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Blogging, polemical and otherwise

In a discussion of Paul Krugman and his critics, Noah Smith compares two styles of argumentation:

Way #1 is to put your complete thought process on a page – to lay out both sides of an argument, and explain why you arrived at a conclusion. This is what [Tyler] Cowen calls the “Humean” method, after David Hume. As I [Smith] see it, the Humean method is what you use if you want to get the most out of a discussion with a well-informed but fundamentally disinterested interlocutor. . . .

But not all interlocutors are disinterested. Some have political agendas. Some have strong personal biases. And not all interlocutors are well-informed. . . . In this situation, it may provide the most social benefit to adopt a more Hegelian method of argumentation. . . . two people argue their cases as strongly as possible, and observers can pick and choose the best points of each. This is how our court system works, for example. In the context of econ blogs, using a Hegelian approach means saying “My opponents are going to do everything they can to push their point of view, so I had better do the same in order to balance them out.”

Smith argues that Krugman’s influence on opinion and policy has come about partly because of his [Krugman’s] use of the polemical, adversarial style of argument.

I have a couple of thoughts.

First, my impression is that Krugman has always been pretty adversarial in his style. Even before his politicization as a NYT columnist, he was pretty dismissive of those he disagreed with. So, I don’t think it’s a matter of “good Krugman and bad Krugman.” He’s changed his targets more than his style.

Second, the one thing I can’t stand in academic (or other) argument is when somebody makes an attack without identifying the other side. In a blog, it’s appropriate to link to opposing arguments. In print, references will do. In either case, it’s good form to name the people you’re disagreeing with, even if you don’t have the time and space to fully explicate their arguments.

That was one thing that bothered Kaiser and me about Freakonomics: Levitt and his associates have the habit of expressing their view without exploring other possible explanations (most notoriously in the sex-ratio example). It’s not necessary to be completely open-minded but you at least want to give some references to other perspectives.

Krugman and Cowen (the bloggers mentioned by Smith in the linked post above) can both be pretty one-sided at times, but they’re both pretty good at linking to and engaging with the people they disagree with.

16 Comments

  1. RGV says:

    I’m a fan of PK’s polemical style. However, I don’t think he can be let off the hook on engaging with his opponents.
    His modus operendi is to often address his stance and how it differs from “the other side”, “conservatives”, “them”.
    In doing so, he is constantly mixing arguments made my varied voices like Barro, Lucas, Mankiw, Rogoff, Landsburg etc.
    He is at his best when he directly critiques and provides a link to the individual. He does that around 50% of the time and falling back on “them conservatives” the rest of the time.

    E.g., here is a critique that has a grain of truth to it.
    http://www.thebigquestions.com/2011/10/28/paul-krugman-in-a-nutshell/

    • lemmy caution says:

      I don’t buy landsbergs critique. He says:

      “Though perhaps Ryan would prefer to respond — also fairly — that he and/or the GOP favors different kinds of regulation that might not leave the air and water dirtier after all.”

      Krugman is unfair because Ryan “could” think that some other plan that Ryan “could” support “might” not leave the air and water dirtier after all?

      Whatever. Ryan has no alternate plan.

  2. I think part of the problem with adversarial type of argumentation is that people increasingly only reside in their walled garden of information, and are not exposed to alternate explanations unless they seek them out. Especially given increases in polarization in the political blogosphere and in American politics generally, I think Cowen’s model is much more defensible.

    • Jeremy Fox says:

      But surely if you’re explicitly identifying, linking to, and responding to your adversaries (as Krugman often does), you’re not residing in a walled garden?

      And even if Krugman has changed his targets more than his style over the years, that doesn’t mean his style isn’t well-suited to the goals he’s trying to achieve. I think he’s knows what he’s doing. Writing a polite, balanced, nuanced, apolitical economics blog wouldn’t be a very effective way of achieving what he wants to achieve. So asking him to do so amounts to asking him to change his goals, or give up on them, doesn’t it?

      • Yea I suppose that is true. I don’t think that is a good way to advance the field though, which is certainly not what he is trying to do at the NYT, but is important nonetheless. Based on the criticisms I have read of Krugman, his dismissiveness towards foes is largely unwarranted. I suspect that if you were to look at the link traffic proportionately, a Humean post by Cowen generates more traffic to those he is arguing against than does an adversarial post by Krugman.

        • revo11 says:

          Why would you “suspect” that? I’m pretty sure Krugman’s posts get more traffic, mainly because his posts are on the new york times home page.

