Posted tagged ‘bad writing’

On The Unbearable Lightness Of David Brooks

April 28, 2015

I know I’ve been mostly absent, and will continue to be so.  (At least until this makes it through copy editing.)*

I know as well that there’s too much to be talked about to waste much time on the utterly predictable.

And I also know that what I’m about to point out is far less an indictment than, say, today’s column should earn.  I do plan to take a whack at that one sometime soon, unless, as I hope, Charles Pierce eviscerates, and I can just crib.

So this is just a bit of nastiness on my part, some pissed-off snark, on confronting the “look inside” excerpt now available for the divine’ BoBo’s new hacktacular, The Road to Character.  As a matter of substance, I’ll just say that I agree with Driftglass, (via the above-referenced Mr. Pierce), that for David Brooks, such an avenue remains the road not taken.


But as a matter of pure spite, let me just say that nothing I’ve read of Mr. Brooks’ new minimum opus changes my core opinion.  He’s got a gift for glib writing, the prose analogue to your easy-listening adult classics.  But in any attempt to sustain prose over the long haul…the cracks show.

Exhibit A.  The first two sentences of work:

“Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues.  The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success.”

I’m sorry, but what tin ear, what grudge against English prosody, allowed these clunkers to pass? That’s the barker at the door, the first words one encounters while deciding whether to commit precious hours of one’s life into David Brooks’ care!  Such blunt repetition, the rhythmic fail of the second sentence, the parody of explanation — “résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé” — forsooth!  I never would have guessed!  Even if Brooks didn’t mind such clumsiness, where in the name of all that’s pasta was his editor?

Trivial, I know, and I’m hardly a without prose sins of my own to regret.  But as I read reviews that praise Brooks depth or countercultural mastery, it’s worth remembering passages like this one.  Brooks is not a great writer, and the reason isn’t that he can’t manipulate words well when he pays attention.  He clearly can.  Rather, it’s that such hack writing hints at the hack thinker putting cursor to phosphor.  Expressing bad thoughts clearly exposes their flaws…which can and hence must be elided in a fog of mediocre prose.  As here you see.

Bonus reading, which has the added benefit of showing what happens when villagers (even genuinely capable ones) review fellow villagers.  See, for example, Pico Iyer in last Sunday’s New York Times book review:

For every blurred piety here (“We are all ultimately saved by grace”), there’s a sentence that shames everything around it (“Philosophy is likely to be a tension between competing half-truths”).

Umm. Iyer sees in that “Philosophy is likely to be…” a stunning epiphany, a sentence that puts mere piety to shame.  I see a nearly content-free assertion that undercuts itself by word three.  Seasoned Brooks’ readers will recognize the gambit:  in order to justify one of his famous and very often risible claimed dichotomies (resume virtues vs. eulogy virtues) he must impose his judgment on possible contradicting authorities.  Here, philosphy is drained of potency as it fights on the dubious ground of half-truths.  And just in case anyone calls him on it — this magisteral dictum is only “likely” — thus granting Brooks his ex cathdra authority while insulating him, just a bit, from any instance of reality failing to acknowledge his infallibility.

In other words:  this is pure Brooks, a seemingly epigrammatic heap of nonsense, structured to give him both the appearance of gnomic wisdom and plausible deniability.  And this his exceptionally friendly critic sees as masterful.

We need a new culture.

*I can make one prediction with a fair degree of confidence.  Shameless self-promotion to come much closer to the day.

Image:   John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1820-1821.

David Brooks Auditions For Graham Greene

January 30, 2015

 The Quiet American  is a marvelous book, or rather, it is one in which Greene’s utter disdain for the reckless incompetence of power gets a near perfect expression.  Take this snippet from near the end of the work:

Pyle said, “It’s awful.” He looked at the wet on his shoes and said in a sick voice, “What’s that?” “Blood,” I said. “Haven’t you ever seen it before?” He said, “I must get them cleaned before I see the Minister.” I don’t think he knew what he was saying. He was seeing a real war for the first time: he had punted down into Phat Diem in a kind of schoolboy dream, and anyway in his eyes soldiers didn’t count.

“You see what a drum of Diolacton can do,” I said, “in the wrong hands.” I forced him, with my hand on his shoulder, to look around. I said, “This is the hour when the place is always full of women and children-it’s the shopping hour. Why choose that of all hours?” He said weakly, “There was to have been a parade.” “And you hoped to catch a few colonels. But the parade was cancelled yesterday, Pyle.” “I didn’t know.”

“Didn’t know!” I pushed him into a patch of blood where a stretcher had lain. “You ought to be better informed.”

“I was out of town,” he said, looking down at his shoes. “They should have called it off.”

“And missed the fun?” I asked him. “Do you expect General The to lose his demonstration? This is better than a parade. Women and children are news, and soldiers aren’t, in a war. This will hit the world’s press. You’ve put General The on the map all right, Pyle. You’ve got the Third Force and National Democracy all over your right shoe. Go home to Phuong and tell her about your heroic deed-there are a few dozen less of her country people to worry about.”

A small fat priest scampered by, carrying something on a dish under a napkin. Pyle had been silent a long while, and I had nothing more to say. Indeed I had said too much. He looked white and beaten and ready to faint, and I thought, ‘What’s the good? he’ll always he innocent, you can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. Ail you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity.’

He said, “The wouldn’t have done this. I’m sure he wouldn’t. Somebody deceived him. The Communists…”

He was impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance…


“Impregnable armoured by good intentions and ignorance.”  That is what will — or at least should be — engraved on David Brooks’ tombstone.  And I’m only giving him the props for his intent there out of whatever residual nil nisi bonum remains to me.

Why the vitriol, and memory of stupid wars, with the overwhelming weight of the violence reserved for far away others who don’t look like “us”?

Today’s column.


David Brooks Single-Handedly Solves the Fertilizer Shortage

May 3, 2013

Today’s BoBo column is useful, very useful indeed.

It’s one of his nominally apolitical efforts, and as such, parsing its intellectual flaws and frauds yields a helpful guide to the ways Brooks puts his thumb on the scale of everything he writes.  A column like this one helps expose his genius for bullshit without the confusing (to some) aura of partisan argument.

Brooks here presents what seems to be  a humble (sic) precis of responses he received to questions posed in an earlier column in an exercise of what he termed “crowd sourced sociology.”

That Brooks might not be the best suited to launch such an effort could be seen in the first of those queries:

A generation after the feminist revolution, are women still, on average, less confident than men?


