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"Conspiracy theorists and technocrat pundits"
March 13, 2013 2:22 PM   Subscribe

The New Inquiry: Just The Facts
With its emphasis on the empirical, conspiracism is uncomfortably similar to the technocratic mindset of mainstream political discourse. Technocratic pundits — typified by the likes of Ezra Klein, a journalist and blogger who runs the Washington Post's Wonkblog — are likewise driven almost exclusively by data sets and empirical studies. As Bhaskar Sunkara suggested in this piece for In These Times, such pundits operate under the assumption that the facts are so powerful that they might lead people of all ideologies to embrace a particular array of ideology-free policies.
When technocrats disagree, their debates are supposedly over strictly factual questions rather than ethical ones: Do restrictions on firearm sales actually decrease gun violence? Will running continued deficits destabilize the economy? Does raising the minimum wage increase unemployment? This is not so different from conspiracy theorists, who ask questions about the long-term effects of certain policies (e.g. water fluoridation), and whether historical accounts of past events are consistent with the available evidence, and what will happen if certain groups acquire political power.
The New Republic: Ezra Klein: The Wise Boy
That Klein has achieved this kind of success by age 28 is a fact that thrills his fans and rankles his detractors. (Wonkette once referred to him as a “child typist.”) It also puts him in the pantheon of hungry young men who have moved to Washington and shape-shifted, whether consciously or not, into something that’s more palatable to the city’s establishment. The blogger who, in 2008, tweeted, “fuck tim russert. fuck him with a spiky acid-tipped dick,” now styles himself as the evenhanded, empirically driven adult in a room of squabbling, stubborn children. Even his critique of Washington, grounded in data and charts and graphs, is establishment to the core: This place, he says, is not like it used to be.
Brad DeLong reacts: Julia Ioffe of the New Republic Takes 5000 Words and Turns Ezra Klein into a Mere Personality

Charles P. Pierce: Ezra Klein Gets It Very Wrong
Ezra, dude, all of journalism is not the op-ed page. Most of the people you cite above couldn't cover a one-car fatal on 128 on a Sunday night. Somebody has to do the grunt work that involves calling the cops or the coroner, or the drunk high-school baseball coach, and not whoever is on call at the Center For American Progress that day.
Naked Capitalism: Blinder Leading The Blind - "Joe Scarborough, Ezra Klein and the Washington Post editorial board are among those springing into action on behalf of deficit worry, and against the dangerous movement of calmness and sobriety breaking out all over."

Via, via.
posted by the man of twists and turns (62 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
The New Inquisition can't fight the Technocracy. They're from two different games!
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 2:26 PM on March 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


When technocrats disagree, their debates are supposedly over strictly factual questions rather than ethical ones: Do restrictions on firearm sales actually decrease gun violence? Will running continued deficits destabilize the economy? Does raising the minimum wage increase unemployment? This is not so different from conspiracy theorists, who ask questions about the long-term effects of certain policies (e.g. water fluoridation), and whether historical accounts of past events are consistent with the available evidence, and what will happen if certain groups acquire political power.
What a mind-bendingly stupid thing to say. It's like saying that the Klan are pretty much the same thing as Episcopalians because they both believe in the power of ritual. If you can't tell the difference between what a conspiracy theorist does with "facts" and what someone like Ezra Klein does with them then you're an idiot.
posted by yoink at 2:28 PM on March 13, 2013 [29 favorites]


I'm not a fan of arguments based on pure fact, since I believe narrative and demagoguery and more powerful and more interesting. Alex Jones is popular not because of his made-up facts but because the spurious narrative based on them appeals to people who feel disenfranchised and who need a pat story to make them feel in control of a chaotic world.

Facts and data are awesome, but what sways people is the story they put together. No detailed analysis of the sub-prime mortgage crisis is as powerful as a call for class solidarity or a Tabibi article about 'vampire squids'.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 2:34 PM on March 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


There are valid criticisms one can make of technocrats. Comparing them to people who can twist every fact into fitting their preconceived notions is not one of them.
posted by leopard at 2:37 PM on March 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


I think eight(!) years of Dubya and the continued pants-on-head insanity of the American right has led to something of a logical counter-revolution on the left. The current increased reliance on fact and logic (if that is what's happening) comes from seeing a vivid example of what happens when a political movement goes the other way.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:38 PM on March 13, 2013 [15 favorites]


Interestingly (to me, anyway) Technocracy as a movement was still active where I grew up as late as the 1970's.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:49 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


The current increased reliance on fact and logic (if that is what's happening) comes from seeing a vivid example of what happens when a political movement goes the other way.

Exactly. I'm not going to say technocrats are perfect, but as far as ideologies go it beats the ideologies that do things without ever looking at the consequences much less measuring them. There's no shame if political science is the last 'science" to adopt the philosophy of empiricism.
posted by GuyZero at 2:49 PM on March 13, 2013


I'm not a fan of arguments based on pure fact

I'm just gonna quibble really quickly: Fly your rhetorician's flag as high as you want, but base it on facts. Anything else is dangerous.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 2:53 PM on March 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


A little philosophy is a dangerous thing. Basically his argument could also be extended to say that there is no reason to believe that facts advance science either, since both scientists and nutcases use facts to support their theories, and in theory any set of facts can be twisted to support any theory. To accept his argument would be to destroy the enterprise of science.