          I don’t think Cowen is particularly more Humean, he just tends to post a lot of links without commentary. When he does make an argument, he tends to focus on presenting arguments which support it as well. I’ve also seen many Krugman posts that begin with the opposing arguments (prior to dismantling them). The only substantial difference is that Cowen tends to be a little less agressive, but to characterize them as Hegelian vs. Humean seems unwarranted.

          I think this entire argument is more reflective of peoples’ (especially those who aspire to be intellectuals) tendency to think that they’re being the most rational person in the room regardless of whether there’s any substance to support that.

          • Well I said proportionately, not absolutely. It may be the case that Cowen doesn’t live up to those standards, but I think the logic is sound nonetheless.

  3. numeric says:

    The interesting thing about Krugman is that he actually addresses the ignorance/dissimulation of tenured faculty members in economics. I’ve often wanted one of those voice “lie detectors” at academic conferences because I want to know whether the person giving the talk actually believes that black is white or whether that individual knows he/she is lying. Maybe it doesn’t make a difference–I was talking to a screen writer once and he described how when he worked for a studio he would sit in on a meeting where a concept was being pitched and the studio exec would be saying things like “I’m excited”, “Let’s get this done”, “I’m on board”, etc, and after the pitchee had left the exec would turn to his assistant and say “get me out of this.” What the screen writer could never figure out was whether the exec knew he was lying when talking to the pitchee, and eventually came to the conclusion that the concept of truth was so tenuous that the question was almost irrelevant. I feel the same way regarding social science discourse–after all, if Krugman’s claims are correct, a large part of economics professorial class is engaged in an exercise worthy of the Ministry of Truth.

  4. MAYO says:

    You were right the first time, he is “pretty dismissive of those he disagree[s] with”: he “engages” them only by construing them in the most distorted, grotesque, straw man fashion. But I agree with the commentators above who note that this is all part of a very effective game plan he and others have bought into. I find it scary that his way has been so effective nowadays, even among people and groups that used to strive for a level of objectivity, or at least a modicum of fairness. I’ve decided it’s not so much a matter of deliberate bias or even consciously increasing one’s audience, but instead, sadly, the tunnel vision of wearing true-blue blinders.

    • Jonathan says:

      Depends on what you mean by “effective.” Effective at getting webhits for the Times? Yes. Effective at getting lots of “You’re so right and keep fighting the good fight” comments? Yes. Effective at changing policy in your preferred direction? I (and Tyler) suspect not.

      • Andrew says:

        Jonathan:

        Much as I’d like to believe that a combative style reduces one’s practical effectiveness, I don’t agree with you and Cowen regarding Krugman’s effectiveness. In the above-linked blog post, Smith makes a convincing (to me) argument that Krugman has indeed had real impact on opinions and policy. I don’t think Krugman’s way is the only way—I certainly have a different style myself—but I think Cowen is going too far when he denies krugman’s impact.

        • Jonathan says:

          We’ll see, assuming we can conjure up a plausible “there never was a Paul Krugman” counterfactual. All I know is that, at least so far, he doesn’t seem to have budged the actual policy implementers on his side much at all and has done lots to push what’s left of the other side in the wrong direction. (That’s just my take… Krugman’s take, of course, is that the guys on the other side were never going to be convinced by any arguments, because they’re dishonest and unwilling to use logic.)

  5. Steve Roth says:

    The arguments that I find most convincing proleptically respond to counterarguments. They express those counterarguments in the most convincing form possible — even better than their opponents, in come cases — then reply to or dismantle them.

  6. Sagittarius A says:

    The Hegelian/adversarial style is dangerous because emotional appeals and heated rhetoric can be just as useful in convincing the jury as statements of fact and logic (if not more so). When this method of seeking truth was developed, we knew precious little about the psychological biases that could be exploited to win over an audience without actually being true and honest.

    To argue adversarially today means to transform debate into a marketing campaign- one whose task is not to inform through argument but to manipulate through rhetoric.

    Krugman is guilty of this. He cherry picks facts. He uses all kinds of simplifications, memes, and categorizations to drum up anger and frustration among his readers. In short, when on the podium he is as much an economist as he is a sophist (in the bad sense).

  7. Gabe says:

    How can Krugman be simultaneously “pretty good at linking to and engaging with the people [he] disagree[s] with” and at the same “pretty dismissive of those he disagreed with”? Maybe it’s just me, but it seems those two approaches are pretty much mutually exclusive.

    • Andrew says:

      Gabe:

      Krugman is not polite, and he doesn’t always give people the benefit of the doubt—thus leading him to not get as much out of an opposing argument as he could, I think—but he does cite and link to the people he disagrees. The behavior I really hate is when someone will criticize an opposing argument without linking to or even naming the opponent.