From the monthly archives:

March 2009

Remembering Brian Barry

by Harry on March 25, 2009

I”m reliably informed that Brian’s funeral is today, and I know a number CT readers will be there. The post here announcing his death (in my typically abrupt way) generated a wonderful set of touching remembrances (including Anni’s moving thanks to the commenters). Since that post is closed to comments, and at least one person has asked to add his, I thought I’d take the opportunity to link to various memories on the web, and open up again for anyone who wants to add their memories. Stuart White; Norman Geras; The British Humanist Association; Chris Brooke; Colin at Oxford Sociology; Jacob Levy. I was disappointed to see that he has not merited an obituary in the grauniad. But then I realised that he probably wouldn’t have wanted to belong to a club that contained Jane Goody, whoever she was.
UPDATE: A reader has (rightly) complained about the nastiness of my references to Jade Goody. I apologise. And recommend the extraordinarily good obit of her I linked to.

What do y’all comment on and why?

by Henry Farrell on March 25, 2009

“Ezra Klein:”:

The number of comments a post gets is not, in any way, analogous to the importance attached to the post by commenters. As example, a post I wrote yesterday on the DMV — in which I unwisely made a glib joke about Kafka — amassed 50 comments. A post I wrote summarizing an interview with the Swedish Finance Minister who ran his country’s nationalization effort got exactly zero comments. Comments are not a reflection of how much your audience cares about a topic. They are a reflection of how much they have to say on it. As a blogger, I think that actually exerts a subtly pernicious influence on my writing. The posts I write that get the least comments are those with actual reporting in them: Congress did this, or an administration official explained that. The second worst are wonky posts. It’s easy enough to understand why those pieces end with single digit comment sections: There’s less to say about a fact than about an argument. But since I, like many bloggers, use the vibrancy of my comment sections as a way to not feel like a crazy person ranting in cyberspace, too many low comment posts in a row and I itch to write some pieces that generate a bit of discussion and prove that my cyberfriends are still out there. I’m not sure that’s always the best impulse.

I think that the basic argument here that comments sections reflect self-perceived competence to comment rather than interest as such is probably right (although the two are also probably correlated to some degree). Not that this necessarily changes our posting policy too much at CT – several of us have an ‘eat your greens’ philosophy when it comes to inflicting our personal areas of interest/obsession on readers, which I think, by and large, is a good thing. But fwiw, my rough impression of the key causal variables explaining the level of comments at CT are as follows:

(1) Consonance with left/right divide in US politics. Posts which make claims that map easily onto arguments between leftwingers and rightwingers in the US tend to get more comments.

(2) Low culture vs. high culture. Posts on low culture (nb I am using the word in a non-pejorative sense here) which lots of people have accessed or understand get substantially more comments, perhaps unsurprisingly, than posts on high culture.

(3) The Emerson effect. Posts that push John Emerson’s buttons (e.g. on analytic philosophy or economic theory) tend to get more comments than other posts, both because of the volume of comments coming from J.E. himself, and from others responding to him. I’m sure that there are similar effects with other prolific commenters, but this is the most obvious one to me.

(4) Is Israel teh SuXoR. Posts on Israel/Middle East politics get unusually high numbers of comments (although not as nasty as they used to be, thanks to the departure, voluntary and otherwise, of some of the people with strong opinions on this topic from our comments sections, as well as a couple of good commenters I know of who got fed up with being described in unpleasant terms by those who disagreed with them).

(5) Philosophy and otherwise. Even apart from the Emerson effect, there is a sweet spot for posts on philosophy and political theory that can be responded to by those with non-specialist knowledge. The willingness of CT to put up these posts has occasionally been denounced by philosophers with a somewhat more cloistered vision of what philosophical discussion should involve than ours – but like it or not, these posts frequently accumulate hundreds of engaged comments.

(6) The level of snark. Snarky posts, when well done, attract more comments than non-snarky ones.

These seem to me to be the main factors explaining variation in comments numbers at CT; any others?

University Teaching Loads

by Ingrid Robeyns on March 24, 2009

From occasional conversations with international colleagues, I’ve come to believe that teaching loads of university lecturers may differ quite substantially between countries. I am curious finding out whether my belief is false or not. So I propose to do a little survey. If you are teaching at a University, could you tell us what a regular teaching load in your faculty/university is, and any factors that you think influence this (e.g. whether you are in a research-oriented university, the country in which you are based etc.)