Someone with some methodological insight might see the problem in the way that question is phrased…and I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

But it’s really today’s column that captures BoBo’s skill of finding always and only the conclusion he seeks in any alleged analysis of the alleged data.   His key trick:  there’s always a turn, a sudden shift in the unstated assumptions of the piece that allows Brooks to assert a claim unsupported by the actual body of information he possesses.  Let’s see that in action here, from this beginning

I’ve read through a mountain of responses, and my first reaction is awe at the diversity of the human experience. I went looking for patterns in this survey…

But it was really hard to see consistent correlations and trends. The essays were highly idiosyncratic, and I don’t want to impose a false order on them that isn’t there.

Fair enough.

But wait!  It’s BoBo, after all.  Who needs an understanding of the data when there’s an anecdote that dovetails with his preconceptions:

One of the calmest letters came from Carol Collier, who works at Covenant College.

One of the drums BoBo has been banging lately is the (in his view) value of acceptance of a body of received belief.  He’s been writing about modern Jewish orthodoxy, but he’s asserted more than once the importance of revealed religion as a source of stable selves.  So it’s no surprise what kind of reader would win his accolade:

She wrote: “As a believer in Jesus Christ, I see myself as redeemed, forgiven and covered in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. I believe that this is how God sees me, all the time and without exception. I believe that his smile and delight in me is unwavering. This view of myself is quite simple yet with profound implications. It allows me to accept criticism without self-condemnation and to accept affirmations without exalting myself. This is the ideal view of myself that I am always working at. It is a struggle, but a good one.”

Just to be clear, my issue isn’t with Ms. Collier; she believes what she believes and she feels what she feels, and, as T. J. Luhrman has been writing a lot lately, that experience is itself both a subjective reality and a data point.

No, what gets my goat is the all-too-predictable-use Brooks makes of Collier’s account:

I’ll try to harvest more social trends later.

Say what!? (BTW — there is no ellipsis there. That sentence follows directly from the quote.)

Let’s review.  At the top of his column Brooks tells us that “it was really hard to see consistent correlations and trends.”  Now, we learn that not only has he shown us (at least) one trend, there will be more to come!  Impressive.

So what is this trend?  Bobo reveals his discovery:

But, in the meantime, I’m struck by how hard it is to have the right stable mix of self-confidence and self-criticism without some external moral framework or publicly defined life calling.

D’0h.  Of course — BoBo’s Kulturkampf never rests.  We need to behave properly, as our faith teaches us, as the manners of our mythical ancestors would have us, as the non-sexually-abusing members of Brooklyn Orthodox communities may be claimed to act.

A confession, here.  Remember how I said above that this was an apolitical column.  There is actually no such thing in Brooks’ repertory.  It’s all political, which is why he creates his cultural and sociological fictions.  This column is a foundational one, a way to slip in a claim of reality — that enjoying a good life, possessing the crucial human skills of balance, depend on specific allegiances that Brooks can then assert must inform whatever specific political claim he wants to make.

Another thing:  Brooks offers in this pair of columns — the questionnaire and now this “results” piece — a veneer of  science-yness, the trappings of surveys and analysis that (he suggests) give his interpretations the disinterested authority of a mere reporter of fact.  What you actually see here, of course, is that Brooks either has no clue what goes into the construction of an observation or experiment a scientist would recognize as meaningful — or he does, but doesn’t care.  Let’s go to his conclusion to see that dishonesty in full flower:

If it’s just self-appraisal — one piece of your unstable self judging another unstable piece — it’s subjectivity all the way down.

So. To review again.  BoBo  says there are no trends or patterns he can see in his responses.  He then quotes a single reply and asserts that it captures one fact — presumably that of the connection of religious commitment to the possession of certain qualities of personality.  And then he states, with no reference to any of his data, (ex cathedra, as it were) that another way of knowing one’s self is invalid.

The scientific follies are so many, and so many of them are obvious, it’s exhausting to try and list them all. Just to suggest one — no where does BoBo suggest that he might have to deal with a selection bias in the population of his readers who choose to reply to him.  Given that he’s written often about the satisfactions of an externally constrained religious life, that might be a problem — but it is not one that seems to trouble him.

But the fact that his “study” is worthless as actual knowledge is both obvious and besides the point, his point.  Look one more time at that last sentence.  Notice the double sleight of hand there?

It’s not just the untethered nature of the assertion — our David telling us that self appraisal is suspect — but  this too:  it’s an answer to a question no one asked.*  He began by wondering how men and women compare for self-confidence; now he’s shifted to an assertion about the sources of his respondents self-judgment.  Not the same question at all.  (There’s the added problem of the subjectivity of religious experience as well, but to ask BoBo to do the very hard work of thinking about  about that is like asking a donkey to keep watch for angels.  It’s been reported to happen, but very, very rarely.)  All of his column is unconnected to this final point; it’s there just for atmosphere, to give this unsupported, culturally and politically freighted claim the aura of reality.  It’s pure propaganda.  This is David Brooks.

Enough.  I’ve wasted another perfectly good hour foaming at Brooks many sins.  Here’s the shorter: he always plays a rigged game.  The only reason to read him is to play “spot the bullshit.”

To add:  what bugs me from my particular bailiwick as a science writer is that he has so little knowledge of, or perhaps respect for, what actually goes into the very hard work of deriving actual understanding from the exceptional complexity of material reality — including the extraordinary tangle of human experience.  There are lots of way science is losing some of its cultural capital right now, some self-inflicted.  But nonsense like this sure doesn’t help.

Image:  Lucas Cranach the Elder, Portraits of Henry the Pious, Duke of Saxony and his wife Katharina von Mecklenburg, 1514.

Megan McArdle is Always Wrong: Reading Papers Is Hard edition.

February 16, 2011

(BTW: Apologies in advance for the length of this screed.  You can always think Playboy and/or wherever it was my junior senator offered his cheesecake and “read” it for the pix. 😉

I know that Megan McArdle is a bagatelle in the supermarket of awful opened by the current (and hopefully temporary) right wing ascendancy.  But even if there’s nothing she does that rises to the consequence of our recent theme, for example, in which the forced-birth, pro-rape party continues to advance its claims, she still finds her own ways to damage the Republic.  So please excuse yet another detour into the eternal sunshine of the McArdle mind.

DougJ has already written about her latest — how to describe it? — special attempt to bolster the long standing conservative attack alleging bias against conservatives in the academy.*

I’m completely down with his take on the matter, unsurprisingly, but here I want to add the dimension of McArdle’s continuing failure to attain minimal standards of journalistic competence.  (I’ve got some unfinished business on this btw, given her recent squib of rage at being called out on errors in kitchen history.  If boredom with the company of McArdle’s prose and the day job don’t overwhelm me, I’ll post on that in a couple of days.)  Here, I’m want to pound on the way McArdle misleads her readers on what is clearly a more consequential subject.

That would be her use of citations to scholarly literature that, if read, would reveal profound differences between what she says the research reveals and what in fact you find should you read the stuff yourself.

