"Evidence, data and reasoning"

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Now that a black man is no longer president, George Will has stopped obsessing about presidential overuse of first-person singular pronouns, and has turned his attention to other pressing matters, such as the role of liberal higher education in promoting the political ascension of Donald Trump ("Trump and academia actually have a lot in common", 1/27/2017):

Much attention has been given to the non-college-educated voters who rallied to President Trump. Insufficient attention is given to the role of the college miseducated. They, too, are complicit in our current condition because they emerged from their expensive “college experiences” neither disposed nor able to conduct civil, informed arguments. They are thus disarmed when confronted by political people who consider evidence, data and reasoning to be mere conveniences and optional.

"Evidence, data, and reasoning". Good to hear that Mr. Will remains committed in principle to the virtues that he routinely subverts in practice.

Following up on Will's often-expressed interest in (Barack Obama's) pronouns, I've added counts from Donald Trump's 2/16/2017 press conference to the counts from three previous presidents' first press conference or two, which I presented in "Fact-checking George F. Will", 6/7/2009:

# Words # "I" # First-person singular pronouns
Clinton 6935 218 (3.1%) 275 (3.9%)
G.W. Bush 6681 239 (3.6%) 300 (4.5%)
Obama  7775  163 (2.1%)  206 (2.6%
Trump  12147  495 (4.1%)  581 (4.8%)

Why does this matter? Not because pronoun use is a reliable symptom of "narcissism" or other personality disorders, but rather rather because it's worth underlining, yet again, the gulf between George Will's assertions and easily checked facts.  Considering his own decades of bullshitting (in the technical philosophical sense), it's marvelously ironic for Will to blame the post-fact era on the "myriad intellectual viruses thriving in academia", where "declining academic rigor" produces pampered students who "do not know what it is to know something".

In fairness to Mr. Will, I should point out that he did once mention that Donald Trump "uses the first-person singular pronoun even more than the previous world-record holder (Obama)" . But as Fred Vultee pointed out  at the time ("More BS from George F. Will", 8/28/2015), that statement contains not only the explicit falsehood that Obama was "the previous world-record holder", but also the falsehood-by-implication that Donald Trump is historically exceptional in terms of this stupid metric — in fact he's about even with Bush Sr. and Dwight Eisenhower, and behind Harry Truman.

While every dishonest pundit is dishonest in his or her own way, the frequent assertion of easily-checked falsehoods is not unique to George Will. See "Reality v. Brooks", 6/15/2015, for discussion of another case, where I observed that "there's a high correlation between success as a pundit and skill at coming up with evocative factoids — with apparently no loss of points for fabricating them". My conclusion:

It tells you something about our culture, I think, that Brooks' style has not been in any way affected by documentation of his carelessness and outright fabrications. Bullshit sells.

This is apparently also true in the political arena — but let's put the historical blame where it belongs.



  1. Ginger Yellow said,

    February 17, 2017 @ 9:17 am

    It's notable that Will doesn't include any data (or evidence, or reasoning) on how the "college miseducated" voted, compared to those lucky souls who escaped their youth without a liberal education. Presumably because it would undermine the entire article.

  2. Shlomo Argamon said,

    February 17, 2017 @ 9:23 am

    You are doing a great service by pushing back on and publicizing the nature of such evidence-free assertions. I wish this sort of (simple!) analysis were more known.

    I'm curious, though, why you didn't start this post:
    "Now that a Democrat is no longer president,…"
    "Now that a former community organizer is no longer president,…"
    "Now that a Chicago politician is no longer president,…"
    "Now that a young man is no longer president,…"

    Is there anything to indicate that President Obama's race is the main (or any) factor in George Will's antipathic punditry?

    [(myl) The "Democrat" variable won't work, because George Will has been committing punditry since 1972, and did not focus on pronoun usage and narcissism in the cases of Carter and Clinton. But you're right that there are many other possible variables to consider — maybe he only focuses on pronoun usage for politicians whose last name starting with a vowel? That must be it!]

  3. D.O. said,

    February 17, 2017 @ 9:34 am

    I think Mr. Will's argument deserves deeper analysis. He basically claims that one of the goals of liberal education is to prepare people for the debate where one of the sides is not interested in evidence, data, or reasoning. In other words, how to win shouting matches. This is pretty different from the usual vanilla opinion that people should be able to discuss things (not necessarily win) based on facts and reason. What sort of education can universities provide to win shouting matches? I don't think that this topic was thoroughly researched. Should it be Alinsky University? At least as portrait by the writers on the right(-wing) he devised some devilish tactics to prevail based not on civilized debate, but by subverting it. Will Mr. Will be happy to see our universities teaching these tactics in the classroom? Maybe they already do, but fail?