Here’s an example. In the Netherlands there is no distinction between research-intense and other universities. With a few exceptions, every university lecturer is also supposed to be an active researcher (we do not make the distinction between those who do research, and those who teach, except for people who are hired as postdocs for projects). Where I am based (faculty of philosophy, Erasmus University Rotterdam), a standard teaching load for someone with a full time appointment is 4 courses a year. Most courses are 10 weeks, 2 hours a week; graduate courses are 15 weeks. All teaching staff supervise a few (roughly 3-5) BA and one or two MA dissertations annually, and mark an equal number of dissertations supervised by others. Class size varies between 10 students (MA courses) and about 100 students (some first year courses). We tend not to have teaching assistants, hence all the marking of essays/exams, course preparation, etc. is done by the teachers (there are rare exceptions to this rule). PhD ‘students’ are not regarded as students but as staff, and in any case most lecturers supervise one or two of them, with a few professors supervising half a dozen. I’d be curious finding out where this load is situated on an international and interdisciplinary comparison. My suspicion is that it’s an average load, but I may well be wrong.

Via “Kathy G.”:, this “WSJ article”: has to be read to be believed. Since most of it languishes behind teh paywall, I provide the selected highlights below.

The Journal of the American Medical Association, one of the world’s most influential medical journals … , says it is instituting a new policy for how it handles complaints about study authors who fail to disclose they have received payments from drug companies or others that pose a conflict: It will instruct anyone filing a complaint to remain silent about the allegation until the journal investigates the charge. … comes after JAMA was criticized for taking five months to acknowledge [a previous lapse] … AMA editors, in a rare online editorial posted Friday, criticized the actions of a Tennessee researcher, Jonathan Leo, who first wrote about the disclosure problem in another medical journal. Dr. Leo, a professor of neuro-anatomy at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn., alerted JAMA to the disclosure problem last October. …

The JAMA editors said Dr. Leo was guilty of a “serious breach of confidentiality” by writing about the problems with the JAMA study while the medical journal was still investigating the matter. After Dr. Leo wrote the letter to BMJ alleging flaws in the JAMA stroke study, JAMA editors contacted both Dr. Leo and the dean of his medical school, seeking a retraction. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, JAMA editor-in-chief Catherine DeAngelis called Dr. Leo “a nothing and a nobody.” In the editorial Friday, Dr. DeAngelis and co-author Phil Fontanarosa, JAMA’s executive deputy editor, said her comment about Dr. Leo “was erroneously reported” and that Dr. Leo “certainly is somebody doing something very important.” The dean of the medical school where Dr. Leo teaches said Dr. Catherine threatened in a telephone conversation earlier this month that she would “ruin the reputation of our medical school” if he did not force Dr. Leo to retract the BMJ letter and stop talking to the media.

In an interview Friday, Dean Ray Stowers said Dr. DeAngelis “flat out” threatened him and attempted to bully him during the conversation. The telephone call was followed by an email exchange. In a March 11 email, Dr. DeAngelis wrote to Dr. Stowers: “As I’ve already expressed to you, I don’t want to make trouble for your school, but I cannot allow Jonathan Leo to continue to seek media coverage without my responding. I trust you have already or soon will speak with him and alert me to what I should expect.” Dr. Stowers responded the next day by saying he couldn’t find any fault in Dr. Leo’s actions and pressed JAMA editors for more specifics on what they believed was wrong with Dr. Leo’s writing or actions. “I think this can be worked out without your continued threats to our institution which are not appreciated and I believe to be below the dignity of both you and JAMA,” he wrote. Dr. Stowers says he has not heard from JAMA since sending that email. Dr. Godlee said BMJ would not retract Dr. Leo’s letter because “there are no factual inaccuracies.”

Dr. DeAngelis, through a spokeswoman, denied threatening the dean. Dr. Leo said he received an angry call from Dr. Fontanarosa after his BMJ letter was published. “He said, ‘Who do you think you are,’ ” Dr. Leo said. “He then said, ‘You are banned from JAMA for life. You will be sorry. Your school will be sorry. Your students will be sorry.” Dr. Fontanarosa said Dr. Leo’s retelling of the conversation is “inaccurate.”