So, consider this from McArdle:

One of the things the legacy of racism has taught us is just how good dominant groups are at constructing narratives that justify their dominance.  Somehow, the problem is never them.  It’s always the out group.  Maybe the out group has some special characteristic that makes them not want to be admitted to the circle–blacks are happy-go-lucky and don’t want the responsibility of management, women wouldn’t deign to sully themselves in commerce, Jews are too interested in money to want to attend Harvard or go into public service.  These explanations always oddly ignore the fact that many members of the out-group are complaining about being excluded.
More troubling is that these volitional arguments are almost always combined with denigration: the out group is stupid, greedy, mean, violent, overemotional, corrupt . . . whatever. As indeed these arguments are when they’re deployed against conservatives in my comment threads.  In fact, it seems clear to me that many commenters have taken the underrepresentation of conservatives in academia as vindication of their beliefs–if conservatives can’t make it in academia, that proves that conservatives are not smart, and liberal ideas must be better.  This is possible, of course.  It’s also possible that academics are validating their own bias by systematically excluding those who disagree with them.
So while in theory, it’s true that you can’t simply reason from disparity to bias, I have to say that when you’ve identified a statistical disparity, and the members of the in-group immediately rush to assure you that this isn’t because of bias, but because the people they’ve excluded are all a bunch of raging assholes with lukewarm IQ’s . . . well, I confess, discrimination starts sounding pretty plausible.
When that group of people is assuring you that the reason conservatives can’t be in charge is that they do not have open minds . . . when the speed and sloppiness of their argument make it quite clear that they rejected the very possibility of discrimination without giving it even a second’s serious thought . . . well, I confess, it starts sounding very plausible.  More plausible than I, who had previously leaned heavily on things like affinity bias to explain the skew, would have thought.
Moreover, what evidence we have does not particularly support many of the alternative theories. For example, the liberal skew is strongest at elite universities.  This is not consistent with the notion that education is turning all the conservatives into liberals, or that they’re not interested in becoming professors.  I’d say it’s more consistent with the possibility that they’re disproportionately having a hard time getting hired, or retained.

I quote at length to avoid McArdle’s common dodge when caught in hackery that crucial context has been omitted that would reveal her ultimate wisdom.

So, here’s how I gloss the above, trying to ignore the “I never (emotionally) escaped seventh grade” affect of the passage.

She is saying that the dominance of liberals over conservatives in the academy is a fact.  Liberal academics and their defenders assert that mere numerical disparities do not require an explanation of bias or discrimination, but those who discriminate always say that.  Thus, because her commenters have told her that conservatives are excluded because they are stupid, this serves to confirm that liberal academics are simply educated versions of common or garden-variety bigots.  And because, in McArdle’s version her critics only make the worst arguments, this in turn makes the charge of active discrimination “very plausible.”

I leave to the commenters a full dissection of the problems of “research” and interpretation based on the ways in which McArdle presents her critics’ perspectives.  I’ll just say here one of the fundamental lessons we try to teach in our journalism segments of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing is that when presenting views in dispute, the writer has the obligation to present opposing arguments in their strongest possible light.  This does not seem to be a part of the journalistic toolkit with which McArdle is familiar.

But all that aside, look to that last paragraph:  “what evidence we have does not particularly support many of the alternative theories (to bias).”

The “evidence” at that link is a study by two social scientists, Neil Gross of Harvard and Solon Simmons of George Mason University, titled “The Social and Political Views of American Professors,” distributed in 2007.  A reasonable person would, I think, interpret McArdle’s cite of this paper as claiming that Gross and Simmons’ research supports her statement that the most plausible explanation for the ratio of liberals to conservatives in the academy is bias.

I’m guessing folks know what’s coming next:

What happens when some unruly types (as they have done before) actually read the research in question — in this case a 70 page, 25,000 word article?

I’ve now read the whole damn piece.  I won’t burden you with every last quote I pulled (I stopped at about 2,500 words of excerpts) but it’s there if anyone wants to call me on it.  Here, I’ll try to keep  it down to a dull roar of passages that should have given McArdle pause.

So:  does the paper McArdle relies on for her claims of bias state that the academy is clearly overwhelmingly liberal?


Where other recent studies have characterized the American college and university faculty as not simply extremely liberal, but nearly uniformly so (Klein and Stern 2004-5; Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte 2005; Tobin and Weinberg 2006), we show that while conservatives, Republicans, and Republican voters are rare within the faculty ranks, on many issues there are as many professors who hold center/center-left views as there are those who cleave to more liberal positions, while the age distribution indicates that, in terms of their overall political orientation, professors are becoming more moderate over time, and less radical. [page 3]

What does academic faculty actually look like?:

Collapsing the data accordingly to a three point scale, we find that 44.1 percent of respondents can be classified as liberals, 46.6 percent as moderates, and 9.2 percent as conservatives.  Such a recoding thus reveals a moderate bloc that – while consisting of more liberal- than conservative-leaning moderates – is nevertheless equal in size to the liberal bloc. [p. 27]

Well, maybe that just reflects an aging, embattled cohort of moderation losing ground to ivy-covered radicals.  Or maybe not:

Table 4 shows that the youngest age cohort – those professors aged 26-35 – contains the highest percentage of moderates, and the lowest percentage of liberals.  Self-described liberals are most common within the ranks of those professors aged 50-64, who were teenagers or young adults in the 1960s, while the largest number of conservatives is to be found among professors aged 65 and older (though the age differences in terms of the number of conservatives are small, problematizing Alan Wolfe’s [1994:290] assertion that “the cultural war in the universities is a generational war.”)  These findings with regard to age provide further support for the idea that in recent years the trend has been toward increasing moderatism. [p. 29]

Is there nonetheless a monolithic culture of opinion in the classroom or on tenure review boards?

What overall conclusion can be drawn from our analysis of the attitudes items? What we wish to emphasize is simply that there is more attitudinal complexity and heterogeneity in the professorial population than second wave researchers have attended to.  It seems to us unlikely that a simplistic notion like “groupthink” – more of a political slur than a robust social-scientific concept – can do very much to help explain the specific configurations and distributions of attitudes our survey reveals. [p. 61]

Finally, is bias really the one best explanation social scientists see to explain the political landscape of American universities?    As discussed in Neil Gross’s paper with Ethan Fosse “Why Are Professors Liberal” (2010 — link at Gross’s webpage), the answer is again (guess!)…No:

For example, Woessner and Kelly-Woessner (2009) find that twice as many liberal as conservative college students aspire to complete a doctorate.  In interviews, Binder (2009) finds that conservative students at a major public university regard faculty members disparagingly and do not seek to emulate them in any way. Ecklund (forthcoming), studying the religiosity of academic scientists at elite schools, finds that high levels of religious skepticism result not from professional socialization, but from the greater tendency of religious skeptics to become scientists, a finding that echoes Finkelstein’s (1984) earlier review of the evidence. Gross and Simmons (2006), analyzing public opinion data, find that conservatism, Republican Party affiliation, and evangelical identity are associated with less confidence in higher education and diminished evaluations of the occupational prestige of professors. [p. 50]

There’s lots more, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now.  But I think y’all get the idea:

There is,  contra McArdle, plenty of research out there on academic political attitudes.  That which she invokes, does not conform to the myth she wishes to advance here.  The specific paper she cites explicitly contradicts the thrust of her argument.

