”, aren’t you agreeing that evaluation can, in fact, be done? Just that it wouldn’t be, for whatever reason, worth the effort in practice, since we have to be mindful of “reasonable evaluation times and efforts”?

The point is, evaluation can be done in practice, contrary to what Professor Weatherson claims – so his argument – that it can’t be done and therefore ought not to be done – is unsound.

You go on to say:

The ‘feelings’ you speak of are not meant to be insensible emotions, but rather reasons for this or that action.

Right. But I don’t think I disagreed with that – I made it clear that what you do is entirely your prerogative. Rather, my point was that your rejoinder is irrelevant to the question of whether the advice is evaluable or not. Remember, Professor Weatherson claims that without trust there is little to argue about . . . and that whatever is argued is unevaluable. This is false.

Finally, you say:

Brian offered up a banal set of reasons to lower the trust standards for advertisements. On this basis he claims that it is rational to do so.

Right, I don’t disagree with that.

And again:

You propose to rebut this by claiming that it is, in fact, possible to assess the merits of an argument, despite its being an advertisement. True, but irrelevant.

No I did not “propose to rebut” the conclusion that we should lower the trust standards for advertisements. Indeed, I suggested as much in response to Professor Bertram when I said:

“. . . what one ought to [do] hardly needs to be justified. What is absurd is the attempt to justify such a preference [that we ought not to evaluate the arguments] by suggesting that there is nothing to argue about, or that arguments cannot be evaluated because of the motives of the publisher.”

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