Punditerations

Mark Liberman at The Language Log [http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1824] describes something called the Pundit’s Dilemma, whereby by pundits Left, Right, and Center–assuming those terms mean much–are rewarded for taking the low road and for preferring whatever is interesting, scandalous, or base to what is, arguably, more accurate:

Barbara Ehrenreich accuses Arianna Huffington of reviving the Happiness Gap circus in order to use her site as “a launching pad for a new book by the prolific management consultant Marcus Buckingham”, Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently, by “[giving] Buckingham a column in which to continue his marketing campaign”.

This shouldn’t surprise us, it seems to me. Overall, the promotion of interesting stories in preference to accurate ones is always in the immediate economic self-interest of the promoter. It’s interesting stories, not accurate ones, that pump up ratings for Beck and Limbaugh. But it’s also interesting stories that bring readers to The Huffington Post and to Maureen Dowd’s column, and it’s interesting stories that sell copies of Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics. In this respect, Levitt and Dubner are exactly like Beck and Limbaugh.

We might call this the Pundit’s Dilemma — a game, like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which the player’s best move always seems to be to take the low road, and in which the aggregate welfare of the community always seems fated to fall. And this isn’t just a game for pundits. Scientists face similar choices every day, in deciding whether to over-sell their results, or for that matter to manufacture results for optimal appeal.

In the end, scientists usually over-interpret only a little, and rarely cheat, because the penalties for being caught are extreme. As a result, in an iterated version of the game, it’s generally better to play it fairly straight. Pundits (and regular journalists) also play an iterated version of this game — but empirical observation suggests that the penalties for many forms of bad behavior are too small and uncertain to have much effect. Certainly, the reputational effects of mere sensationalism and exaggeration seem to be negligible.

There’s much to enjoy in these observations, including the notion that one is as likely to be mislead by Huffington as by Beck, and the idea that Freakonomists are more interested in quirky, entertaining, counterintuitive analyses than in broader–and perhaps more useful–economic study. Also, it’s not hard to picture all mainstream pundits, and those from tributaries, as belonging to the same watershed. Or maybe a slightly better image is of all pundits operating under the same circus-tent, each depending on the other’s outrage for . . . money.

At the same time, this observation may give some people pause: “But it’s also interesting stories that bring readers to The Huffington Post and to Maureen Dowd’s column, and it’s interesting stories that sell copies of Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics. In this respect, Levitt and Dubner are exactly like Beck and Limbaugh.”

True, all concerned are interested in readers, viewers, and cash. However, in matters of degree, Levitt, Dubner, Dowd, and Huffington (for example) are not “exactly like Beck and Limbaugh,” whose tactics, tricks, hypocrisy, misogyny, pandering and racism separate them from the pack. Beck and Limbaugh (for example), occupy a special place inside the circus-tent. Their schticks have few, if any, boundaries compared with those of, for example, Huffington and Dowd. If memory serves, even Don Imus, not exactly the king of propriety (nor, to be fair, did he ever pretend to be) pronounced Glenn Beck unwatchable.

The defense of scientists is intriguing, too. Probably almost all readers of it would, figuratively, nod their heads and think, “Yeah, scientists are more careful and sober.” And most scientists are indeed more careful and sober than pundits, although that’s setting the bar rather low. For me, however, the dots of economics and science get connected when one considers the extent to which science is driven by grants from corporations, foundations, and the government. To what extent are a significant number of scientists as influenced by cash as pundits are? This is meant as a real question, not a rhetorical one.

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