The better view is that the mind is constructed such that reasonable people given sufficient time and relevant education and the same data would come to the same conclusions about the range of reasonable conclusions.

He wants to exclude this idea of "reasonability" by saying it's not possible to define what it is exactly. But just because something is not completely specificiable doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
posted by shivohum at 2:54 PM on March 13, 2013


It would have been helpful, I think, to situate this conversation within the methodology wars the social sciences have been playing out over the last couple decades. It's absolutely the case that a certain kind of empiricism (mostly from the economics literature) has risen out of the academy into the hands of Ezra Klein and Freakanomics and the like. It's also the case that a little truth can be a dangerous thing: it does tend to separate us from the context in which controlled research is conducted, which tends to pretty rigorously limit its own implications.

Facts are one thing. Science is a still bigger thing. Rationality is a bigger thing still. And policy is some complex combination of rationality, values and luck.
posted by Apropos of Something at 2:56 PM on March 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is all just an inner beltway tribal fight. Ezra Klein used to be somewhat of an outsider, when he first started blogging at Pandagon, but even then it was clear he was trying to fast track into becoming a Washington insider, one of the first to actually use blogs as a step up the career ladder.

I met him once, during a blogging boondoggle he and Amanda and a couple of other fairly prominent back then US leftie political bloggers where on in Amsterdam and he had that sort of relentless drive and ambition I'd also seen in national politicians.

In the political ecosystem, he and other policy wonks are there to justify centrist rightwing democratic positions in a matter that de-emphasises ideology, as part of the effort to disguise deliberate political choices as technocracy, driven by rational, scientific inquiry.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:56 PM on March 13, 2013 [11 favorites]


In the political ecosystem, he and other policy wonks are there to justify centrist rightwing democratic positions in a matter that de-emphasises ideology, as part of the effort to disguise deliberate political choices as technocracy, driven by rational, scientific inquiry.

And it's precisely that sense in which neoliberal pundits like Klein and (especially) Yglesias are "people who can twist every fact into fitting their preconceived notions." The insistance that their work is purely evidence-based ("reality based community," "wonkery") is audience flattery as a branding strategy.
posted by gerryblog at 3:00 PM on March 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


The Washington Post just got rid of their position of Ombudsman. Apparently everything they say and do is so obviously right and non-ideological that they don't need to be checked anymore.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:02 PM on March 13, 2013


If you can't tell the difference between what a conspiracy theorist does with "facts" and what someone like Ezra Klein does with them then you're an idiot.
yoink

There are valid criticisms one can make of technocrats. Comparing them to people who can twist every fact into fitting their preconceived notions is not one of them.
leopard

They are obviously not the same, but I think these pieces are right in that they're on the same continuum.

"Facts" and "reason don't exist in a vacuum, and declaring that you've arrived at your views solely through facts and logic is the Internet's favorite tactic. The problem is what they're really doing is fitting their facts into an ideological framework and presenting it as an objective truth, because it's not possible to do otherwise.

This is exactly what conspiracy theorists think of themselves as doing: merely examining the evidence without bias to find the truth. It's just that everyone else has been misled, is a shill, or is blinded by authority. They see themselves as merely looking at the data and drawing logical conclusions.

The article is right about this:

such pundits operate under the assumption that the facts are so powerful that they might lead people of all ideologies to embrace a particular array of ideology-free policies.

The point isn't that facts and reason have no meaning so say what you want, it's that you should be wary of people claiming they have no ideological bent and are simply using reason to examine the world because it's a smokescreen (conscious or not) for an ideology.
posted by Sangermaine at 3:05 PM on March 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


And it's precisely that sense in which neoliberal pundits like Klein and (especially) Yglesias are "people who can twist every fact into fitting their preconceived notions." The insistance that their work is purely evidence-based ("reality based community," "wonkery") is audience flattery as a branding strategy.

You know what would be a powerful way to demonstrate that? Show that his facts are incomplete or unpersuasive, or that he is making false inferences from them. You know what isn't a good way to demonstrate that? Claim that using facts is the same thing as being a conspiracy theorist or that he only does so as part of some eeeeeevil "neoliberal" conspiracy (ain't it just like those conspiracy theorists to be part of an evil conspiracy?).
posted by yoink at 3:05 PM on March 13, 2013 [11 favorites]


Klein is definitely wonky to a fault, and succumbs to the bubble on occasion. He's consistently underestimated Republican intransigence and supported the Grand Bargain, which is just about enough to write him off entirely, if he weren't smart enough to recognize his errors and recant.
posted by mek at 3:06 PM on March 13, 2013


If we are to make progress in the public debate, we may have to withdraw from empirical matters. Instead, our political discussions need to grapple with ideology and psychology, and with the underlying tendencies that draw people to particular ideologies. If consensus is to be forged, it will be from shared values rather than agreed-upon facts.
While the line of thought used to reach this conclusion is moronic (there is no scientific truth! my GPS works because of faeries in the aether!), the broader point is true - most of the time, you don't convince people to support a policy with the facts but appealing to their ideology. This is, of course, a convenient position for those opposed to the Wonkblog-ites, as it excuses them from having to change their rhetoric to compete.

