Friday, February 27, 2015

Should you lambaste your intellectual adversaries?

v. t. 1. to beat with a cane;
        2. to scold, reprimand, or berate harshly.

Paul Krugman is well known for attacking his intellectual opponents harshly (and many of them do the same to him). Here is how he defends that rhetorical approach:
When I was a young economist trying to build a career, I...believed that by and large better ideas tended to prevail: if your model of trade flows or exchange rate fluctuations tracked the data better than someone else’s, or resolved puzzles that other models couldn’t, you could expect it to be taken up by many if not most researchers in the field... 
This is still true in much of economics, I believe. But in the areas that matter most given the state of the world, it’s not true at all. People who declared back in 2009 that Keynesianism was nonsense and that monetary expansion would inevitably cause runaway inflation are still saying exactly the same thing after six years of quiescent inflation and overwhelming evidence that austerity affects economies exactly the way Keynesians said it would. 
And we’re not just talking about cranks without credentials; we’re talking about...Nobel laureates...academic [macro]economics, which still has pretenses of being an arena of open intellectual inquiry, appears to be deeply infected with politicization. 
So what should those of us who really wanted to be part of what we thought this enterprise was about do?... 
Point out the wrongness in ways designed to grab readers’ attention — with ridicule where appropriate, with snark, and with names attached. This will get read; it will get you some devoted followers, and a lot of bitter enemies. One thing it won’t do, however, is change any of those closed minds... 
It really would be nice not having to do things this way. But that’s the world we live in — and, as I said, there’s some compensation in the fact that one can have a bit of fun doing it.
So let's represent these considerations as value functions:

V = value of writer pursuing polemical strategy
V_p = value of improved public policy that results from writer pursuing polemical strategy
V_e = entertainment value of writer's polemical strategy
V_d = value of improved quality of public debate from writer pursuing polemical strategy
V_pr = V_p if writer is right about correct policies
V_pw = V_p if writer is wrong about correct policies
p_r = probability that writer is right about correct policies
V_es = self-entertainment value from writer's polemical strategy
V_eo = entertainment value to others from writer's polemical strategy

V = p_r*V_pr + (1-p_r)*V_pw + V_es + V_eo + V_d

(Sorry for not making that pretty; I was too lazy, and I'm watching a webinar while writing this.)

So V_es is something you know really well. You know how much fun you have from lambasting people.

V_eo is hard to know. Many people are entertained when you lambast your opponents, but many people are also angered. It's hard to tell which group is more numerous, and how intense their like/dislike is, and it also depends on how much you care about each group. Looking at your own popularity only gives you a little information about this, because if you're hated by 90% of people and loved by 10%, you'll still be very popular.

V_d is extremely hard to know. If by lambasting people you cause the whole public debate to become more politicized, for example, your strategy could have a negative indirect effect on public policy, even if your direct effect on policy is good.

p_r comes from people's personal confidence in their own ideas. A lot of people seem to think that the people who talk about macroeconomics in the media - and probably a lot of academic macroeconomists - are highly overconfident in their own ideas. I tend to agree with that assessment.

So basically, deciding whether to adopt a polemical strategy is a decision that is full of uncertainty. What if for every person you entertain, you are making two people feel bitter and aggrieved? What if you're poisoning future debates with politics even as you fight off politicized opponents in the current debate? And, most troubling...what if you're just plain wrong?

Although this is a difficult decision to make, I think there are some general things you can do to minimize the risks of a polemical strategy:

1. Instead of insulting people in a mean-spirited way, tease them in a funny way. Do not accuse people of dishonesty without direct evidence of corruption. Don't call people stupid, because calling people stupid gets under people's skin more than it should. Teasing, from what I've seen, is just as effective as insulting in terms of discrediting an opponent and his ideas, but it runs less risk of poisoning the debate and making bystanders feel bad.

(Obviously there is still risk. Personally, I generally find Brad DeLong's jabs to be funny and lighthearted, but many others seem to find them mean. Over the internet, it's especially hard to tell, since different people pick up on humor in different ways.)