In other words, McArdle has chosen to deceive her readers.

That is, the issue here is not that she got simple, quanta of “fact” wrong.**  She advances few in this particular post, preferring instead to remain safely behind the deniability afforded by putting words in the mouths of anonymous interlocutors.  Here it is a matter of false reporting, claiming that research with which she asserts personally familiarity supports her case when, by any reasonable reading, it does not.

Such intellectual dishonesty has to be named and shamed. First and most important, of  course, because McArdle here advanced an attack whose aim is to discredit what academics have to say.  The existence of an even marginal voice independent of the right wing consensus is both a threat and emotionally intolerable.

Thus, I’d guess, McArdle’s “mean-girl” slashes against critics of her original post on this subject.  If it is liberals who are the racist scum here, no need to listen to any actual evidence they might advance on this or any matter.  And as for McArdle, so for the broader right-wing attack on independent expertise and the exercise of reason.

This is, of course, disastrous for a working democracy.

And its not good for The Atlantic either.  I suppose I shouldn’t care, but I do.  In the great scheme of things, the fate of that masthead may not matter much, but each time McArdle  misleads her readers to advance her cause it cuts away at the foundation of trust a reader may have in anything published there.

And when you get flurries of reports of bad journalism — think the latest Friedersdorf craptacular — it gets harder and harder to avoid the thought that the operation as a whole is losing its way.  There are great people who work there — I’ve named some of my favorites before, and I’m not going to keep calling out folks who are trying to produce good work in what must be an often difficult situation.

But the bottom line doesn’t change:  obvious, overt bad craft costs any publication something.  It may take a while for the rot to show, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t griping away at the foundation.  And while it’s none of my business, really, The Atlantic has given me enormous pleasure and food for thought over many years.  I’d hate to see it go the way of The New Republic.

*Here’s my recent take on what launched this latest salvo.  There is a deep history to all this, of course, with one possible start date coming with McCarthy, and another with the Nixon-Agnew attack on knowldege.  But this latest round is an offshoot of the culture wars, and in “scholarly” — sic — form dates back  a couple of decades, and has been pushed by the usual suspects, as reported in the study much referenced above:

It was in this context that a new wave of faculty studies appeared.  Where earlier studies had been thoughtful social scientific investigations, the new studies were closer to thinly disguised works of political advocacy intended to back up the charge of “liberal bias” in academe.  The first to appear and grab headlines – columnist John Tierney devoted an entire New York Times piece to it (Tierney 2004) – involved two interrelated inquiries led by economist Daniel Klein that were initially published in Academic Questions, the journal of the conservative National Association of Scholars.

**Well, she does, a bit.  According to the Gross and Simmons paper, elite universities are slightly less the hotbeds of liberalism that four year liberal arts colleges are, contra her assertion following her cite of this paper.  But the numbers are pretty close, and that claim is published elsewhere, so I’m not going to bang that drum this time.

[Cross posted at Balloon Juice]

Images:  Margret Hofheinz-Döring/Galerie Brigitte Mauch Göppingen, Women Talking in the Rain, 1963.

Pierre-August Renoir, Madame Monet Reading Le Figaro, 1872.

Paul Gaugin, Eve–Bretonne. (An alternate version of this scene is titled Eve–Don’t Listen to the Liar), 1889

Now I Remember Why I Never Read the Daily Beast: LLoyd Grove/”Elites” (sic) edition

July 19, 2010

Here I am, sitting at my desk, trying to get my head around an email inbox of more than 1700 items, and procrastination takes me to this gem by Lloyd Grove.

There, according to the teaser, we will learn that

Even the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual gathering of the country’s brightest lights, isn’t Obama country anymore.

And what, exactly is the evidence that, Obama is suffering from “the waning support of the intelligentsia?”

This:  Harvard cheerleader of empire Niall Ferguson doesn’t like Obama, and nor does real estate gazillionaire and sometime magazine mogul Mort Zuckerman.  There’s someone Grove identifies as a “Silicon Valley guru” who is actually Applied Materials chief and (former Intel exec) Michael Splinter, and Huffington Post founder (and woo-provider) Arianna Huffington.

And?  You ask.

That’s it.

Oh — and Grove quotes one other luminary, Barbara Streisand, who described Ferguson’s presentation as “breathtaking” and “wonderful.”

In other words, what you have here is a bit o’ feckless conventional-wisdom mongering.  This isn’t some new trend.   None of those he cites are making points different from what they have been arguing for some time.  There is no change here; these are figures with well-known positions restating them.  Intelligentsia or no, this isn’t an example of a “waning” of support, this is a repackaged statement of pre-existing opposition.

Not to mention, there is the stupidity of what is being said:  I know Grove gets to transcribe at will, but it is depressing to read a report about an “Ideas Festival” that does not put any of the self-styled ideas to the test.

For example. Groves uses Ferguson as his major voice.  Ferguson, of course is a well known historian, perhaps best known as a controversialist both in the form and the content of his historical writing.*

But to the point of this post, Ferguson was an early informal source for John McCain’s campaign, an early supporter of the Iraq fiasco (a stance he has tried to cloak with mouthings to the effect he never would have stood with Bush if he’d known that the affair would be so badly run.  To which I reply that if he did not understand the fecklessness with which that administration approached war, he wasn’t paying attention.  But I digress).

And he is someone who has for some time argued that deficits are a greater problem than short term stimulus, all the while making what appear to me, whose opinion is not worth much, and to others, who do know better, the elementary mistake of seeking to contract demand in the middle of a recession.*

The point of all this in the context of Grove’s attempt at a trend piece, is that while what Ferguson said at Aspen was poorly argued, and marked by a willful refusal to engage actual data, it is in no way a signal that the intelligentsia has given up on Obama.  Ferguson has, certainly — but he had a long time ago.

And so it goes with the rest of the luminaries.  Mort Zuckerman has been saying the same stuff about Obama for the better part of the year.  He, at least, is historically pro-Obama, but what he said at Aspen does not represent some kind of new departure for him.  (I disagree with Zuckerman on his analysis of health care in the link above, as do most of those, including the CBO who’ve actually run the numbers, and I think he drastically underestimates the ability of any US administration to get stuff through Congress, but I can’t say I dissent from his desire to spend more stimulus money more quickly.  But I would say that he might want to reserve some of his rage for a GOP  that has made good on its promise to but party before country in its desire to make sure that the economy remains broken long enough for them to steal back into power.