However, I’m not sure this is that much of a problem, as for most public policy, there isn't any set of facts that could be used to support it, other than taking an extreme utilitarian approach. For example, should the government provide some money to support local theatre? While you could commission an assumption-packed analysis of the fiscal multiplier and employment benefits, the result of which will be essentially restating your initial assumptions, the actual process for deciding to do it will be if the polity decides they are happy with paying more taxes/receive less services in exchange for more local theatre. And that in turn depends on how individuals value local theatre, their money, and their belief of what role government should have in society.

Even more meta, there isn't ideology-free policy. If policy is a way to achieve a desired outcome, then ideology decides which outcomes are desired. Really, where facts come in handy is to determine whether a policy will work in achieving your desired outcome, not in selecting which outcomes should be pursued.
posted by kithrater at 3:10 PM on March 13, 2013 [10 favorites]


In the political ecosystem, he and other policy wonks are there to justify centrist rightwing democratic positions in a matter that de-emphasises ideology, as part of the effort to disguise deliberate political choices as technocracy, driven by rational, scientific inquiry.

If only... they are chasing an ever rightward-moving "center" without the ideological tools to realize where the Overton window is taking them. The deficit debate is about how much to cut and who pays for it, not whether permanent employed/population ratio of 47% is a crisis. The signature achievement of Obama's presidency will be a health care plan first outlined by the Heritage Foundation: you don't have to win to achieve your policy goals.

The mistake people like Klein make, over and over again, is that they don't actually understand that some people actually are radicals driven by political ideology... and those people might be well dressed and otherwise respectable.
posted by ennui.bz at 3:11 PM on March 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


"It's also the case that a little truth can be a dangerous thing: it does tend to separate us from the context in which controlled research is conducted, which tends to pretty rigorously limit its own implications."

This is a good point. Science is an ongoing process, and technocratic wonkery can become problematic when they use the latest research in some field to "prove" that their favorite policy is correct, when later studies might show the intitial research to be incorrect or wrongly interpreted. That's why this sort of thing should be done with care, and an eye towards history. It should be more of a continuous discussion that gets closer and closer to truth, rather than a stark choice between right and wrong.

Mind you, there are some subjects (like economics) that already have a lot of history behind them, so some fairly conclusive lessons can be learned.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:11 PM on March 13, 2013


"Even more meta, there isn't ideology-free policy. If policy is a way to achieve a desired outcome, then ideology decides which outcomes are desired. Really, where facts come in handy is to determine whether a policy will work in achieving your desired outcome, not in selecting which outcomes should be pursued."

Excellent point, kithrater.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:19 PM on March 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


But stubborn ideological opponents can no more be convinced by a pie chart than Alex Jones can be dissuaded from his beliefs by Ben Bernanke. And there are no grounds for thinking that they should be.

Meet the New Inquiry, same as the Old Inquiry.
posted by chavenet at 3:20 PM on March 13, 2013


I think the problem is that, in the words of the sage, you can use facts to prove anything that's even remotely true.

In this sense, although it may not be a helpful comparison, there is a parallel between conspiracy theorists and mainstream political analysts and, more saliently, politicians themselves. Listen to PMQ's any given Wednesday: A barrage of facts demonstrating the failure of austerity, crashing up against a landslide of facts necessitating more austerity. Each side couches their own political positions as dispassionate pragmatism based on these facts, as is the modern style, and accuses the other of ignoring reality in favour of ideology or dogma.

If (as it seems to me) these political processes are really largely about ideology, why not just have a debate of ideologies? Why pretend to be social scientists?
posted by Pre-Taped Call In Show at 3:21 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's impossible to make political arguments based on pure facts. As Aristotle put it, practical reasoning works by combining facts and desires. I want to eat sweets, this pie is sweet therefore I want to eat this pie. There is no motivation to act unless desire enters the picture. That's what kithrater was saying, but with extra pretension.

Judging by policy decisions made in the Western world since 2008 it's clear that a large percentage of our ruling classes do not care about unemployment at all. Given that, facts about the relationship between unemployment and the minimum wage are utterly irrelevant to their decision making. The technocratic approach works only if there is a pool of common values about which people across the political spectrum agree, at least to some extent. When ideological gaps get sufficiently large, facts cannot bridge them even if all parties agree on the facts.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:21 PM on March 13, 2013 [9 favorites]


It is worth noting, by the way, that the claim that Ezra Klein is a deficit warrior is one of those things that isn't, you know, "a fact." Here is Klein arguing--today--both that our current deficits are too low AND that panic about future deficits is absurdly overblown.

