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.