The earth shape controversy revived

by John Q on March 23, 2009

Just about everyone has already piled on to the latest development in the George Will saga – the Washington Post’s belated publication of an opinion piece by Chris Mooney and a letter from the World Meteorological Association pointing out (very politely) that Will was lying in every paragraph of his notorious piece on global warming. And just about everyone has the same take: in the absence of a retraction or correction, the Post is taking the view that Will is entitled to his own facts. (Here’s Matthew Yglesias, for example, and Mooney has a huge list of links at his site).

The absolute refusal of the Post to take a position on the truth or falsity of what it publishes (along with the continued scandal of anonymous sourcing) leads me to a steadily more negative view of the question of whether we actually need newspapers and whether we should regret their seemingly inexorable decline. The standard claim is that without reporters, we in the blogosphere would have no material to work on. But Will’s recycling of long-refuted Internet factoids (something very common among rightwing pundits in particular) shows that, in important respects, the opposite is true.

More importantly as far as political and business news goes, there is almost always someone with an interest in having any given story published. If newspapers are unwilling to take a stand on which stories are true or false, their only function is that of gatekeeper – determining which stories see the light of day and which do not. The potential for corruption in this role is clear, and the reality was obvious particularly in relation to the Iraq war.

Update Lots of readers have inferred that I welcome/wish for the demise of newspapers or opinion columnists. Actually, having written (and been paid for) an opinion column in a national newspaper for the past fifteen years, I am deeply ambivalent on the subject. On the one hand, the deplorable handling of issues like climate change (particularly in opinion pages, but to a significant extent in news as well) the early years of the Iraq war (if anything worse in the news pages than the opinion section), and the ‘inside baseball’ approach to political news in general leads me to think we would be better off without them. On the other hand, there’s obviously a lot to lose here, and it’s not clear how, if at all, some of it can be replaced.

Of course, what will happen will happen, regardless of what I think about it. But maybe if those making decisions about how newspapers are run think more closely about episodes like this one, they might see the need for change, and that change might enhance their chances of survival.

Congratulations Ireland

by Chris Bertram on March 21, 2009

Congratulations to Ireland on the “first Irish grand slam”: in the 6 nations since 1948. I’d buy Henry, Maria and Kieran a drink if they were within drink-buying range. A very dramatic last minute of the final match, too: it could have gone either way.

SXSW: free tunes

by John Holbo on March 21, 2009

The South By Southwest music festival is underway. Wouldn’t it be fun to be there? I guess the rest of us will have to make-do with this free mix, courtesy of NPR’s All Songs Considered. “Furr”, by Blitzentrapper, is a great song. And Amazon has a different free mix. I like “You’ll Disappear”, by The Phenomenal Hand-Clap Band.

You could also download 6 gigs of free music (perfectly legally!) via BitTorrent.

Jonah Goldberg Asks A Question

by John Holbo on March 20, 2009

When the Bush administration advocated abstinence and the like on the international stage, it was seen as an example of Bush pushing a parochial agenda. But when Western cosmopolitanism is championed on the world stage, it’s progress. What am I missing? (link)

Goldberg is missing the possibility that liberals might believe that Bush was pushing a parochial agenda while at the same time believing that their own proposals would constitute progress. In short, liberals believe Bush was heading in the wrong direction, whereas a liberal proposal would head us in a better direction. In shorter: liberals think Bush was wrong, they are right. In shortest: liberals believe their beliefs. This is what Goldberg is missing.

To put it another way, when he says “it just seems to me that there’s no real standard here,” he’s missing the possibility of classical liberalism, broadly speaking. (Given that Goldberg claims to believe in classical liberalism, his failure to consider that any standard could possibly occupy the intellectual space occupied by the standards of classical liberalism is … an impressive feat of doxastic auto-evacuation. It doesn’t occur to him to believe what he believes, apparently.)

Goldberg is missing that it is possible to believe things without necessarily wanting to impose those beliefs on others (for reasons of prudence, or principle, or a bit of both). He also misses that one can take tolerance (non-coercion) to be a virtue (in principle, and as pragmatically warranted by circumstances) without believing that, in fact, no beliefs are better, more warranted than others. Finally, he seems to be missing the possibility that one might believe that coercion is warranted in some cases, but impermissible (or imprudent) in other sorts of cases.

If Goldberg is not missing absolutely all of this, then I fail to see what other thing he could be missing, leading to his sincere puzzlement. I am at a total and complete loss. Really. I’m drawing a blank.