But, I guess, if you've already accepted that "facts are for conspiracy theorists" then it doesn't really matter what the facts are about what Klein does or does not argue.
posted by yoink at 3:22 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


You're entitled to your own opinion, not your own facts. I get into "debates" on social media sites frequently. They always follow a pattern...and the people who are least likely to be swayed by logic and reason are the true believers. Often, these people are primarily informed by the likes of Fox "news" and rarely back down from their ideology. When faced with facts or a logical, well-formulated argument, the "debate" becomes a series of ad-hominem attacks or other logical fallacies. Rarely, a well-reasoned interpretation of the facts...
posted by Chuffy at 3:22 PM on March 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sorry, I didn't finish my thought about the comparison to conspiracy theorists. The point is that one reaches a conclusion and then chery-picks the evidence–abusing facts, rather than using them.
posted by Pre-Taped Call In Show at 3:22 PM on March 13, 2013


There are two very different reactionary instincts at work here, and it's important to distinguish between them. One is the mistrust of the numbers, while the other is the mistrust of the statistics. There are conditions under which either is justified, but they aren't the same.

For the most part, it is mistrust of statistics that dominates anti-technocratic sentiment, because to the statistically uneducated, it's very hard to distinguish rigorous advanced analysis from numerology. Questions like "Does raising the minimum wage increase unemployment?" are *difficult to answer* and when the Nate Silvers of the world confidently report that they have devised a principled method, they are ridiculed as delusional right up until they wildly outperform conventional wisdom, at which point they are treated as oracular. Neither characterization is correct - they're merely applying a powerful branch of applied mathematics. Much of the "evidence-based community" (as it styles itself) is not proficient in statistical methods but is willing to trust those that are, and that trust is regularly repaid because "common sense" is usually more common than sensical. Comparing a trust of statistics to conspiracy theory is a revealingly ignorant position to adopt.

It is mistrust of the *numbers* that should be the greater focus in these conversations. The textbook case was the data collection during the Vietnam war. McNamara's number crunchers were performing perfectly legitimate statistical analyses without realizing that many of the raw numbers they were being fed (enemies killed, targets destroyed, etc.) were completely fabricated. This was not a failure of *statistics,* because statistics isn't magic, and you can't take junk data and spin it into gold. In modern policy debates, the relationship between the numbers (e.g. unemployment) and the elements we care about (e.g. the hardships of poverty) is often a weak link.

The evidence-based community is often (rightly) taken to task for embracing their data and ignoring reality. The answer to this problem is not less statistics, and it is certainly not "more gut." The answer is better data, and better questions.
posted by belarius at 3:25 PM on March 13, 2013 [13 favorites]


Another problem with technocracy is that if something can't be measured, it gets written off. As data drives decision-making, the decisions that get made are in support of creating more of the same data that informed them. We are learning how to better measure things, but not everything.

An extreme version of this process is present in Robert McNamara's policies.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 3:26 PM on March 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Hah, belarius.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 3:28 PM on March 13, 2013


If (as it seems to me) these political processes are really largely about ideology, why not just have a debate of ideologies? Why pretend to be social scientists?

Because most politicians don't want to have a debate about ideology, because they largely agree on the issues. In a way, it's another example of the establishment consensus - all serious people agree on what must be done (balanced budgets, defence of the realm, a new shirt for each serf at Christmas), and so the only arguments allowed are those on how to achieve what must be done. Anyone who wants to argue instead about what should be done is branded as non-serious, and excluded from debate.

Maybe it is more apparent in Australia than the US, but here, the eagerness of politicians to avoid having a discussion on ideologies and instead base their disagreement on process is a way to disguise that their social base has evaporated.
posted by kithrater at 3:30 PM on March 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is ridiculous. The idea that everyone is an ideologue impervious to facts is a (somewhat) valid criticism of technocracy. It is not a good reason to say that Ezra Klein is just like a conspiracy theorist.

Here are some better wacky analogies. The people criticizing Klein are just like conservatives, in that they claim his style is somehow both ineffectual and harmful (cf Albert Hirschman and the rhetoric of reaction). They are also just like postmodernists in that they think they can win an argument by arguing that winning arguments is logically impossible.
posted by leopard at 3:31 PM on March 13, 2013


If (as it seems to me) these political processes are really largely about ideology, why not just have a debate of ideologies? Why pretend to be social scientists?

Because ideological "debate" is utterly tedious to all except the political-purity-police, and it's by and large not something you can be "right" or "wrong" about, and therefore not really a useful subject of debate. Once we both agree that something needs to be done about some real world problem, however, on whatever ideological basis we've arrived at that conclusion, then really the only interesting and useful question is "what will actually work to achieve that end, and what will it cost?" ("cost" here meaning not just money but opportunity cost--because all political decisions are prioritizing decisions). And that is always a question of fact.

