Paul Krugman ("The Sloppiness Syndrome", NYT 5/22/2013):
So what is it with New Republic alumni? First Michael Kinsley, then Charles Lane, weigh in with defenses of austerity that aren’t just wrong, but painfully ill-informed. Kinsley not only makes a really bad analogy between current events and the 1970s, he seems not to know anything about what happened in the 1970s either. Lane attacks stimulus advocates for failing to address an argument that I actually discussed, at length, in my last column but one.
Whence cometh this epidemic of sheer sloppiness?
I’m not really sure, but in these cases I suspect it has a lot to do with the famed TNR/Slate premium on being “counterintuitive”, which in practice meant skewering supposed liberal pieties. (Kinsley himself joked that TNR should be renamed “Even the liberal New Republic”).
Of course, economics is not the only field where pundits are guilty of astonishing carelessness in the service of a story line; nor is clever counterintuiveness the only rhetorical frame that motivates such bullshitting (to use the correct philosophical terminology); nor are TNR and Slate the only publications where such material can be found.
For example, David Brooks writes for the New York Times, as Prof. Krugman does, and Brooks' motivation for shockingly sloppy presentations of "facts" and theories is usually to reinforce an all-too-familiar point of view, like "boys and girls need to be educated differently", or "social roles are determined by 'patterns that nature and evolution laid down long, long ago'", or "Western societies have an individualist mentality and Eastern societies have a collectivist mentality", or "individualism and governmentalization are rising, and morality is declining", or some combination of stuff like that.
(Though I guess that these long-familiar points of view can also be seen as "counterintuitive … skewering [of] supposed liberal pieties", although the skewering consists of presenting earlier supposed conservative pieties.)
Anyhow, Krugman concludes that 'twas ever thus:
[H]ere’s my guess: if you went back through all the clever counterintuitiveness of past years, you’d find that a lot of it was every bit as sloppy and ill-informed as what we’re seeing now. The difference is the existence now of a policy blogosphere (in economics, of course, but in a number of disciplines too), which makes bluffing harder. In the past grotesquely ill-informed articles on, say, the Clinton health plan could sit out there for years, with only a handful of specialists aware of just how bad they were; now the pundit emperor’s nakedness is all over the web within days if not hours.
I suspect that a lot of punditry was sloppy and ill-informed long before the founding of Slate in 1995, with Kinsley as its first editor — and for that matter even before the founding of The New Republic in 1914.
But I agree that the world is better off with more of what Ben Goldacre has called "The noble and ancient tradition of moron-baiting", and that the blogosphere, for all its many faults, is the best method so far invented for "[making] bluffing harder".
(Obviously, all of the individuals under discussion are in fact highly intelligent — and for that matter so are the people that Goldacre critiques in his column, or the people that Martin Gardner critiqued. This issue is not intelligence, but willingness to bluff in the service of making an argument.)