2. Don't hold grudges. If someone seems to be engaging in irrational, politically motivated thinking in one situation, don't assume they always will. Don't hold past arguments over people's heads. Don't pull the "Oh, but you're the guy who said [whatever] back in 2004!" thing. Holding grudges prevents people from being able to come over to your side, but doesn't actually help you discredit someone; thus, it seems entirely pointless to me.

3. Always make a good-faith effort to figure out ways you might be wrong. Even when you're still convinced you're right, verbally acknowledge the possibility you might have made a mistake somewhere.

I believe that if you use these techniques, you can get almost all of the benefits of the polemical strategy, while avoiding most of the costs. You will minimize the downside risks embedded in V_eo, V_d, and V_pw.


  1. zrichellez2:14 PM

    V = (p_r*V_pr + (1-p_r)*V_pw + V_es + V_eo + V_d)W
    W = 0 when you are arguing with a Wookie
    W=1 when there is no wookie
    Always let the Wookie win.

  2. I once tried to come up with something similar for litigation - value of winning x probablity of winning less cost of losing x probability of losing.
    Not v helpful as it always worked out that a claimant should accept, say £20,000 while a defendant should offer £80,000. (NB where I come from, the loser pays the winner's costs.). I'm not good enough at game theory to take it further...

    1. I think that is helpful as it implies there's £60,000 of surplus available. The parties shouldn't litigate, they should bargain.

    2. Yes, but what should I tell my client? Offer £80k, or hold out for £20k as it's in the other side's rational best interest to accept that? (Not disagreeing with you, just wondering what happens if everyone is rational *and* considers what is in the rational interest of the other party

  3. Thank you. This needed to be written.

    Let me qualify this by saying that I think there needs to be somebody that people regard as admirable that is willing to call the opposite arguments for what they are. It was PK's arguments that got me involved in this in the first place. Had I encountered a bunch of people trying to maintain civil conversation over insane ideas, I probably would have ignored much of it. So Paul's tactic has its place.

    But in the long run we are going to have to deal with each other, and the more civil conversation that takes place between sides, the more the chances of a reasonable conversation become.

    1. Anonymous9:11 PM

      Later you might be able to deal with different people as people who are no longer considered credible are sent to the wastelands. PK still rewards honest discourse w/ civility.

  4. Anonymous3:05 PM

    It's all about results in the end and your post desperately needs examples. For instance i suppose you aren't a fan of Galileo.

    Also, look at your three rules from another side:

    1. Makes economists seem elitist, worried more about keeping the club atmosphere of the group than stopping families from breaking up due to unemployment. Yes you've kept your standing with the majority of your professional peers but what about ordinary people?

    2. Again, this isn't arguing about Fermat's Little Theorem. The feelings of an opponent are less important than the well-being of society.

    3. You've forgotten the other extreme: hedging too much. Less bear more Goldilocks.

  5. Anonymous3:45 PM

    This post is a good example of how math can sometimes add no clarity

    1. If I had written it in an equation editor it would be better.

  6. Paul Krugman: Get off my lawn!

    Whether you lambaste your adversaries depends on whether you think economics debates should be a poop throwing contest.

    I don't think the decision is hard at all. If you start from the assumption that minds are closed and can't be persuaded, then why try?

    1. What makes you think those Krugman has lambasted have open minds?

    2. Anonymous9:15 PM

      Debate is only useful as truth finding when participants are acting in good faith. Debate is a pretty stupid method of truth finding/dissemination.

      I think PK basically answers your question in his article, it's not about the Schiffs you're debating.

    3. Trouble is Krugman goes after everyone, indiscriminately, with nothing to back him up - like Nate Silver.

      I do not find debate useful as truth finding. That is what evidence and policy experiments are for.

      Krugman is an advocate, not a truth broker: When he has a case to make, he makes it effectively; When he doesn't, he throws poop.

  7. Anonymous5:16 PM

    What was the webinar about?

  8. My observation is there is little space between teasing and ridicule, and they are far more effective than scorn, but because they are far more effective, they are resented even more.