Perhaps the most enraging thing of all in the pull quotes of this FPP is the implication that somehow asking "will this policy actually achieve our stated goals" is some kind of betrayal of the cause. If a policy proposal is "the sort of thing Our Team is supposed to like" then you have to get behind it and you're betraying the Team if you don't and if it's "the sort of thing Their Team is supposed to like" then you have to oppose it or you're a turncoat and a traitor. Bleah.
posted by yoink at 3:31 PM on March 13, 2013


Anyone who wants to argue instead about what should be done is branded as non-serious, and excluded from debate.

I agree with your larger point, kithrater, but I think you may be mistaken about this: it's just that the range of ideological positions from which national politicians can choose is very limited. But Republicans have made a great success of arguing that government is the problem since Reagan, and that's very much antithetical to the post-war consensus which constitutes the left wing of the Democratic party now.
posted by clockzero at 3:34 PM on March 13, 2013


With its emphasis on the empirical, conspiracism is uncomfortably similar to the technocratic mindset of mainstream political discourse.

This is literally one of the dumbest things I've ever read. That ablative-absolute-style construction is a mind-numbingly facile way to conflate two totally different things.
posted by clockzero at 3:36 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sorry, just realized I've had Ezra Klein and Ezra Pound mixed up in my head for several years. This explains a lot. Carry on.
posted by Jimbob at 3:42 PM on March 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


most politicians don't want to have a debate about ideology

I guess I would argue that most politicians are already having a debate about ideology. The numbers game is an elaborate dance to make themselves look like they know what they are doing, a sort of cargo-cult policymaking.
posted by Pre-Taped Call In Show at 3:43 PM on March 13, 2013


"Because of the absence of any positive or negative reason for choosing one theory over another, scientific disagreement inevitably comes down to subjective and fundamentally irrational judgments about which theories seem more plausible than others. There is simply no principled way of demonstrating that one theory is more reasonable than another—no way of proving that a theory is false or true or even more proximate to the truth than its competitor. To dismiss Jones or embrace Klein becomes a matter of faith and subjective taste, resting on an intuitive but irrational sense of what is true."

On the one hand, this is correct.

On the other hand, it doesn't stop us from doing science -- if you like normative claims, it shouldn't stop us from doing science. We cannot prove we're not brains in vats, or sims, or dreams in the mind of a flounder, and yet we get up every day and do the things we do just as if we were real boys and girls.
posted by escabeche at 3:48 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


"The startling rise of the wonk to political prominence has been buoyed in large part by the hope that the scientific objectivity of the technocrat might finally resolve political disagreement or at least convey some bit of truth to those reasonable enough to listen."

And this seems ahistorical to me. In the 1960s, it was considered quite reasonable to ask mathematicians to prove theorems about game theory in order to figure out how to deploy nuclear weapons capable of killing half the people in the world. Do technologists have more political prominence now than they did then?

The story of an era whose tendency was to invest too much faith in scientific and technological progress as a way of "objectively" settling political differences really is an interesting one. But I think that era came and went before I was born.
posted by escabeche at 3:53 PM on March 13, 2013


Call me a technocrat, but if Person A makes the claim "Raising taxes slows the economy. It's just fucking obvious and sensible." and Person B says, "Taxes have little correlation to economic activity and here's a hundred years' worth of charts and studies that show that", I'm gonna go with person B. Facts are not just nice, they are essential. Because some people are more beholden to facts than histrionics and hyperbole doesn't make them discountable.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 3:54 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ezra was my next-door neighbor for 3 years in 2007-2009. He was so young, like 23. Certainly a child typist.

But he's a liberal, not a technocrat. Just that all the facts are on the side of the liberals now.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:56 PM on March 13, 2013


Karl Popper addresses conspiracy theories and social science directly in the second volume of Open Society and its Enemies:
In order to make my point clear, I shall briefly describe a theory which is widely held but which assumes what I consider the very opposite of the true aim of the social sciences; I call it the “conspiracy theory of society.” It is the view that an explanation of a social phenomenon consists in the discovery of the men or groups who are interested in the occurrence of this phenomenon (sometimes it is a hidden interest which has first to be revealed), and who have planned and conspired to bring it about.

This view of the aims of the social sciences arises, of course, from the mistaken theory that, whatever happens in society – especially happenings such as war, unemployment, poverty, shortages, which people as a rule dislike – is the result of direct design by some powerful individuals and groups. This theory is widely held; it is older even than historicism (which, as shown by its primitive theistic form, is a derivative of the conspiracy theory). In its modern forms it is, like modern historicism, and a certain modern attitude towards ‘natural laws,’ a typical result of the secularization of a religious superstition. The belief in the Homeric gods whose conspiracies explain the history of the Trojan War is gone. The gods are abandoned. But their place is filled by powerful men or groups – sinister pressure groups whose wickedness is responsible for all the evils we suffer from – such as the Learned Elders of Zion, or the monopolists, or the capitalists, or the imperialists.
There's more to it, and it's part of a larger argument about emergent versus planned orders, but it's an interesting passage.