Wife Swap

by Kieran Healy on March 20, 2009

Excerpts from an email forwarded from a philosopher of my acquaintance:

I hope you are doing well! I am a casting producer for ABC Television’s hit reality show, Wife Swap. I am currently trying to cast families that promote philosophy as a discipline for a special episode of our show and thought perhaps you might know some scholars that would be interested in such an opportunity. An ideal family would have 2 parents that are both philosophers and children that also believe in the discipline.

Requirements: Each family must consist of two parents (you don’t have to be married) and must have at least one child between the ages of 7 and 17 living at home full time … This is a very unique experience that can be life changing for everyone. In addition, each family that tapes an episode of Wife Swap receives a $20,000 honorarium for their time. Anyone who refers a family that appears on our program receives $1000 as a ‘thank you” from us. Please feel free to forward this email on to anyone that you feel might be interested.

In case you are unfamiliar with the show, the premise of Wife Swap is to take two different families and have the moms switch place to experience how another family lives. Half of the week, Mom lives the life of the family she is staying with. Then she introduces a “rule change” where she implements rules and activities that her family has. It’s a positive experience for people to not only learn but teach about other families and other ways of life.

Wife Swap airs on Disney owned ABC television on Fridays at 8 pm- the family hour! There is another show that copies ours. We focus on having fun, learning and teaching. They focus on conflict. I just want to make sure our show doesn’t get confused with theirs! I appreciate you taking the time to read this. If you have any questions, please email me at the address below. Thank you for your time!

If Freddie Ayer were still with us he’d probably be up for taking the show at its word. But failing this, I want to know what sort of occupation they have in mind for the other half of the swap. Do they think of philosophy as being about, say, atheism, and want some fundamentalists in the mix? Maybe not for 8pm family hour on ABC. Alternatively, is it supposed to be airy-fairy life of the mind vs huntin’ shootin’ fishin’? Logic-choppers vs Used Car Salesmen? I honestly have no idea.

An tempting alternative (though clearly one with no viable TV market at all) is to recruit families comprised of different sorts of philosophers. If they got a Wittgensteinian there could be endless arguments about the rule change and its relationship to the family’s way of life. Philosophical Metaphysics vs Barnes & Noble Metaphysics might be good, though would probably turn violent. Modal Realists vs Phenomenologists. (“I thought you said all the beer was in the effing fridge.”) Rawlsians vs Libertarians. John Emerson goes to live with John Hawthorne. That sort of thing.

“This”: seems pretty plausible to me.

The opening hours of EU summits can often be a little slow (so can the closing and middle hours of some of them, to be frank). But the sense of calm, even drift, is a little eerie this time. … behind this time of phony war there lurks the prospect of a proper policy fight. Not about stimulus plans, but about future regulation of the financial sector. And, to simplify things, what is really, really going on is that the camp led by France and Germany are determined that Europe’s common position, going into the G20 summit, should be to bang the table and demand an end to light-touch regulation, of the sort that flourished for so long on Wall Street and in the City of London, and which they see as more or less the sole cause of the current mess. But the French and Germans do not trust the British to support that common position. Once the Americans are in the room in London, they fear the British will scuttle away from the European position, side with the Americans, and seek to defend the wheeler-dealers of the City.

The post finishes with some obligatory Economist-style harrumphs about how the unregulated bits of global capitalism aren’t really the problem &c &c, but its analysis of the underlying politics seems spot on. Differences between national regulatory systems are still enormously important, and help explain why we have seen so little international coordination on common frameworks for financial regulation. Not only are differences in regulation associated with different national interests, but also with very different analyses of what the underlying problem is (which of course in part stem from those interests). Abe Newman at Georgetown and I have a paper on historical institutionalism in international relations that talks a _lot_ about the persistence and importance of these national level differences in explaining international outcomes. Our framework (as others, such as Dan Drezner’s) would predict likely stalemate in negotiations of this sort. I honestly hope that we’re wrong (although I suspect that we are not). But even if we are, the problems that the EU faces in coordinating a regulatory response are, of course, dwarfed by the problems of coordinating such a response at the global level, which is where it _really_ needs to take place (but is highly unlikely to, for the reasons given).

The Greatest Living Englishman is Guilty

by Harry on March 19, 2009

Most of you have probably seen this when it first aired on BBC 4, but just in case anyone mentioned it I thought I’d link to it anyway. Part 1, part 2 and, perhaps best of all, part 3. Unsurprisingly, he is a man of great discernment, listing Stanley Unwin, Georgette Heyer, Delia Smith and Led Zeppelin. And you’ll never feel bad about swearing again (he makes me feel a bit better about the fact that one of the little monster‘s first sentences, when asked to do something, was a very calm and direct, “F**k it, Dadda do it”). Hugh Laurie fans? well, there’s a lot of him in it too.