Again — irrelevant bile there; but sufficient for this screed to note  that Zuckerman is not some newly regretful supporter turning more in sorrow than in anger from his President.

Next there’s Splinter, cast by Grove as complaining that it’s Obama’s fault that the US tax code isn’t supportive enough of business.  No less than that socialist rag the Wall St. Journal calls the bullshit there:  in an op-ed by two Cato Institute writers, we find that  the US corporate tax code is the product of several decades of bad design, with choices made under Bush that exacerbate its inefficiency.  Again: Splinter isn’t so much a convert from Obama worship as he is one more figure seeking redress for a particular problem in his own industry.  Nothing wrong with that — and I would strongly favor a corporate tax system that was simpler, flatter, and more universally applied.**  But once more, in a “trend” piece, where is the evidence of an actual change in opinion over time?

(The way Grove wrote the piece, it’s not absolutely clear that Splinter himself blames Obama for the tax issue itself, as opposed to some broader dissatisfaction with economic results over the last year or so.  But Grove presents Splinter’s views as if he did say that.  So either Splinter was making an argument that ignores the actual history of his problem, or Grove is playing a particularly slimy bit of sleight of hand here.  Either way, we’re still looking for this alleged waning of support, as distinct from disagreement or complaint.)

And last, there’s Arianna Huffington.  Again, I don’t think she’s wrong in saying that Obama’s administration has dropped the ball on jobs and unemployment.  But did Grove just discover this view?

Enough.  I’ve done my usual, letting off a howitzer at a gnat of crappy reporting.

But if you’ll forgive one last bit of bile…this kind of work is acid, eating away at public discourse; it’s a parody of actual journalism, and its easy, lazy, pig-ignorant reliance on the argument from authority makes real discussion of real issues increasingly difficult.  Niall Ferguson says Obama’s wrong — and so he is, and so this one intellectual (sort of) demonstrates that all thinking folk are getting ready to abandon ship.  That this is a blatant misrepresentation of the implications of what Groves actually documents should not be allowed to get in the way of a tale that fits the pre-existing conclusion…

…from which I conclude that friends don’t let friends bother with The Daily Beast. (Or perhaps better:  Trust that rag? “Up to a point, Lord Copper.”)

*That is, in cartoon version:  fresh water economists and useful idiots hold that public spending cannot produce lasting economic growth because for every federal dollar spent, one private one won’t be.  There’s much more to the argument, of course, having to do with expectations of future taxes to be levied to pay off present spending, but this is a cartoon, remember.  Salt water economists and much experience of the real world says, no:  when you spend at a time of reduced demand and available capacity within the economy — factories that aren’t being used, people who aren’t working — the stimulative effect of public money spent exceeds the long term cost of repaying the sums borrowed for the purpose.  Ferguson very publicly had this argument with Paul Krugman, who is, unlike Ferguson, an actual economist. Krugman won, both in the judgment of those competent to make such appraisals, and by the imperfect measure of the market’s judgment of the appropriate price for US government obligations

All this to the point:  Ferguson has been arguing for years what he restates at the Aspen Institute:  high deficits are the engine of imperial decline.**  We therefore should be spending less.  He also says that unemployment insurance is a bad idea, as it encourages sloth.  He has, it seems to me a typical and callow fear among British Tories of an age to remember Maggie Thatcher, but not much before:  that somehow Michael Foote will rise again and eke 270 electoral votes sometime soon.   To avoid the risk of a social welfare state that no one has proposed, he would rather the unemployed learn the consequences of their feckless refusal to work at jobs that do not exist than to pump needed cash into the economy and on the way preserve just a bit of a shot for millions at a better future.

**He is a proponent of “counterfactual” history — as in one of his best known works, The Pity of War, in which he argues that the world would have been better off if only the British Empire had had the good sense to stand aside and allow that non-belligerent power, Imperial Germany, to win  its war in 1914 or 15.  My own research for Einstein in Berlin suggests otherwise, but that’s why they allow printing presses to spit out more than one book.  So that’s an example of controvesial content.  The technique though?  I find the counterfactual stuff to be a crutch for lazy thought.  It can be fun, and it can be suggestive — but that’s it.  It is a proof of nothing — and if you already have an axe to grind it becomes a distorting lens, coloring your ability to assess each and every fragment of actual fact  your research may uncover.

***If you want to see the nonsense that is the corporate tax system, google this title: “2006 Statistics of Income,” published by the IRS.  Be prepared for several hundred pages of enlightening tables.  You will find that the notional high corporate tax rates are that high for a minority of firms…but access to the deductions and credits used to lower bills are highly imperfectly distributed across different sectors and scales of corporate activity.  No way to run a railroad.)

Images:  Vincent van Gogh, “The Potato Eaters,” 1885.

Richard Jack, “The Battle of Vimy Ridge” (loading a 4.5in howitzer), 1918.

Adventures in Lede Writing, Or Don’t Try This At Home Folks, NY Times Sports Page Department

May 4, 2010

The first two paragraphs of today’s Times piece on the Boston Celtics victory over King James and his Cleveland court, presented uncut, for your edification:

When the Boston Celtics sputtered through the regular season, they were dismissed with descriptions appropriate for a high-mileage car. They were old, slow and unreliable.

They might have leaked leads often this season — particularly in the fourth quarter — but they are still effective in large doses, and Rajon Rondo, their point guard, remains a blur on the court and a pest to opponents.

Mix metaphors much?*

This blog is ostensibly about science, especially in its intersection with public life.  It does a fair amount of politics/critique of political coverage (in which I try to nod, at least, at something informed by science defined pretty damn loosely). But every now and then the reader and writer in me just gets loose.

This is one of those times.

So, to recap:  the Celtics are a malfunctioning car; they leak (which I suppose a car could do, but is something I associate more with boats and buckets), they are a drug, an optical illusion and must be very well dressed, for a key player is identified as quite gnatty. (Sorry.)

Oh FSM, is this bad writing.

Not only do the images collide into incoherence, the whole thing just doesn’t make sense.  How does being a drug that is effective when consumed with Belushi-like incaution fix leaks? I mean, huh?

I know that sports pages have long been an incubator for self-consciously edge-teetering writing/writers.  Some of the habits have infected other sections, some places (see, e.g., the metaphor happy stylings that shows up from time to time in Science Times.)

But while the play of images can truly transport a reader into the world of the story, you have to remember:  you, the writer are the master and commander of that transport, and not the other way round.  The author of the passage above had long since lost control of his charges.  What you see there is what happens when the inmates (swarming one’s brain) take over the asylum.

Ah.  That feels better.