Spafford (and many critics of Popper) really get him wrong by focusing so narrowly on falsifiability and its edge cases. Fallibilism, explanation, and crucially, criticism are just as important to his view of the way knowledge grows and science works. Falsification (and unfalsifiability) are not the only reasons to reject a theory! It's just as valid to reject a theory because it hasn't been experimentally tested or subjected to any criticism, or because it's a bad explanation that would spoil better-tested theories or add unexplained qualifications.

We can and should reject the theory "Jet fuel could have burned hot enough to melt the steel of the World Trade Center, but only if it was the fuel used in this particular experiment and the WTC steel was insulated just the right way and only if scientists aren't paid agents of the New World Order" on Popperian grounds not because it's been falsified, but because tacking a bunch of ifs ands and buts on to a good theory make it a bad theory. David Deutsch wrote a very good chapter on this in Fabric of Reality.
posted by ecmendenhall at 4:02 PM on March 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


Didn't we just have an FPP about how Bob Woodward's book on John Belushi got the facts right but the truth wrong? There are a billion facts in the world, and each side can cite them to prove their own truth. And the truth has nothing to do with base facts.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 4:15 PM on March 13, 2013


I agree with your larger point, kithrater, but I think you may be mistaken about this

You're right - there is a narrow band of establishment-accepted ideologies, and not a single one, in the US. Just how narrow this band is was masterfully highlighted by the recent dispute between Joe Scarborough and Paul Krugman - as if the neoliberal free-trade economist somehow represented a threat or an unknown viewpoint to the establishment. A real-life skirmish on the boundary of the Overton Window!

I guess I would argue that most politicians are already having a debate about ideology.

I don't think the posturing displayed by politicians is evidence of a debate about ideology, but just an exercise in product differentiation.

But Republicans have made a great success of arguing that government is the problem since Reagan

Looking at what is actually done should be the test - in this example, Republicans have just as eagerly expanded the size and reach of the Federal Government as Democrats have since Reagan. I think the best evidence of ideology is where a politician has more freedom to act. For the US President, I see appointments as good evidence - this is one area where you can see a notable difference in the ideologies of the individual and party making the nomination.
posted by kithrater at 4:22 PM on March 13, 2013


I think the 'fact vs ideology' dichotomy he tries to set up is misleading. I don't see technocrats as pushing for a system based solely on facts per se, so much as trying to find more factors that are measurable and that can track society's progress towards or away from common goals. And this crosses the ideological divide - conservatives are just as obsessed with their set own set of preferred measurements (debt levels, deficit spending, tax rates, Dow Jones index) as liberals are with their own (incarceration rates, carbon emissions, wage equality). Any ideology has its own set of these statistics that they are trying to claim should determine the way forward politically.
posted by aiglet at 4:23 PM on March 13, 2013


Because ideological "debate" is utterly tedious to all except the political-purity-police, and it's by and large not something you can be "right" or "wrong" about, and therefore not really a useful subject of debate. Once we both agree that something needs to be done about some real world problem, however, on whatever ideological basis we've arrived at that conclusion, then really the only interesting and useful question is "what will actually work to achieve that end, and what will it cost?"

This is why Democrats lose debates, you know. Sorry, not to pick on you personally, yoink. But I think the trouble with Klein and, quite frequently, the Obama administration, is that they take it as read that we agree what the problems are. We don't. They're playing "how might we optimise economic policy to enhance our larger goals?" And the Republicans are playing Nuke 'Em From Space. It doesn't matter whether Paul Ryan's budget plan actually makes sense, no matter how many charts Klein et all produce to show that it doesn't. The point of the budget plan is not to make sense. It's to say that they have a plan, so that when the president rejects it (because it doesn't make sense), they can throw up their arms in despair, rant about the president's intransigence, and then take their ball and go home. And people who trust Obama will think he was acting in good faith, and people who trust the Republicans will believe he was intransigent, and people in the middle will sigh in despair and grump about how they can never get things done in Washington.

The Dems are Brutus, and the Reps are Antony. Head and the heart. The Dems like to think that everybody would agree with them if only they understood. They take ideological sympathy as read. (The "reality based community". What's the matter with Kansas.) But it's not.

This works the other way, too. Why do the bankers sleep well in their beds? Why does Eric Holder muse aloud that he might not actually be able to prosecute certain bankers in the future, if they're big enough. Because Timmy Geitner told Obama that being mean to bankers would hurt the economy, and Obama, who likes to shield himself from conservative lines of attack whenever possible, and who didn't want to be the guy who let base passions overrule the purely statistical, numerological, technological concerns of how to best encourage economic growth, said fine. And it didn't matter how much the lefties screamed that it was wrong wrong wrong, throwing the bastards in jail was never on the table. There was all kinds of ideology in that decision --- but ideology cloaked, probably even to its practitioners, as numbers, economics, theory. And when ideology is cloaked you don't have to argue about what's right and what's wrong.
posted by Diablevert at 4:53 PM on March 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


And the truth has nothing to do with base facts.

Er, no. The truth does have something to do with base facts.