Cohen on Rescuing Justice from the Facts (ch.6)

by Jon Mandle on March 19, 2009

Part I of Rescuing Justice and Equality consisted in a series of chapters designed to rescue equality from the arguments of Rawlsians who sought to dilute an underlying egalitarian commitment with the incentives argument, the Pareto argument, the restricted focus on the basic structure, and then the difference principle itself. In each case, the structure of the argument was a kind of imminent critique. As far as I recall, Cohen nowhere directly defended the egalitarian commitment itself. Rather, he pointed to alleged tensions in the Rawlsian edifice and submitted that they should be resolved in the direction of greater egalitarianism than Rawls’s position recommends.

Part II aims to rescue the concept of justice itself, and the argument is structured very differently. The critique does not proceed from tensions within Rawls’s work. Rather, we get an argument in defense of a certain meta-ethical position. Cohen remarks that “the meta-ethical literature says very little about the question pursued in the present chapter. But a notable exception is the work of John Rawls, who argued that fundamental principles of justice and, indeed, ‘first principles’ in general, are a response to the facts of the human condition” – which is exactly the position that Cohen rejects. (pp.258-259) Rawls is simply mistaken, Cohen thinks, because he confuses “the first principles of justice with the principles that we should adopt to regulate society.” (p.265)
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Josh Cohen on Deliberation and Power

by Henry Farrell on March 19, 2009

I liked this discussion of the relationship between deliberation and power from a forthcoming piece by Josh Cohen1.

the importance of background differences in power is not a criticism of the deliberative ideal per se, but a concern about its application. Deliberative democracy is a normative model of collective decision-making, not a universal political strategy. And commitment to the normative ideal does not require commitment to the belief that collective decision-making through mutual reason-giving is always possible. So it may indeed be the case that some rough background balance of power is required before parties will listen to reason. But observing that does not importantly lessen the attraction of the deliberative ideal; it simply states a condition of its reasonable pursuit.

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Cheap Talk

by Henry Farrell on March 19, 2009

Tyler Cowen has a “couple”: of “posts”: arguing that columnists (and others) should not be required to bet their views. I’ll confess to having mixed feelings on the underlying question – which is whether you should make cheap talk on politics etc more expensive. On the one hand, if you view public opinionators as political actors (as they surely are), then they ought to be held accountable for their screw-ups. A certain degree of epistemological caution is entirely warranted, for example, when advocating major wars and the like, and I’d dearly love to see people who screwed this up (for what were at the time entirely obvious reasons) held properly accountable. On the other hand, if you view public opinionators as providers of novel heuristics etc, there may still be some value to their arguments even if they are wrong much or most of the time, as long as they are wrong because of ways of viewing the world that are (a) under-represented in public debate, and (b) help one grasp features of situations that are not immediately obvious given other heuristics. In other words, even if these ways of viewing the world are usually wrong, they can potentially supplement and improve other ways of viewing the world that are more usually correct. How to calibrate the balance between these two desiderata is not immediately obvious to me. One can still say that in an ideal world, one would see people who are _both_ more likely to be right than not _and_ provide relatively novel and interesting ways of viewing situations enjoy a prominent place in public debate. The continued prominence of e.g. Thomas Friedman (who is both often wrong _and_ the Davos Consensus Made Flesh, and Dwelling Amongst Us) suggests that the real world incentives don’t run in this happy direction.

Inside inside the echo echo chamber

by Michael Bérubé on March 19, 2009

<i>Exclusive to Crooked Timber but also cross-posted <a href=””>here</a></i>.

My extensive online <a href=””>research</a> has uncovered the existence of a secret Internet cabal of reporters, journalists, bloggers, writers, and reporters.  Apparently, their self-assigned mission is to ignore major news stories, pass silently over rampant corruption in American government and business, and ridicule wonks and elected officials who take “issues” seriously.  Instead, they seek — often by fawningly citing each other’s work — to inundate American media with inane, trivial bullshit and deliberate stupidity.

The group is called “Twit,” and it is allegedly responsible for innumerable stories and op-eds about Michelle Obama’s biceps, Hillary Clinton’s cleavage, Al Gore’s wardrobe, and Barack Obama’s flag pin.

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