*I know, I know. But I got my professional writing start at Time Inc., where not only backward reeled the sentences until boggled the mind, but alliteration alleviated that aggravations of the day. Sometimes the apple just doesn’t fall that far from its aboriginal arborial accomodations.

Don’t forget to tip the nice people bringing you drinks — and come back, y’all.  I’ll be here all week.

Image:  J. W. M. Turner, “The Fifth Plague of the Egyptians:  The Plague (die Peste).”  1800.  O.K.:  I know it’s a reach. But I love Turner, and the title almost gets us there, and heck, it’s no more a non sequitur than anything in the original, so there.  Plus, it’s my blog. Also.

Annals of Journalism — Don’t Do That edition

April 1, 2010

Via BarbinMD over at the Great Orange Satan I learn that Dean of the Washington Press Corps™ David Broder just committed this sin against the gods of the press:

While terrorist bombs were blowing up in the Moscow subway, Washington was enjoying a week of unusual peace and quiet. Congress was in recess, and the tumult and shouting were blessedly muted.

Ignore, for now, the rest of the mailed in (and empirically threatened) column; it’s standard fare from this particular writer at this late stage of his career, a plaint that the world isn’t somehow more like the one he imagined some more perfect past to be.

Instead, notice the howling awfulness of the lede graf quoted above.

It falls into a known category of bad journalistic writing.  At the BBC current affairs program Panorama it used to be called “The Not Quite 500 Miles Transition.”  As in:

Not quite five hundred miles from where Mr. Bloggs was mincing the postman with his lawn shears, Mrs.Dinsdale was eating a jelly sandwich.

Memo to aspiring ink-stained wretches:  coincidence in time between two otherwise utterly unrelated events doth not an edgy, grabbing intro make.

It’s just lazy writing.

Don’t do it.

Image:  Norman Rockwell’s first magazine cover, 1913.

David Brooks and the Anatomy of Fail: Part One — Norwegian Olympic follies/All Hail Our Nordic Overlords edition.

March 2, 2010

As readers of this blog know at too great length, Megan McArdle gives me the pip, and her willed and complacent foolishness evoke tsunamis of verbiage from me until the moment passes.

But, as a number of readers have pointed out and as I have come to realize, this is something akin to  bringing a buffalo gun to take out a prairie dog.  McArdle may be always wrong, and she may possess a fairly large megaphone, but she is so transparent in her errors, and she is simply not a good enough writer to do much more, IMHO, than preach to a pretty homogenous choir.  She does harm, I think, but her capacity to do much more damage than she already does, or to influence anyone who actually does things that matter in public policy, seems to me to be pretty minimal.

Not so more sophisticated, more literate and more canny purveyors of pop social science in defense of pre-ordained conclusions. David Brooks is the poster child — think post office walls, perhaps — for the gang of those who commit crimes against public discourse by stealth.  So while I’m sure I won’t be able to resist taking the odd whack at McArdle’s work in the future, I’m trying to discipline myself to concentrate on more consequential folly.

So:  David Brooks is a master of a deceptively powerful persona, one designed to slip past both his editors’ and his readers’ critical judgment that would immediately recognize the hollowness of his argument more baldly presented (McArdle-style).  He is the cheerful nerd, the policy wonk who reads the sociology or neuroscience or psychology  literature so you don’t have to.

He uses that material to fuel his Deep Thoughts, thus forming himself into the man who can take the minutiae of academic research and turn them into (seeming) insight into the grand questions of how we do — or ought to –live now.  Most dangerously, those insights then become prescriptive, strongly worded hints about what we ought to do to better these lives, our society.

There is nothing wrong with such an approach, honestly done.  Brooks claims, among others, Jane Jacobs as an intellectual and professional predecessor.*  Jacobs, famously, compelled the entire field of urban planning to rethink itself from an uncredentialled and wholly outsider position.  But the reality, as documented in this perfect take-down of his most famous work, (h/t Aimai, correcting a momentary lapse of judgment on DougJ’s part over at Balloon Juice.) is that for Brooks to claim Jacobs’ mantle as a public intellectual is as much of a travesty as, say,  this artist asserting a claim to the title King of Pop.

You can see the puddle-deep quality of Brooks work on display more or less in any column.  Today’s (March 2, 2010) is accurately summarized by Brad over at Sadly No:  “This horrific tale of a guy who cut off his own toes while fleeing from the Nazis demonstrates why the Norse won nine gold medals at this year’s Olympics.”

In slightly more detail — Brooks retells the story of a heroic and ghastly ordeal by a man who was betrayed at the start of an underground mission into occupied Norway, lost all of his companions, and endured all kinds of horrors before finally escaping to Sweden with the help of a number of people along the way.

Brooks lays out this history (omitting one crucial detail, about which more below) as a meditation on why little Norway, won the same number of gold medals in the Vancouver Olympics as did the US, despite being home to just one sixtieth the population of its rival.

For Brooks, the lesson is clear:

…there also is an interesting form of social capital on display. It’s a mixture of softness and hardness. [Jan] Baalsrud was kept alive thanks to a serial outpouring of love and nurturing. At the same time, he and his rescuers displayed an unbelievable level of hardheaded toughness and resilience.

And the money line:

That’s a cultural cocktail** bound to produce achievement in many spheres.

Brooks is talking “culture” a lot these days.  It’s an interesting word — and in Brooks work, it serves as a coded signal of real and dangerous import.

In Brook’s hands, this is what “culture” seem to mean:   a phenomenon that, while not inherently as indivisible and untransferable as traits fixed genetically through particular evolutionary heritages — that shibboleth of the cruder right-wing “let ’em starve” brigade — is nearly so.  Its tangled complex of history, social cohesion, and shared, often unexamined, assumptions, images and traditions belongs to cohesive units or groups, and does not travel readily or well.

In other words, culture is so site-and-ethnic affiliation/nationality -specific that those unblessed with the right parents, the right accidents of birth location, the right commitments to agreed narratives just don’t have what it takes.  For what?  For Olympic gold, for anti-Nazi courage, for economic development, for whatever Brooks wants to assert is the birthright of the English-speaking democracies and their mostly European cousins (some East Asians…hell, perhaps a South Asian or too may also apply).***

Think I’m asserting too much on the basis of one column that might be better explained as the lazy and unconsidered output of a guy chafing at the workload of two 850 word distilled packages of wisdom a week, and decided to nurse his post-Olympic hangover whilst turning in a gimme like this one, most of which is just a gloss of something like this Wikipedia article? (Run-on sentences, much? — ed.)

Well, I’ll concede that Occham’s razor does suggest that sloth and intellectual indolence is always a good guess with Brooks, but as the next post in this series will detail, this kind of seemingly innocuous musing is part of a larger campaign Brooks is championing to assert that the status quo of class and wealth and power turns on nothing more malign than the mere facts of culture as he uses the term.

