The Pundit’s Dilemma

by Henry on October 18, 2009

“Via Mark Thoma”:, Mark Liberman presents us with “The Pundit’s Dilemma”:

Overall, the promotion of interesting stories in preference to accurate ones is always in the immediate economic self-interest of the promoter. It’s interesting stories, not accurate ones, that pump up ratings for Beck and Limbaugh. But it’s also interesting stories that bring readers to The Huffington Post and to Maureen Dowd’s column, and it’s interesting stories that sell copies of Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics. In this respect, Levitt and Dubner are exactly like Beck and Limbaugh.

We might call this the Pundit’s Dilemma — a game, like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which the player’s best move always seems to be to take the low road, and in which the aggregate welfare of the community always seems fated to fall. And this isn’t just a game for pundits. Scientists face similar choices every day, in deciding whether to over-sell their results, or for that matter to manufacture results for optimal appeal.

In the end, scientists usually over-interpret only a little, and rarely cheat, because the penalties for being caught are extreme. As a result, in an iterated version of the game, it’s generally better to play it fairly straight. Pundits (and regular journalists) also play an iterated version of this game — but empirical observation suggests that the penalties for many forms of bad behavior are too small and uncertain to have much effect. Certainly, the reputational effects of mere sensationalism and exaggeration seem to be negligible.

(to avoid falling into my own version of this dilemma, I should acknowledge straight up that while I’m disappointed with the Freakonomics phenomenon _ex-post_, I was quite optimistic _ex-ante_ )

I missed out on the book title contest a while back, so here’s my entry. As regards earnestness, i’m riffing off Andrew Gelman, via Kieran, who observes “”pissing off conservatives” is boring and earnest?”

The main point, though, is that the fuss over the global cooling chapter in Levitt and Dubner’s new book is the first occasion, I think, where the refutation of specific errors has taken a back seat (partly because, in this case, it’s so easy) to an attack on contrarianism, as such. The general point is that contrarianism is a cheap way of allowing ideological hacks to think of themselves as fearless, independent thinkers, while never challenging (in fact reinforcing) the status quo. Here’s Krugman and Joe Romm, for example

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Pissing off the other crowd

by Kieran Healy on October 18, 2009

Andrew Gelman discusses Superfreakonomics saying,

The interesting question to me is why is it that “pissing off liberals” is
delightfully transgressive and oh-so-fun, whereas “pissing off conservatives” is boring and earnest?

Several years ago bumper stickers appeared that read “Annoy a Liberal. Work hard. Succeed. Be happy.” I was living in Arizona at the time, so they became a routine part of my commute. Possessing neither the blunt empirical thesis of “Guns Bought Your Freedom” nor the slow fuse of “Body Piercing Saved My Life”, the barefaced cheek of the non sequitur made the sticker absurd and irritating at the same time. I remember wondering what a parallel message to conservatives would look like. Sure enough, attempts at rebuttal soon started appearing on (other) bumpers. They were lame — stuff like “Annoy a Conservative. Think for yourself. Defend the Constitution. Balance the Budget.” Noble sentiments, but watery stuff by comparison.

Why did they seem so ineffective a response? Perhaps stronger material was needed. Might “Annoy a Conservative. Burn the Flag. Convert to Islam. Have an Abortion” work better? No. While that kind of thing can have some punch (“Jesus Loves You, But Everyone Else Thinks You’re An Asshole”), it doesn’t seem like the right tack. Instead, the best riposte to the “Annoy a Liberal” sticker is simply the same thing with the target swapped out: “Annoy a Conservative: Work. Succeed. Be Happy”. The effect is more or less the same as the original, especially if placed on the back of your Lesbaru. Temporarily suspending my longstanding irritation at divisions of this sort, much of what passes for “Pissing off Conservatives” is really an effort to rebut some ridiculous charge or other, instead of a genuinely symmetrical attempt to piss someone off. Or, as the story has Lyndon Johnson arguing, it’s better to kick off the conversation in a way that forces the other guy to deny that he’s a pig-fucker.