  9. Oh, lambasting works, I should know (at least for internet forums). And yes, they definitely improve discourse over the long run, even at the expense of the public face of the loser. I am not, however, entertained by lambasting. I don't do it for fun, but to penalize certain sorts of discourse conduct. I don't lambast for political or policy-aesthetic reasons. I lambast when people are playing procedural shell games with their argumentation (or egregious errors of fact), and by heightening the tension through committing my own face, I force a reputational bet.

    I usually win. Of course, this makes enemies or bad atmosphere. Then again, the adversary, in the first place, was betting that nobody will ever publicly contradict his or her good faith in bloviating, which is usually well structured enough to allow lots of diversions, terminal argumentation, etc such that no genteel argumentation gets anywhere.

  10. Josh L.1:38 AM

    Honestly, i think Paul would , for the most part, agree with you. I think most of the difference comes in how he weighs each portion (i wonder how much perceptions change, being in the public eye like he is, vs someone more in academia? I notice that Simon Wren Lewis has been getting more combative, the more he talks about "mediamacro". I think a lot of academic minded people take the fact that people are pretending to believe something for political gain, and not an honest debate, as a personal insult. ).

    As for your points:
    1:I think i largely agree, but i do think there is a point where it's alright to cross into being mean. I imagine Paul is very much worried about those people being taken seriously, and not being a bit mean, you can risk that (which is bad for the overall debate. And for the most part, i do think he is pretty good at teasing first).He's also perfectly capable of disagreeing with people and not insulting ( i forget the name, but he's been talking about an old classmate recently) and he treats it normally. It's possible im not familiar enough with him, but i only really see him dump on a few academics like Cochrane. He also definitely has levels of contempt ( i don't think it's a coincidence Stephen Moore, Paul Ryan and the Shadow Stats guy get the strongest attacks. They’re all people he labels as blatantly lying.).

    I'm not sure how well it translates to today's media, but there is definitely an incentive to ridicule people you think are being dishonest(not the same as disagreeing) to drive them out of the conversation. I'm not sure how well it works over the internet/blogs, but it definitely works in forums and other social interactions. It seems to be harder because of the partisan "us vs them mentality", which cranks are using to deflect criticism.
    You need/do the same thing with say, a troll posting in your comments. However, you don't have God-like moderator powers in real life. That seems to leave you with 2 (well, the obvious ones) options- ignore them, or try to browbeat them so people know to ignore them. Ignoring them doesn't seem to work, when there are factions that find it politically convenient to keep them around and give them a veneer of legitimacy.

    I half agree with 2. You shouldn't hold grudges if they made 1 mistake. However, if it's very consistent, and they aren't changing their view, it seems more acceptable. If you know someone is being intellectually dishonest, it's a waste of effort to give them the benefit of the doubt. Although I don’t really see PK bashing people being right on something just because they were wrong before.

    Also agree, although he does seem open to the idea of being wrong(and hes admitted to being wrong before). I think Paul (and most people in the public eye, just look at politicians) use stronger words than they would in academia.In academic circles, we hate speaking with certainty, with good reason. But in public discourse it's often seen as a weakness. I suspect Paul is much less confident about most of his things than he portrays.

    In the long run, it comes down to balancing trying to have an honest debate, with laughing charlatans out of the scene.It's hard to find a perfect (or even good) balance. Whatever PK is doing seems to be working,presumably, since i don't really see any other liberal commentators with anywhere near the same clout. In my (probably extremely skewed perception), sometimes it feels like the left is outgunned on being willing to be brazenly for something (and that confidence matters in the public eye). It probably shouldn't, and hopefully someday public debate becomes more like academia,but that isn't today. He could probably tone it down a bit sometimes, but calling stupid people stupid has some benefit.

  11. Hmm...lamb basting.

  12. Jamie5:29 AM

    This is an interesting subject. I spent many years in a business where the objective was to change people’s minds on specific issues. That’s a common objective for many professions e.g. lawyers, consultants, journalists, advertisers.

