A post at Andrew Gelman’s was turning into a conversation between me and Hopefully Anonymous. Rather than completely hijack the thread, H.A suggested that we continue it elsewhere. The topic turned into something of a free-associational brain-dump, which is hardly something H.A can complain about. At least not hypocritically. It started with Gelman complaining about Mankiw being too lazy to ask people down the hall about health policy rather than linking to a few newspaper op-eds. H.A wanted Gelman to go into broader theorizing about the behavior of experts and pundits, which is the topic of this post. My tile may make you think of Philip Tetlock, but his work is on the predictions of individual experts, rather than how experts relate to one another, take sides and so on. I think there might be an earlier book on group-think centering on the Bay of Pigs, but I can’t remember an author or title.
The one example I linked in the original thread was to an interview with journalism professor Jay Rosen and his notions of spheres of consensus, legitimate controversy and deviance. Both participants are going to think some of their own views are unfairly put in the deviance category while completely ridiculous views are part of the acceptable controversy or, even worse, consensus sphere. Lots of people can understand this from varying perspectives and I think it describes what’s going on. Different sides try to shrink and expand the various spheres.
Academics are especially self-obsessed on these topics, although some just leave it at Kuhn and other “philosophers of science”. The generic study would be sociology of academia, but history of thought is similar (though perhaps the latter takes on too much of a narrative quality). Austrian economists seem especially prone to this, perhaps because their school’s status peaked in the past and they seek to explain why its heterodox today. The more paranoid ones will say government stacked the deck against anti-interventionists. A book not by an Austrian but perhaps coming to a similar point says that academic macroeconomic theorizing doesn’t affect policy. Rather, policymakers sometimes come up with innovations and afterward the academic theorizers rationalize them. As I note in the comments, this gels with my point that ideas don’t really matter. Back when Matthew Mueller had a blog he highlighted a paper by a leftist heterodox economist who explained how the classical liberal economists came to prominence (hint: not on the strength of their arguments). The economist is John Henry (not a steel-driving man) and the paper is The Ideology of the Laissez Faire Program (or maybe it was The Illusion of the Epoch: Neoclassical Economics as a Case Study). Interestingly, he does some sticking up for the old Tories that the Whigs defeated.
It is a common truism that science advances one grave at a time, as the revolutionary young replace the stody old fogies with their bold new creative theories. Except it may not be true. Are we biased against the elderly? According to the Freakonomics section on “The Weakest Link”, yes. We just don’t like being around them.
Dan Klein publishes a reasonably respect (at least among the people I read) journal called Econ Journal Watch, devoted to critiquing economics journals. Even though I should be especially amenable to his thesis and like some articles I’ve read there, I find his complaints about marginalized libertarians a rather whining special pleading. They’re way overrepresented compared to the general population, especially in his own field of economics. It’s social conservatives who should be complaining! His problem is that he holds to a minority position, and that’s just tough. Atheists who complain about polls showing people dislike atheists also annoy me. Another journal of interest is Jeffrey Friedman‘s Critical Review.
Non-academic pundits are another story who receive less attention, because everyone knows they’re all hacks. A while back Gelman wanted a measurement of just how partisan pundits are, and fortunately there’s a resource for that. It’s Lying in Ponds, though unfortunately it hasn’t been updated in a while.
One of Mencius Moldbug’s earliest posts is on “kernels” and “repeaters”, or ideas and the institutions that spread them. He’s always been more the Foucault/Jeffrey Hart type while I’m more Chomsky/James Burnham on the malevolent Librul Media and its awesome powers, so I’m less interested in that sort of thing. MM is focused on the “influentials” found at Burning Man, Sundance and the hip spots of San Francisco and believes the Oprah-watching masses receive ideas created by said hipsters and passed down the status chain. Gladwell also promotes something like that, and it just so happens that OrgTheory is covering a dispute between him and fellow-popularizer Duncan Watts. Watts thinks the “influentials” are just swept up in the same tide hitting everybody else. A while back agnostic made a similar point about the spread of fads.