Tag Archives: Hackery

Maybe you’re the problem


In their recent book (and in their TV appearances!), Why We Argue, Scott and Rob make the case for vigorous, meaningful, and competent public argument.  The competence part of this is the most obvious.  Logic texts have long made the case for this, taking a “skills” approach to the subject–learn to reason well, and you will reason well.

Well, that’s not the case.  Smart Harvard types have long been the most vigorous practitioners of the fine art of sophistry (for evidence, see anyone of our 1500 or so posts here).  The problem with these guys isn’t the lack of vigor, they’ve got lots of that.  The problem is the “meaningful” part.  They don’t, or can’t possibly, mean what they say.  They’re hacks.

A fundamental presupposition to productive argumentation, after all, is that the other person arguing means what she says.  Hacks do not mean what they say.  They take the party line whether it’s the best available view or not.  So I find it disturbing to read this post by Jonathan Bernstein, defending them.  His main reasons:

I think Chait is talking about something like a “public intellectual” model, and what I’d say is that there’s also room for a lawyer model. For a lawyer-model pundit, it doesn’t matter so much if she said the exact opposite thing five years ago, but it still matters a lot if she gets her facts right and makes well-reasoned, well-informed, arguments.

I guess the question is whether there’s really any need for lawyer-style commentators, given that it’s the professional responsibility of many politicians to essentially do that. I’d say: sure. Commentators, as opposed to politicians or their staff, are relatively free to make the argument properly, without having to worry about the political fallout from the various speed traps and potholes that politicians have to shy away from — or from winning daily spin wars.

The hack, by definition, is not making the “argument properly.”  Part of making the argument properly is believing what you say.  The lawyer doesn’t have to believe what she says because there’s a judge, a jury, a process for evaluating (and restricting) their utterances.  Hacks throw themselves into a game claiming to be something they’re not.  This, I think, is fundamentally destructive to argumentation.

To be fair, this is pretty much how Bernstein concludes:

Granted, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to identify himself as a lawyer-style commentator. And yes, one tip-off that Krauthammer isn’t worth bothering with is his extreme certainty that he’s correct, even as (as Chait notes) he flips from one side to another of an issue based on partisan tides. But overall, there’s probably a lot more room for good lawyer-style pundits than Chait thinks.

Granted indeed, and good example!  But that’s really the entirety of Bernstein’s case.


The election is finally over, save the crying.  Speaking of which, please join me for a little bit of schadenfreude at the expense of Charles Krauthammer, Fox News contributor and columnist.  A little context, the other night, as the internet went all abuzz with an imminent Obama victory, many turned to Fox News to watch the slow motion realization that their alternative reality was just that, alternative.  I happened to catch an embittered Charles Krauthammer utter the following:

If he manages to win the popular vote, it will be very small, if there’s any. And even in the electoral, I think it will be a very small majority. Particularly if Virginia and Florida will go to Romney. So this is not a mandate in the number, or in the way that he campaigned. He did not campaign on any ideas. Anything large. Anything important. He didn’t address entitlements of tackle anything like that. 

Via Salon (via DailyKos), here's Krauthammer in 2004:

I think it was a huge issue that the president was weak in his first term. He had less of the power and strength and capital, as he speaks of, than he does today. And now that he’s been elected with a large majority, or a significant majority, and with a mandate, I think part of that mandate is to get the right judges, by his likes.

What where the election results in 2004 versus 2012?  Following directly from above. 

Bush won with 286 electoral votes to John Kerry’s 252, and with a 2.4 percent margin in the popular vote. Obama currently has 303 electoral votes to Romney’s 206, and he’s likely to add to that the 29 votes from Florida, which hasn’t been called yet, for a grand total of 332. It’s to early to tell on the popular vote, but it will be between 2 and 3 percent.

I don't know what "mandate" means, by the way.  But if Bush had a mandate in 2000 (as some said–I'll find the quotes later), and a real mandate in 2004, then Obama has a mandate now. 
Like I say, I'm glad the election is over, but I'm enjoying the crying. 