  4. D.O. said,

    February 17, 2017 @ 9:49 am

    Continuing from previous comment… So we need a class in let's call it "unreasoned debate". How can we do it? Start with totalitarian doctrines and reasoning within them (something from medieval church, nazism/communism, anything else?), move onto something more modern in romantic nationalism spirit, give some formal rhetorical devises to dismiss opponents without engaging their arguments, end up with networking among like-minded individuals and echo-chambers. This is a bit light on theoretical foundations that start with the premise that people are essentially irrational, subject to tribalism, motivated reasoning and the like and then tries to explore and exploit these motives. i am not good at philosophy, but there surely is something there to give this class an intellectual heft. As a class project, students must conduct an unreasoned debate before the class with the only goal to "win" (bribery, threats of bodily harm or invasions of privacy are encouraged. Also, outside campaigns of support as well as false-flag operations)

  5. D.O. said,

    February 17, 2017 @ 11:11 am

    [myl ] …maybe he only focuses on pronoun usage for politicians whose last name starting with a vowel? That must be it!
    You refuted it yourself. He let Eisenhower off the hook.

    [(myl) Not so — Will's journalistic career began in 1972, eleven years after the end of Eisenhower's presidency.]

  6. cameron said,

    February 17, 2017 @ 1:54 pm

    Aside from use of first-person pronouns, I/me/my, etc. How often did the various Presidents refer to their own surnames in their speeches? I think your extant scripts and texts could easily be tweaked to provide the number of instances of presidents referring to their own names.

  7. richard said,

    February 17, 2017 @ 4:42 pm

    In a just world, neither Brooks nor Will would have had a career longer than a Friedman unit.

  8. Gwen Katz said,

    February 17, 2017 @ 10:17 pm

    How would the ability to conduct civil, informed arguments actually help when confronted by political people who consider evidence, data and reasoning to be optional? Aren't those the exact circumstances under which civil, informed arguments are pointless?

  9. AntC said,

    February 18, 2017 @ 12:52 am

    @Gwen K, it used to be that if "political people" ignored reality for too long, it would rise up and bite them. That is, there would be a crisis. (Hence the nostrum "never waste a crisis".) Modern (post-WWII) government/bureaucrats (from whom I exclude the political classes) have become so adept at averting or mitigating crises — even the 2008 Global Failure of Capitalism — that the bulk of the electorate have grown complacent; to the extent they suspect the bureaucracies act chiefly to defend their private interests. (Of course those two grounds for their action are not inconsistent.)

    It is (apparently, and especially in America with its stunning ability to forget history, to which I previously adverted) too easy to forget how hard won is democracy and how precious that its "price is eternal vigilance".

    It's far too long since there was a war on American soil. That's probably what it will need.

    IOW: what you said.

  10. Sun King said,

    February 18, 2017 @ 6:18 am

    Wow. As a long-time admirer of Professor Liberman’s judicious, well-reasoned postings, I was shocked by the crude innuendo of that first sentence and then dismayed at the intellectual dishonesty with which it was defended. Not MYL’s finest hour.

    [(myl) If you want a judicious opinion about the racist underpinnings of the general punditry focus on Obama's pronouns, see John McIntyre, "That man and his pronouns", The Baltimore Sun 5/3/2011:

    I do not reflexively assert that every criticism of President Obama is based in racism, and I think that accusing anyone of racist attitudes is something not to be done casually. But I grew up hearing racist remarks and racist attitudes, and when I see complaints that President Obama uses I excessively, what I hear is “That boy is getting uppity.”

    And for a longer essay that raises the question in a more tentative way, see Fred Vultee, "Pronouns: The farewell tour", Headsup The Blog:

    [W]e'll soon be able to say for sure whether the pronoun meme and its practitioners — from Drudge and Fox and the Daily Caller to George F. Will and Charles Krauthammer — are fundamentally, you know, motivated by (ahem) skin color and nothing else. Stay tuned, pronoun fans!

    We've discussed the question here at length in earlier posts.

    What interests me is that the jokey implication of racism seems to bother you (and many others) so much more than repeated weird behavior with no rational explanation other than racism does.]

  11. Thorin said,

    February 18, 2017 @ 9:52 am

    It also takes no more than a Google search to find evidence of George Will's troubled relationship with race issues. I agree that if Obama weren't black, Will would not have had nearly as much to say on the matter.

    [(myl) One such search: {George Will race issues}]

  12. bks said,

    February 18, 2017 @ 10:02 am

    Speaking of reasoned debate and civil discourse: Noam Chomsky and William F. Buckley debating "Viet Nam and the Intellectuals" on Firing Line (1969):

    [(myl) Note that I discussed this video from another perspective in "The great creak-off of 1969", 7/28/2015.]

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