    The first rule of any engagement is that other people will not change their minds just because you think they should, or because you think that you are smart, or because you think that you have made a good argument, or because you think that only people who think in mathematics should be allowed to speak, or because you are famous.

    The second rule of any engagement is that if you tell people that they are stupid or corrupt then they will not listen to anything else you have to say, probably ever.

    Emotional intelligence is more important than intellectual intelligence in changing minds. You suggest that teasing is a good idea. I agree but only with people you know personally, and only in private. In general, emotional intelligence means understanding what motivates the person you are trying to persuade and why THEY would benefit if they changed their minds. We can all laugh at much of the advertising we see on television but a pitch like “you can be more successful with women if you use our brand of toilet paper” at least understands that you have to give people an incentive to change their minds.

    Anyone who has ever tried to sell or market anything in business will understand the brutality of the sales process. Apple and Samsung have a dispute over who has the best tablet computer. The public then decides the winner even though the public doesn’t know anything about tablet computers. A musician, writer or filmmaker pours their heart into their work for a year or more. The public then says “No thanks, it’s not as good as the last one. We’re going to watch Back to the Future for the hundredth time instead”. The same is true in everything from political elections to trial by jury.

    Most academics, including almost all academic economists, don’t appear to understand this. They seem to think that other people should change their minds just because the academic considers himself (it’s almost always men) to be very smart. Academic economists very rarely discuss the sales and marketing elements of the economy. Division of labour requires experts to sell to non-experts in order to make sales. This is true when you are selling ideas as much as selling anything else.

    Paul Krugman has a large audience. However, his audience will be mostly liberal people like me who would advocate similar policies even if he didn’t have his column. Krugman just makes the argument stronger e.g. “this is what I think, and it must be correct because Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winner, agrees”. I doubt that many conservatives read Krugman at all so it’s unlikely that he will change many minds.

    1. Thank you for this sapient comment. Much of what passes for discourse seems to be establishing one's tribal bona fides rather than an effort to win over people from the other side. We value being anchored in our core beliefs but forget that you have to pull the anchor to get anywhere.

    2. You are making a huge assumption, that Krugman et al are trying to change those people's minds, rather than the minds of third parties.

    3. Anonymous3:37 PM

      I can't think of any academics who think that people should change their minds when a smarter person disagrees. Observation suggests that academics think that people should change their minds when their beliefs have been shown to be false.

  13. Personally I think Krugman pulls his punches and that Brad Delong is much much harsher.

    Krugman's personal attacks tend to be of the form: "Mr. XXX's numbers don't add up" or "Mr. XXXX's theories don't line up with the evidence" followed by "from that I infer Mr. XXXX is a charlatan motivated by partisanship". The responses to Krugman tend to be childish "ma, he's looking at me funny" types of comments. The truly crushing response to Krugman would be to demonstrate that the numbers do add up or the theories do align with the evidence but none of his "victims" ever seem to do that.

    Krugman's harshest attacks have been on Paul Ryan for putting forward budgets that don't add up. If Ryan's budgets are in good faith he would have available to him devastating responses to Krugman: but those responses never come. QED.

    1. "rugman's personal attacks tend to be of the form: "Mr. XXX's numbers don't add up" or "Mr. XXXX's theories don't line up with the evidence" followed by "from that I infer Mr. XXXX is a charlatan motivated by partisanship"."

      This should be edited to read something like 'Mr. XXX, a professional in a field, has repeatedly passed false numbers and lousy arguments for years, despite people pointing them out, and despite the evidence coming in against his theories year after year after year.........'

  14. 1) V_d is usually easy to know, sometimes comes with a burning sensation.
    2) Brad is a bully, but he's a bully on our side so his excesses are forgiven.

  15. I mostly like the humor approach, but I think verbal lambastings are called for sometimes. Like when I lambasted Williamson in the comments here - no apologies, the guy fully deserved it whining about how non-macro PhDs think they have the right to challenge his goofy theory that low interest rates depress inflation. Err, some of us without macro PhDs have common sense and have lived and observed and noticed that the opposite is true.