It’s nonsense, of course, vapidity of Olympian quality.  For Brooks, the heroic behavior of those Norwegians who took Balsruud in and transported him by sled across the top of some of the most hostile country in Europe is all you need to know that Norwegian culture is capable of great things.

Then what of this:

This mission was compromised when he and his fellow soldiers, seeking a trusted resistance contact, accidentally made contact with an unaligned civilian shopkeeper of the same name as their contact who betrayed them to the Germans.

That is, this valiant “culture,” this national character that mothers heroes, also produced some son-of-a-bitch who traded the lives of twelve Norwegians to the Nazi occupiers for whatever reason — fear, conviction, greed, something.

I’m not trying to suggest, of course, that one should read in one shabby and deadly act decades ago some deep truth of the inherent treachery and fascist leanings of the Norwegian character.

I’m just pointing out that Brooks can’t know what he claims: that another set of acts in the same context are more meaningful than this one…or that any cheap and cheerful fairy tale of human goodness (or evil) is a meaningful measure of social capacity, or a reasonable explanation for why Norway bests the US on so many measures of social outcomes.

Toe amputation + heroism in wartime = Olympic gold (never mind the missing terms in the equation) may get the punters to cheer.  But look what it also does:  Brooks’ fairy tale is part of his larger argument that we have the society, in his view, that our “culture” affords us; Norway has theirs; poorer nations have their culture too, and suffer for it, and we may weep for them — or cheer the plucky Norways of the world.  But that’s all.  If culture is destiny, as Brooks has argued elsewhere, then that’s the best we can do.

More to come on exactly that point, as Brooks explains why brown people just have to tolerate their lousy lot in life — and its likely perpetuation in the new (information) world order.

*See, e.g., this line from the Publisher’s Weekly review of Brooks’ best known book, Bobos in Paradise:

“Drawing on diverse examples–from an analysis of the New York Times’ marriage pages, the sociological writings of Vance Packard, Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte and such films as The Graduate.”

**Could there be a more awkward and obviously pig-ignorant formulation that “cultural cocktail?  As if you just could just ask Bryan Brown to shake up a bit of Nordic mythology, high pain thresholds, village cohesion and a twist of  reindeer jerky, pour it out into martini glasses decorated with wolverine urine crystals frozen into pure fjord water, drink it down, and then go slaughter Nazis with your bare hands.

***I’ll be talking about this more in my next Brooks post, but here’s a taste of his claim in this area:  “It is very hard to transfer the protocols of one culture onto those of another.”

Image:  Hiroshige, “Evening Snow on Mount Hira” from Eight Views of Ōmi c. 1834.

What’s wrong with right wing discourse in nutshell: Jim Manzi, pun intended dept.

January 13, 2010

Update: Manzi’s response to this post and my response to him can be read here.

Jim Manzi writes, in the midst of a blog fight with TNR’s Jonathan Chait that

the purpose of the article was not to provide an empirical demonstration that less regulated markets tend to provide faster economic growth under many conditions than more regulated markets….

and that

The purpose of the article was to describe why even though I (like many, many other people) accept the advantages that less regulated markets can provide, that this does not lead to the conclusion that we can or should continue on the deregulation-oriented path on which we find ourselves without considering the balancing consideration of social cohesion.

and that

I asserted (and also, once again, neither proved nor attempted to prove) that government direction of resources will tend to produce less economic growth and prosperity than freer markets under many conditions.

Emphasis all mine.

I think the problem speaks for itself.  It sure is easy to make your case if you feel no compulsion to actually, you know, make it.

Heaven forfend that a Serious Thinker™ actually must bother with the mucky business of gathering empirical evidence, nor come up with some reason to believe what even the most orthodox of market fundamentalists have come to dispute when it comes to de- or re-regulating markets.* And why not simply assert….hell whatever you want, which may be right and may be wrong, but will never, in the spotless perfection of such limpid thought, actually suffer the indignity of a confrontation with the real world?

This is why the GOP in its current state cannot be allowed to govern.  There is for them (are you listening, Massachusetts) no disaster so great that it can penetrate the armor of received wisdom that passes for the best of “conservative”  thought by our friends across the aisle.  If you don’t need to prove what you know is true, then there is no reason to check to see if the policies that flow from that “knowledge” actually, you know, work.

And in fact, that’s the point:  if the goal of political life is to achieve power, then policy thought, making life better in our country, is an impediment.  The GOP approach to public life has not changed in a generation:  lower taxes, less regulation.  That’s it.  But, as everyone with a pulse knows, we tried that for the Bush years. It left us, as we know, with a catastrophic economic crisis, an enormous transfer of wealth from the middle class to the rich, wars dishonestly begun and incompetently managed and all the rest.

And that’s not going to change as long as folks like Jim Manzi are presented as the intellectual vanguard (author of “must reads” according to members of the Sullivan diaper brigade).

But in the real world, where choices of economic policy and regulatory decisions actually make a difference the kind of intellectual sloth demonstrated above — in the midst of an argument over whether one should take his ideas seriously, remember — is all you really need to know.  Manzi himself is a trivial thinker, if “thought” is the word to describe his channelling of received and comfortable wisdom.  And any intellectual movement that presents him as a leading member cannot be taken seriously.

And as a last note, consider this:

Yet the strategy of giving up and opting out of this international economic competition in order to focus on quality of life is simply not feasible for the United States. Europeans can get away with it only because they benefit from the external military protection America provides; we, however, have no similar guardian to turn to. We do not live in a Kantian world of perpetual commercial peace. Were America to retreat from global competition, sooner or later those who oppose our values would become strong enough to take away our wealth and freedom.

Note:  no ellipses, no cherrypicking.  This is the entire final paragraph of Manzi’s post, his credo, his words unmediated.  And boy are they dumb (and badly written).  Essentially, he seems to be saying, in the context of an attempt to claim that his fevered vision of “social democracy” will doom America, that specifically, it will constrain us in a putatively zero sum competition with China.  And that this competition demands military hegemony by us.  And that if we change our military posture, we will somehow abandon economic competition.  And that then those who oppose our values — in this context, I’m guessing this is a dog whistle for the Islamists — will come in and rob the store.

It doesn’t make any more sense now does it?

I’m not going to fisk this line by line — its assumptions not in evidence, its leaps of logic and frame and all the rest are (a) obvious and (b) just too damn tiresome to bother with.  I’ll note only two facts:  if you folks on the right with pretensions to intelligent debate want to defend this kind of drivel, go ahead.  And, just because I can’t resist making one factual observation (as horrific as that might be to the reality challenged Manzi and friends), I’d note that the whole point of assymetrical warfare — crotch bombing, e.g. — is that you fundamentally cannot “become strong enough to take away our wealth and freedom.”