Woodward's book on Belushi failed because he failed to appreciate, or actively rebelled against, context, which is a failure to get the facts right. Yeah, Belushi screwed around on set, but Woodward wrote that this came from lack of discipline rather than from a direction to improvise as much as possible. This even though Woodward's own source told him that it was the latter, and it's not exactly uncommon for comic actors to improvise.

Grandiosity doesn't make a statement true.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:55 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


So we're not mentioning the fact that the New Inquiry article about Alex Jones and Ezra Klein has a picture at the top of Nate Silver, who is mentioned nowhere in the article?
posted by benito.strauss at 4:58 PM on March 13, 2013


I should plug the work of my internet friend Matthew Dentith here, a serious scholar of conspiracy theory and epistemology, who has a sound framework for evaluating the evidential strength of conspiracy theories and establishing when they are "warranted". It is unfortunate that the New Inquiry article assumes that conspiracy theories are fallacious merely by virtue of their appeal to a conspiracy.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:31 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is why Democrats lose debates, you know.

But Ezra Klein is not a politician. If the argument is about "what works as a political argument" then that's a completely different issue than "what ought someone in Klein's position be writing/arguing." Obviously the success or failure of political arguments, as appeals to the voters, depends very tenuously on their factual basis. But the question of "what policies should the government enact in order to achieve their stated goals" is not, inherently, a political one; it is a question to which there are right and wrong answers and it is a question which is well worth exploring; that is the exploration that Klein is engaging in.

In order to get into power you certainly have to play the rhetorical political game--I entirely agree. But once you're there you need to be able to actually look dispassionately at what needs to be done and go about trying to make it happen. I think there are many on both the left and the right who lose sight of that completely. They care far more that what is done looks like it comports with their rhetoric than that it actually achieve their policy goals. A fine example of this on the left was the ludicrous 'debate' over the Public Option. Because "a Public Option" sounds like and looks kinda sorta like the solution that the left really, really wanted virtually nobody (except, for example, the Ezra Kleins of this world) cared that analysis after analysis showed that instituting the Public Option would make almost no practical difference to anyone in terms of how much they paid for their health insurance or what the insurance covered. You know, the actual thing we were supposed to be instituting this policy for.

And that is much of what animates the anger against someone like Klein. If you point out that a particular legislative goal that the Left has invested a great deal of emotional energy in won't actually achieve the outcomes that people think it will achieve the response is not (as it should be) "gosh, thank you for sparing us the wasted political capital we could have spent on something that won't actually work" it is "how dare you join with the Other Side you filthy turncoat!!" (of course exactly the same thing happens on the Right, but we always shake our heads about the 'irrationality' of the Other Side when that happens). But it's just nuts to think that actual factual outcomes don't matter as long as what we do sounds like the right kind of thing.

There's an example of this in the pull-quotes in the FPP: the implication that it's somehow a dirty, traitorous move to actually ask the question "Do restrictions on firearm sales actually decrease gun violence." I mean, we all know that the Left has put a lot of political effort over the years into restricting firearm sales, so it's obviously evil turncoatism to even ask if that will be an effective measure to decrease gun violence. But how utterly absurd. It's losing sight of the reasons for a policy proposal and turning the implementation of the policy into the ends rather than the means. The question "do restrictions on firearm sales lead to decreases in gun violence" is exactly the question you need to ask and you need to explore if you want to, you know, decrease gun violence. And you need to not be afraid that you might get an answer you don't expect.
posted by yoink at 5:36 PM on March 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


The question "do restrictions on firearm sales lead to decreases in gun violence" is exactly the question you need to ask and you need to explore if you want to, you know, decrease gun violence.

A good example. And again, an example of the left "giving ground," as they're up against an opposition that will do no such thing and refuses to evaluate their positions on abortion, climate change, economics, etc regardless of a giant pile of evidence they're horribly wrong. And that opposition funds a great deal of thinktanks paid to create bogus evidence to support their positions and confuse the debate.
posted by mek at 5:44 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


And again, an example of the left "giving ground,"

Oh FFS! If simply trying to find out what will work and what will not work as ways to achieve your objectives gets branded as "giving ground" then we might as well give up. Just call both parties the Know Nothing (and Proud Of It) Party and cease to participate in politics altogether.

Why do you think climate change is a problem that needs to be addressed, mek? Is it because you have an ideological commitment to doing things that sound "environmenty"? Or is it because you've been rationally persuaded by scientific argument that this is a grave threat that needs to be addressed? If the latter, what makes you so special that this is a good way to convince you of the need for action, but not a good way to convince anyone else of the need for action?

And when it comes to choosing which actions we should pursue in order to mitigate the damage of climate change, what path do you think we should take? Should we investigate what the scientists think will be the most effective courses of action and then work politically to try to get those effective policies implemented? Or should we turn this over to the PR guys and let them do some focus-group work to come up with "solutions" that people think sound nice and then ostracize anyone who dares criticize those "solutions" as ineffective for failing to toe the party line?