    The problem with Krugman is not that he lambastes but that he lambastes straw men. He's got every right to crow that he called it early that there would be little to no inflation impulse from QE. But he portrays himself as having been among a group of saltwaters who all called it right versus a bunch of freshwater hacks who are duty bound to their paymasters to forever deny the obvious.

    The reality is that Krugman called it because he was a rare old-school ISLM Keynesian. Whereas the mainstream were monetarists who believed that in the long run the money supply to spending ratio reverts to mean so prices must go up. The debate within the mainstream was not over whether inflation would happen, but over how much inflation would help and how much it would hurt. It was between those who favored a 4% target, those like Bernanke who wanted more inflation but favored holding the 2% target, and those like Asness who didn't want any effort to raise inflation. All of them assumed that QE would drive inflation. Completely marginal to that debate were the fringe Austrians who were expecting very high or hyperinflation.

    What Krugman does is falsely portray Asness and those like him as akin to the Austrians and way outside the mainstream in their initial (2009-2011) expectations about QE's inflation impulse. It's thoroughly intellectually dishonest and I'm sure Krugman knows that, but he is a dedicated polemicist who believes his persuasion ends justify his dishonest rhetorical means.

    1. Just as a footnote, the other group who called QE's lack of inflation impulse early were the buy side. Go back and look at how much derivative bets on high long-run inflation cost in 2009-2011. Dirt cheap. Nobody wanted them.

  16. If they are simply your intellectual adversaries, the the rules of civil debate apply. When, however, they are trying to impoverish your nation, kill hapless foreigners or destroy the lives of your grandhildren, maybe different rules apply?

  17. When I read this kind of stuff the name that comes to me is 'David Brooks.' Let's not fight and just be collegiate!

    I find this something of a complacent attitude. Maybe the reason you don't get too worked up about these ideas is they're just a job to you-where others seem them as life and death.

    As critical as I am of Scott Sumner at least he acts like there's something at stake-as does Krugman and Nick Rowe and any number of econ guys on the Net.. If you really believed that it matters one way or the other maybe you wouldn't worry so much about maintaining a polite dinner conversation demeanour.

    But when I hear you and Miles Kimball discuss these issues what I hear first and foremost is: complacency.

  18. I get it that with you what really matters is that no one get too worked up over things.

  19. "p_r = probability that writer is right about correct policies"

    If the writer is Krugman then it's going to be a higher probability.

  20. "What if for every person you entertain, you are making two people feel bitter and aggrieved?"

    It depends: what if the two people that are bitter and aggrieved don't vote and the one that you entertain does? You have to figure out what your target audience is

  21. Note this is exactly how I have played you.

  22. Anonymous11:59 PM

    interesting post given the John Cochrane post

    1. But I am a John Cochrane fan...just because I chose to tease him once (or twice) doesn't mean he's an intellectual opponent, much less one I would want to lambaste...

    2. But I am a John Cochrane fan

      I'm not.

      His dabbling in neo-Fisherism is a perfect example of someone wanting to increase interest rates and casting about for new reasons to justify a policy he decided on in advance. I think he falls into a trap of thinking that every accounting identity gives rise to a two way causal connection: that if you change either side of the equation the other must in the medium term change in lock step. In truth what generally happens is that some new mechanism comes into play.

      Cochrane of course is not alone. There is an element of assuming accounting identities must give rise to policy levers in the ZIRP and QE and it has led the Fed to put a lot of resources into pushing on a string.

  23. Jonathan8:36 AM

    Two comments:

    (1) To a first approximation, people you argue with never change their minds about anything. This is doubly true of public debates. Thus the goal of debate should be to change the minds of neutral observers. In my experience, ungracious words entertain your supporters, anger your opponents, and turn off neutral observers. The first and second make them good for generating internet traffic and responses, but the third makes them ineffective at convincing those who still can be convinced.

    (2) There is an ethical consideration here that you neglect. There is moral value in being polite and charitable to others, because this is kind to them.

    1. Anonymous3:38 PM

      Someone is right on the internet!