Hacks, Wonks, Journalists, Scientists, and Conspiracy Stories.

Matt Taibbi has a thoughtful, if predictable and cynical, article on The Rolling Stone.  

There are two passages that capture the essence of the argument, as I see it.  First,, that people of all political stripes are liable to fall into seemingly crazy yarns of conspiracy, now unfolding on all manner of fronts now that the seemingly unthinkable election of Donald Trump has taken place.

Yet the Post thought otherwise, and its report was uncritically picked up by other outlets like USA Today and the Daily Beast. The “Russians did it” story was greedily devoured by a growing segment of blue-state America that is beginning to fall victim to the same conspiracist tendencies that became epidemic on the political right in the last few years.

Second, as (putative) seekers of truth, journalists are alone in their enterprise, at least when it comes to politics.  Politicians have no need for truth, only advantages.  If they can find advantages in untruths, conspiracy stories, and other nonsense, they are happy to have them, whichever way they can.

These journalists seemed totally indifferent to the Pandora’s box they were opening. They didn’t understand that most politicians have no use for critical media. Many of them don’t see alternative points of view as healthy or even legitimate. If you polled a hundred politicians about the profession, 99 would say that all reporters are obstructionist scum whose removal from the planet would be a boon to society.
The only time politicians like the media is when we’re helping them get elected or push through certain policies, like for instance helping spread dubious stories about Iraq’s WMD capability. Otherwise, they despise us. So news outlets that get into bed with politicians are usually making a devil’s bargain they don’t fully understand.

One might say that this sentiment echoes my perspective on “wonkism” versus “science.”  Truth, in service of political agenda is no truth.  Economists, so to speak, are useful as economists only if they come with multiple arms, to weigh all possibilities and offer nuanced advice.  Once they lose all arms except that which politicians want, they are no economists but wonks.  One might make the same distinction between “hacks” and “journalists.”  The former engage in “journalism” in service of a political agenda.  Their interest in advancing “politics” outweigh their interest in the “truth.”  But in so doing, it subverts the truth itself.

There is a long tradition of research in political science about “shortcuts” and “heuristics”–simple labels from which people can draw inferences about things that they may not know about.  Almost all the research that is out there point to how people read more into the shortcuts than they should–for example, they think their senators are more partisan than they really are because of their party affiliation, and this is more the case for the people who (think they) know more about politics.  I have a hunch that this approach suffers a bit from too narrow a perspective:  we think that heuristics are powerful, so we want to show the evidence of the heuristics being so powerful as to mislead.  But the converse, when are heuristics NOT so powerful, with whom?  I’d been calling this variously as “are you a liberal or a Democrat” problem or “Groucho Marx” problem–the latter, on the account of the famous joke by the comedian, “Who you gonna believe?  Me or your lying eyes?”  The catch, of course, is that you do know that your eyes do lie, at least sometimes.  Sometimes, you should trust Groucho Marx more than your eyes.  But when?  Who?

To illustrate this with a semi-real life example, one might say the following:  Many people distrusted Red China because Richard Nixon said so.  These people knew more about Nixon than they did about China and their choice was based on how much they trusted Nixon–based on their considerable knowledge of Nixon, relative to their scant knowledge about China.  Others, fewer in number, however, knew little about Nixon but knew China intimately well–and hated the Chinese communists for “good” reasons.  So they trusted Nixon because he was against the Red Chinese.  Now, Nixon goes to China and says that people should now trust Red China.  How will these folks react?  For those whose dislike of Red China was dependent on their trust of Nixon, the choice is easy.  They still trust Nixon.  They never had “good” reasons to distrust China other than Nixon, and that reason is now removed.  So they now trust China, because they know their eyes are no good about China and Groucho Nixon is a better guide, as far as they know.  For the latter, however, even if they are small in number, their distrust of China was never about Nixon.  If anything, they trusted their own eyes far more than Richard Marx.  Now, Richard Marx is just comedian, an evil one at that, who can no longer be trusted for he lies like a commie.

This is a potentially important problem in real life politics.  The theory of heuristics, naively interpreted, would suggest that Nixon could go to China because he enjoyed a great deal of “heursitical” advantage for being Nixon.  If you honestly believe that, you’d have to be a stupid Vulcan who knows nothing about Earth’s history.  Being Nixon does not automatically grant the heuristical advantage:  it was combination of long and highly publicized anti-communist career of Nixon preceding his presidency and general American ignorance about international affairs that gave Nixon that heursitical advantage. Far more people indeed knew and trusted Nixon far more than knew than they knew anything about China–a two dimensional, rather than a single dimensional problem.  This set up a situation where Nixon could indeed go to China, since he had very little to lose (only from the people who knew China more than they knew Nixon, conditional that, prior to going to China, they trusted Nixon).

How replicable is this condition now?  Many people know next nothing of politics, other than “positions.”  They know they don’t like Trump or they don’t like Clinton.  Everything else is derived from this “positional distrust.”  In a sense, then, the power of Nixon has skyrocketed.  People would far more trust Groucho Marx because they are all blind–and they “know” they are blind–we don’t know China any more than what Richard Nixon tells us.  The paradox this can lead to, however, is that, if Nixon lacks sufficient trust of his own, not even Nixon himself can challenge this view.  The Big Brother is always right, even if the Big Brother says he is not, so to speak, because we don’t really know Big Brother beyond the mythical version, and the mythical Big Brother did not say he is wrong this time.  In other words, we are suffering from a collective crisis of faith and trust:  we don’t know what to believe, because our “knowledge” is built on a web of “so they said,” without a substantive basis.  (One might say that this recaptures the Stiglitz-Grossman problem:  the price is what “the market” says, not what the product does, and if you don’t use the product, just sell it, the market matters more than what it actually is or does.)  Unless Nixon has a large enough base that trusts him for “good” reasons, he can maintain his credibility only by appealing to his mythical self, and the mythical Nixon does not go to China.

Data on this type of phenomenon is, unsurprisingly, difficult to come by in real life, because Nixon does not go to China, usually, or Donald Trump does not get elected.  So once the possibility is raised, the typical response is that empirically, the question does not exist.  (Somewhat exaggerated, but this is actually my experience from real life.)  Of course, the point is that, in equilibrium, Nixon does not go to China.  If we cannot observe Nixon going to China, we can only theorize about the contingencies, with the appropriate provisos attached. That way, we would be prepared for how to respond when Nixon does go to China, or when Trump does get elected, or when there is a need to engage in limited war in the Balkans.  On the other hand, why bother wasting time thinking about Nixon in China when it never happens?  Or fighting a limited war against only Russia and Serbia, rather than a general war against all the Entente powers?  It is easy to look back on the monumental events where the improbables shaped the outcome and ignore all the disasters that did not happen:  nuclear war did not break out over Korea or Vietnam, there was no general war between Russia and Britain over Dogger Bank Incident, no colonial war over Fashoda, and so on.  The market is usually right, on average, after all.  It just so happens, as per Stiglitz-Grossman, the more people trust the market, the wronger it will be and the more catastrophic the consequences will be as well.


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