Rather, and this is the point the bully-boys on the right perpetually miss, the more we wallow in our wealth and freedom, and the more we extend the ideas and responsibilities of freedom to our adversaries, the more we weaken those who oppose our values.**  But this is the crowd that would rather be Right than successful, so, should they regain power any time soon, I have no doubt that the decline of US power and influence will resume apace.

*See, e.g., this paragraph by Richard Posner, quoted by Robert Solow in the review linked above:

Some conservatives believe that the depression is the result of unwise government policies. I believe it is a market failure. The government’s myopia, passivity, and blunders played a critical role in allowing the recession to balloon into a depression, and so have several fortuitous factors. But without any government regulation of the financial industry, the economy would still, in all likelihood, be in a depression; what we have learned from the depression has shown that we need a more active and intelligent government to keep our model of a capitalist economy from running off the rails. The movement to deregulate the financial industry went too far by exaggerating the resilience—the self-healing powers—of laissez-faire capitalism.

**See especially Aimai’s comment to this post.

Image:  Wendelin Rihel “Ship of Fools” 1549.

It’s not that McArdle can’t read…it’s that she can’t (won’t) think: part three

October 7, 2009

This is the third part of a ridiculously oversized tome on one example of what I see as a systematic failure on the right to engage science in any meaningful way. [Part one is here; part two, here]

In part two, I noted that serial offender Megan McArdle was trying to defend a claim about how health care reform will kill grandpa by asserting that the scientific literature supported that view.

The literature she cited began and mostly ended with a long paragraph quoted from a study by the Rand corporation…and in the previous post I noted that one of the problems in making the claim that McArdle’s argument was based on a rigorous review of the literature was that this paper was essentially research for hire, where the client was the world’s largest drug company.

While it is not true that just because Pfizer paid for a study that showed cutting Big Pharma revenues would result in a decline in pharma innovation that would lead to a loss in life expectancy*…it does mean that you can’t just do what McArdle did here: say “look — some folks with initials after their names confirm my unexamined conclusions.  Therefore I win!  Yippee.”

Rather, what you have to do with any piece of research, and especially one that is both making a major claim and is doing so from a clear position of interest in the outcome of the research, is to check.  You gotta interrogate the paper, its methods, its claims, its interpretations, its conclusions, the lot.

You know — basic reporting, the basic lesson we make sure each science journalism student we encounter at my shop (and every other good science writing/journalism program too) learns in the first weeks of study.

This McArdle clearly did not do.  How do I know?  I’m not (I promise) going to fisk the Rand paper top to bottom, but there are several issues with it that don’t pass the smell test right off.

The first is that the authors present their results as the output of a complicated model, itself derived from several other models for the behavior of the large variety of inputs needed to understand whether or not a cut in drug company revenue will have an impact on innovation.

A first plausible question is how the model actually works, and to what extent it has been tested.  Not to get too wonky — and not to claim expertise I certainly don’t have — but if this were a serious paper for the professional literature, you’d expect at least some discussion about the underlying logical and mathematical structure and strategy of the model.  It’s not there, at least in the publicly released form of the paper.

Next: check out the authors’ rhetoric .  It doesn’t read like scientific writing…and there’s a good reason for that.

To see what I mean, look to the paper both the Rand folks and McArdle cite as supportive of their arguments, Acemoglu and Linn, written by two MIT economists.  There you can scroll down to the final section and you see a set of graphics supplied to support the discussion above.

Some are labelled “tables” and they contain accounts of the data collected to support the model, complete with explanatory captions to allow a reader to follow the reasoning that led the authors to gather that particular slice of reality and not some other.

Some are called “figures,” and they come in the form of graphs which show what happens to that data when run through a model calculation.

Now go look at the Rand document.  It presents six graphics.  Each presents some feature of the argument they seek to make — how a given approach to pharmaceutical cost control affects innovation and or longevity.  They are easy to read, striking, even, with graphs or bar charts to show the devastating consequence of reducing producer payments to big drug companies.  They should scare anyone who wants to live their fully alloted span — as they appear to have terrified the young and impressionable McArdle.

But if you want to figure out if the graphs represent much of anything beyond conclusions expressing the assumptions with which their creators began, you can’t.  Each has the identical caption:

Source:  Authors’ calculations based on the Global Pharmaceutical Policy Model [the authors’ rather modest signfiier for their black box of an analytical engine].

Just in case you were wondering — that’s the language of advocacy, not research.

The authors are saying “Trust me,” and anyone with even a passing knowledge of the movie business knows that this is the punch line to the old joke:

How does a Hollywood executive say “F*ck you?

And if you needed a yet more obvious clue, check out the label put on each graphic.  It’s not “Figure,” or “Table,” or even “Results.”  Oh no.  This is no mere milque-toast publication of data and the logic that lies behind the authors’ inferences.  That kind of thing is for the intellectually conservative, or those committed to an attempt at disinterested investigation.

The Rand team, hired by Pfizer, knows what it is doing.  It is making a case for a particular policy outcome, and hence its graphics are labeled — and I’m not kidding — “Exhibits.”

Not to belabor this — I’m after McArdle and the approach to argument she embodies, not the well-known habits of the bespoke policy research game — but one of the first and most basic lessons we try to teach our students in the Graduate Program in Science Writing in MIT is that  just because some document looks like a real scientific paper, or that  some result gets published somewhere that looks impressive, you cannot then safely conclude that what it says is true.

Rather, we tell our students, you have to read it not just for the results, but for the degree to which the paper itself does what a serious piece of research should.  Does it at a minimum provide you with enough information to ask intelligent questions about what it purports to show.  If, as here, you see such a broad tell as the word “exhibit,” then you have to know that this demands a lot more digging before you can accept its claims.  The say-so of the paper and its authors isn’t enough; they’ve told you so themselves.

It is tempting simply to ignore any paper like this one — anytime someone tells you that they’ve come up with some complicated model that gives a magic answer, a long life in science writing tells you that they are blowing smoke.  Remember: big claims require big justification.

Over time, with experience in the business (either that of science or science writing) you learn when to get revved up about something, and when to sit back and let shoddy work slide by without close examination.  Life is too short to spend one’s time doing what xkcd so famously documented.

But let’s give the Rand paper, and McArdle yet more benefit of the doubt.  All that I’ve said above suggests that the Rand paper itself is telling you that you need to dig deeper before you rely on it.  Who knows?   Maybe its conclusions are true, even if it is impossible to determine that from the evidence presented.

Well, I haven’t done anything like a proper job of reporting to that depth.  But what I got in a morning’s reading and calling is strong hint that the Rand paper is, as expected,  propaganda, nicely garbed in Rand blue.

For the details….look to part four.

Images:  Rube Goldberg cartoon.

xkcd “Duty Calls