Home > Economics > On civility, and the purpose of the blogosphere

On civility, and the purpose of the blogosphere

January 19, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

There’s two basic positions you can hold on the purpose of the economics blogosphere. One position is that it is now one of the main avenues by which advancing knowledge of economics is generated and disseminated, as opposed to the slow-moving journals and small cabals of elite scholars who all knew what was happening and got to see the papers. Paul Krugman put it well in a recent post:

So now we have rapid-fire exchange via blogs and online working papers — and I think it’s all good. Work circulates even faster than it did then, there are quick exchanges that can advance understanding, and while it’s still hard to break in, connections aren’t as important as they once were and the system is much more open.

Another way to think of it is that all the stuff we’re arguing about is incredibly important, and that the primary aim is to advocate our best view of policy. Another Nobel prize winner put this view well:

Cowen apparently wants me to make the best case for the opposing side in policy debates. Since when has that been the rule? I’m trying to move policy in what I believe to be the right direction — and I will make the best honest case I can for moving in that direction.

Ok, I lied. It wasn’t another Nobel winner, it’s the same guy. Krugman wants to both advance our collective knowledge and efficiently proselytize what he thinks to be the truth at once, and I’m afraid that doesn’t work very well. A vibrant intellectual environment requires forceful argument, but also making a proper effort to understand your opponent’s position, to not mischaracterise their views or deliberately present a weakened version of their argument – and to lay off ad hominem attacks. I’d submit that it is pretty much the definition of an honest argument that you provide your opponent’s best case and clearly show why you think it is wrong. As for ad hominem attacks, John Cochrane provides a pretty good summary of some of Krugman’s more egregious offences.

Like most economists, Krugman is highly attuned to fallacies of composition. So consider the following statement:

… there are people writing about economic issues who are a lot less confrontational than I am; how often do you hear about them? This is not a game, and it is also not a dinner party; you have to be clear and forceful to get heard at all.

But what if everyone behaves this way? If everyone shouts, then no one is heard. If the purpose of the blogosphere as a system is to advance collective knowledge, then I think this is a self-defeating strategy at what one might call the ‘macro’ level.

I would argue that civility is even more important in the blogosphere than normal academic settings, because one of the things that is highly valuable and unique about it is the quick feedback – but with that comes the tendency to initially misunderstand and mischaracterise. I cannot count the number of times that I have begun writing a post, and upon re-reading what I was linking to realised I had missed a key point. Sometimes I don’t catch it until after I’ve hit publish, and it really pains me that something wrong that I’ve written is ‘out there’. Not only is it is embarrassing, but it must also be so frustrating for the person who has been mischaracterised.

Now, I have only a very limited training in economics, but I’m also not exactly a dumb guy. This stuff is hard! And all the different parties have very different ways of talking about and conceptualising various issues, which can cause big problems with the more conversational style that blogging lends itself to. It’s very easy to see how something someone else has said doesn’t fit in to your framework, but to be able to step back and understand why a smart guy might believe something that seems *so* obviously wrong – that is actually a very difficult thing to do. I’m terrible at it. But then again, no one has seen fit to give me a Nobel prize.

Of course, if your view of the world is that the people you are arguing with are either mendacious idiots, or deliberately spewing falsehoods to advance their own agenda, then it is somewhat more understandable to take a more hostile attitude. If this really was a world of simple, Marxist ideological warfare then that point may have some merit. But to take that hostile attitude to everyone who disagrees with you is clearly counterproductive. Talking about Ari Fleischer’s tweeting, Krugman had this to say

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.

I’m sorry, but I completely fail to see why Bush’s former press secretary spouting nonsense on Twitter has anything to do with the live academic debates taking place in the blogosphere. If we had to document every misleading or false statement by someone who might inhabit some similar aspect of the political spectrum, we wouldn’t have time to do anything else. And I don’t exactly see Krugman pointing out every time a Democat says something utterly ludicrous about economic policy.

To cap it off, Krugman said this recently:

…by and large, ad hoc models like IS-LM are actually more useful [than rigorous models], in my judgment. But you probably do want to double-check your logic using fancier optimization models. Case in point: when I first got worried about the liquidity trap, I thought it was a myth, and set out to show that it was a myth using a simple NK model; what I actually found out was that my verbal logic was wrong, and it can indeed happen.

Was Krugman a fool and a knave before he discovered what he thought were good and rigorous arguments for something he previously believed was a myth? Of course not. So just don’t be surprised when we demand a very high standard of argument to be persuaded, rather than having our intelligence continually insulted. The condescending tone of his awful post on comparative statics, in the context of what was ostensibly a “debate” with Scott Sumner was staggering to anyone who had actually, you know, been reading what Scott was writing.

Understanding is an iterative process. It is incredibly easy to fail to grasp all the intricacies of what someone else has said, to know which particular choices of phrase were deliberate or not, and to accept the possibility of honest error. But as the process of understanding is iterative, and requires repeat interaction, this is only possible with a good dose of academic civility and the principle of charity. If we are to believe that the econoblogosphere really is the evolutionary adaptation of the profession to the age of the internet, then maybe we should start acting like it.

For the record, I’d like to say that I personally consider Nick Rowe to be the gold standard* for argumentative style among bloggers, in terms of both the way he clearly lays out his assumptions and responds to comments and rebuttals. We would do well to emulate him.


*pun (and irony) fully intended

Categories: Economics
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  1. January 22, 2012 at 5:22 pm
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