The Power of Science

To my mind at least, the op-ed in a major national newspaper aims at a general audience–including if not composed entirely of people whose views differ from that of the writer.  The point, in fact, in writing one of these pieces is to convince people who disagree with you of the strength of your view.  Some writers, like E.J.Dionne (sorry I keep saying this–but it's true) don't seem to have a view to advocate.  Others, like Paul Krugman, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and Michael Gerson (to name a few) most definitely do.  Gerson, after all, worked as a speech writer for the current President.  That's the very definition of political advocacy.

Should this political hack write for the Washington Post op-ed page?  I'm inclined to say no, because the current administration has enough paid advocates and media access (Fox news anyone?); it's hard to see in other words what Gerson, as a political hack, brings to the discussion that can't be found elsewhere–besides, his words have been driving the discussion ("axis of evil" etc.) for years now.

So when he oils up and engages the "liberal view" one can only shake one's head at the inanity.  Today he writes:

There are few things in American politics more irrationally ideological, more fanatically faith-based, than the accusation that Republicans are conducting a "war on science."

Few things, really?  This would mean that the current administration does not disregard scientists or punish those whose views disagree with their own, cultivate skepticism about widely understood phenomena, and so forth.  The documentary evidence for those things is too overwhelming to be disregarded as faith-based (which, by the way, is a silly twist of a twist of a phrase probably excogitated by Gerson himself).  Since Gerson seems to know that claim is false, he switches his focus ever so slightly to the political debate:

For the most part, these accusations are a political ploy — actually an attempt to shut down political debate. Any practical concern about the content of government sex-education curricula is labeled "anti-science." Any ethical question about the destruction of human embryos to harvest their cells is dismissed as "theological" and thus illegitimate.

Liberal views are "objective" while traditional moral convictions are "biased." Public scrutiny of scientific practices is "politicizing" important decisions.

These arguments are seriously made, but they are not to be taken seriously. Does anyone really believe in a science without moral and legal limits? In harvesting organs from prisoners? In systematically getting rid of the disabled?

Harvesting organs from prisoners.  Hm.  I think Gerson is talking here about moral questions relating to science.  No one has advocated that that debate be shut down.  Nor has anyone (by "anyone" I mean the minimally reasonable but informed person) suggested that there be no debate about the practical recommendations of scientific "conclusions."

What to do about global warming?  Well, it's happening–that's what scientists say–so now it's time for a political discussion about what to do.  That's a rather different thing from denying that it's happening–which is what the "war on science" is all about.  And Gerson cannot possibly claim that there isn't a strong global warming denier movement in the Republican party.  

It turns out, however, that Gerson means to claim that because liberals embrace scientific questions of fact, that they therefore embrace scientific definitions of value.  I can't think of what the justification for this claim would be, other than that Gerson has no understanding of that distinction.  He writes:

This last question, alas, does not answer itself. In America, the lives of about nine of 10 children with Down syndrome are ended before birth. In Europe, about 40 percent of unborn children with major congenital disorders are aborted.

All of which highlights a real conflict, a war within liberalism between the idea of unrestricted science in the cause of health and the principle that all men are created equal — between humanitarianism and egalitarianism.

In "Science and the Left," his insightful article in the latest issue of the New Atlantis, Yuval Levin argues that a belief in the power of science is central to the development of liberalism — based on the assertion that objective facts and rational planning can replace tradition and religious authority in the organization of society. Levin summarizes the liberal promise this way: "The past was rooted in error and prejudice while the future would have at its disposal a new oracle of genuine truth."

But the oracle of science is silent on certain essential topics. "Science, simply put," says Levin, "cannot account for human equality, and does not offer reasons to believe we are all equal. Science measures our material and animal qualities, and it finds them to be patently unequal."

Since there is distinction between fact and value–and a vigorous discussion over those terms in the scientific (broadly speaking) community, I can't figure who Gerson is talking about.  Besides, the alternative to the strictly "scientist" point of view is not religious or traditional authority (whose grasp, by the way, of human rights, equality, and so forth, seems tenuous at best).

But as Gerson seems little interested in the actual objection to the administration's handling of matters of scientific fact, one can see that he has little use for logic as well.