And, again, if that's true for climate change, why isn't it true for almost any serious policy challenge the country faces?
posted by yoink at 5:55 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Seconding yoink on that paragraph. How the hell did that make it past an editor writing an article about the dangers of empiricism and conspiracy theories?

"We have the facts: there are two groups claiming to use facts! Isn't that weird?"
posted by tripping daisy at 5:57 PM on March 13, 2013


So we're not mentioning the fact that the New Inquiry article about Alex Jones and Ezra Klein has a picture at the top of Nate Silver, who is mentioned nowhere in the article?

Mere facts, my friend; the important thing is that it looks good.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:02 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Two of the hallmarks of conspiracy theories (per i_am_joe's_spleen's comment, let's restrict to off-base conspiracy theories) seem to be a reliance on "facts" rather than facts, and a conflation of absence of evidence with evidence of absence. In my experience, however, conspiracy theorists tend to be aware of and reasonably upfront about their ideology (even though they might spend most of their time arguing small details). That's quite different from the problematic technocrats, who in their focus on facts and data may fail to consider broader issues or fail to understand that "preserve the status quo" is also a political/ideological position. Practitioners of both can get very caught up in small details when discussing specific issues, yes. But details are not the same thing as facts, necessarily.
posted by eviemath at 6:04 PM on March 13, 2013


It doesn't matter whether Paul Ryan's budget plan actually makes sense, no matter how many charts Klein et all produce to show that it doesn't. The point of the budget plan is not to make sense. It's to say that they have a plan, so that when the president rejects it (because it doesn't make sense), they can throw up their arms in despair, rant about the president's intransigence, and then take their ball and go home.

Take their ball and go home has been losing for them for some time.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:27 PM on March 13, 2013


Most of these logical failures would probably fall under the category of cherry-picking. The argument based on the facts given is accurate, but the selection of facts is flawed. Or at least that's what the Woodward book suffered from.
posted by destro at 7:12 PM on March 13, 2013


And again, an example of the left "giving ground," as they're up against an opposition that will do no such thing and refuses to evaluate their positions on abortion, climate change, economics, etc regardless of a giant pile of evidence they're horribly wrong

Is the point to win an argument or to find policy with practical and positive good outcomes?

As far as I can tell, that's the only real political spectrum behind the left/right false dichotomy.
The term "liberal" has been put through the wringer, but the term "conservative" has been completely co-opted by people who stand for nothing remotely resembling the stated philosophy.

Essentially it's the earnest vs. the falsifiers. The empiricists vs. the idolatrous.

Reevaluation of one's position based on facts is not a retreat to those ignoring facts in favor of blind ideology.

From Sunkara: "By comparison, the Republican tendency to shore up their social base by closing ranks and enforcing ideological conformity seems awfully sophisticated."

It does. Until the Visigoths come over the hill. Or the volcano erupts. Or the Antonine Plague hits. Then testing concepts to find better ways to deal with reality seems like a better long term proposal.
posted by Smedleyman at 7:43 PM on March 13, 2013


Like democracy, the main thing you can say in favor of statistics is that it's better than the alternatives.

But that said, the technocratism of Klein has three major sources of bias, even if you agree that he is earnestly pursuing the truth as best as the current evidence allows. The first bias is choosing which questions to research in the first place. The second bias is in playing up or down the certainty of various conclusions, almost of all of which -- deriving from economics or political science, eg -- are filled with uncertainties. And the third is segueing from facts to causal interpretations, often following the lead of his cited authorities.

For instance, he chooses to write about the deficit on Feb 15; he emphasizes the certainty of a hugely uncertain but definite-looking prospective spending graph; and then he follows his selected authorities' interpretation that because discretionary spending has recently fallen as entitlement spending has risen (factually true), this means that the latter "crowds out" the former, and thus we need to fight deficits and entitlement spending in order to leave room for all the discretionary stuff. But of course this causal claim (crowding out) is just an interpretation of the data -- it may as well just have been that in a more liberal era both entitlements and discretionary spending could grow together (as they certainly have done in the past). So he chooses what to research, what to emphasize as certain, and what interpretations we should make about this data.

So there's a lot of latitude in technocratism even if you're totally on board with the empirical, data-driven approach.
posted by chortly at 9:10 PM on March 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Five more years in DC and he'll be David Broder.
posted by bardic at 10:03 PM on March 13, 2013


Ezra Klein: "I supported the Iraq War, and I’m sorry."
posted by homunculus at 9:28 AM on March 20, 2013


Ezra Klein: "I supported the Iraq War, and I’m sorry."

My, what a forward-looking article. I really liked this:
Third, the people who are most persuasive aren’t necessarily the people who are actually right. Argument is a skill. Authority is a position. Trusting too much in either can lead you astray.
First, because he thinks he's referring to other people, not to himself. Second, because just prior to that he quotes Bush’s national security adviser "... Now, somebody should have asked that question. I should have asked that question. Nobody did.", and he doesn't question the point.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:42 AM on March 20, 2013


Well, of course Charlie Pierce has a better response to that Ezra Klein article than anything I could say.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:36 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


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