26 January 2012

Krugman on dealing with fools and frauds

Paul Krugman is one of the greatest intellectuals of our era, though not because of that Nobel in economics (some total fools have won that), but because he is one of history's best callers of bullshit.  I may be a bit biased, because his dispositions and fights remind me of my own.  I sometimes assume that fame, being on television whenever he wants, a column at NYT op-ed, and one of the best-read blogs in the world makes it rather easier for him to deal with the bullshit.  On the other hand, if I get frustrated, I can just ignore it all for a while with little harm done, while he has that whole weight of the world thing to deal with.  I am not sure how it works out in terms of stress levels.

Anyway, for those who do not read him, I like to periodically collect some of his recent analysis of the nature of bullshit (just that, not the substance of the fights, which you can find in the original) that reminds me of the fights that I write about.   For example, from his blog:
I view the primary race through the lens of the FOF theory — that’s for “fools and frauds”. It goes as follows: to be a good Republican right now, you have to affirm your belief in things that any halfway intelligent politician can see are plainly false. This leaves room for only two kinds of candidates: those who just aren’t smart and/or rational enough to understand the problem, and those who are completely cynical, willing to say anything to get ahead
.....So what you have are fairly dim types like Perry, on the one side, and the utterly cynical Romney, on the other. (Gingrich manages to be both a fool and a fraud).
Sound familiar, dear readers?  That seems to be the same qualifications for being part of the establishment anti-harm-reduction tobacco regulation authorities, like the "expert" panel and other US FDA decision makers that I talked at last week.  I wonder what would happen if I started a poll of who among those regulators is fool and who is fraud.

In another recent blog, Krugman reminded us of why (even beyond the above naming of names) he will never be a Senator or Secretary of the Treasury, even though he should be:
...this is an example of why policy debate is so frustrating, and why I’m not polite. The key thing about how the conservative movement handles debate is that it never gives up an argument, no matter how often and how thoroughly it has been refuted. Oh, there will be more sophisticated arguments made too; but the zombie lies will be rolled out again and again, with little or no pushback from the “respectable” wing of the movement.

In comments and elsewhere I fairly often encounter the pearl-clutchers, who want to know why I can’t politely disagree, since we’re all arguing in good faith, right? Wrong.
This came out at a time when I was trying to explain to a discussion board populated mostly be lefty activists why industrial wind turbines are so bad.  The conversation, such as it was, ran like this (highly paraphrased and abbreviated obviously):
Possibly well-meaning person who might genuinely care about the truth:  "But coal is so terrible." 

Me: "I agree, but IWTs can do basically nothing to reduce the use of coal because....  The best way to reduce coal use right now is to replace it with gas.  At best IWTs perhaps reduce the burning of gas a bit."

Now clearly doctrinaire, though perhaps still well meaning person: "If there is any benefit at all in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it is worth doing."

Me: "The only studies I know that actually do the numbers suggest there is not such benefit, and if there is, it is tiny, comes at the expense of creating serious health problems and destroying communities, and costing a fortune that could be better spent elsewhere."

Now clearly not a genuinely well-meaning person: "Quit your whining about hurting people.  Coal and global warming are terrible."

Zombie lies do not even require a few days or weeks before they pop up again.  Sometimes they circle back just a day and few posts after they were refuted in the very same conversation.  And as for the pearl-clutchers:
Me: "What part of 'does not actually address those problems to any significant extent' eluded you?  I have made this as simple as possible."

Random person who has never bothered to join the substantive conversation, to me: "You are a complete arrogant asshole.  How dare you tell people that you are right and they are wrong just because you are extensively citing the science based on your decades of relevant expertise and they are merely quoting from bumper stickers."
(Ok, I obviously added that last bit of subtext myself, but it does sum things up nicely.) 

Dealing with zombie lies is like trying to reason with a three-year-old.  And there is something about it that is much more bothersome than other forms of bullshit. 

Consider:  In this particular case, there is no push-back from anyone respectable, by which I mean that no environmental group I am aware of has had the balls to step up and say that installing IWTs is a bad policy that does little or nothing for the environment and clearly does more harm than good.  They do not have to actively oppose it, but they need to explicitly dis-support it.  Until they do, I (and lots of others, from what I can tell) will refuse to support the "green" agenda, by donating money, signing petitions, etc.

Why such a strong reaction?  We all join, donate to, and cast votes for groups and people who have some policies that we tend to disagree with, and speak politely of some of our opponents.  Why do I et al. change our politics and Krugman et al. lash out about these?  I think it is because of how particularly maddening it is to try to deal with someone who should be an honest adult, but who is arguing like a petulant three-year-old who just cycles through his "arguments" while ignoring the responses to them.  It makes polite disagreement impossible. 

This is compounded by the violent reaction of some others to any attempt to treat the zombie lies with the disdain they deserve.  As Krugman put it, some people...
...start from the presumption that when people...make strong statements, that they must have a defensible model behind their assertions. And so if someone...says that there is no such defensible model, we must be engaged in a “rant”, treating these people unfairly. ....  So what purports to be a demand for fair-minded argument ends up, in practice, being a demand that we pretend to find a coherent position where none exists, that we basically invent a high-minded debate out of thin air.

As a final point, this has gotten me thinking about the much decried tendency of internet communities to separate people into like-minded subgroups who never talk to each other.  Maybe it has less to do with a desire for reinforcement, as is usually claimed.  Many of us quite like the opportunity to present our thoughts to people who do not agree.  But we depend on them being honest and open-minded, or at least possessed of a deep enough position that they mount a valid argument, rather than being fools or frauds who just repeat zombie lies.  Indeed, a large majority of people I present thoughts to are indeed honest and open-minded, I genuinely believe.  But enough of the loud-mouths are not.  And when you try to call bullshit on the fools/frauds, you trigger the pearl-clutchers who freak out about "rants". 

At some point, dealing with that just becomes intolerable.  So it just becomes easiest to stick to forums where everyone's views and intellectual capacities are fairly well aligned already.  Indeed, I anticipate it is pretty likely I will leave the group that produced the dialogue above.  Poor Krugman, though, has to stick with dealing with economic policy makers; at least the enormous speaking fees must be some consolation.

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