Thursday, March 11, 2010

Arguing Outside Your Area of Expertise

I have nothing against arguing outside of your area of expertise, whether within an academic environment, a blog, debates between friends.... It can be a good way to get outside of your comfort zone, confront ideas in new ways, identify the weaknesses in your own arguments, and learn something. For many people, blogging is an exercise in confronting ideas. It's a way to work through ideas, get some feedback on what others think of your arguments, and perhaps engage with people who challenge your ideas. Although I appreciate that in rare cases the popularity of a blog can render the comments overwhelming or invite a mountain of useless snark and spam, the vast majority of blogs don't have that problem. And for those blogs, to me, a signal of whether the author seeks to engage with ideas or simply wants to lecture is whether comments have been turned off for the post or blog.

I hold people who are paid to write articles and columns to a higher standard. That is, if they are holding themselves out as having certain expertise, or if they're taking stances that suggest to their readers that they hold expertise that they in fact lack, they should be held accountable. As their employers will rarely do that, letters to their editor have been the traditional means for response. Today, we have blogging - and we are frequently reminded that people who aren't used to having their feet publicly held to the fire dislike bloggers.

This phenomenon also rears its ugly head in universities, and in my experience tends to become more pronounced among certain faculty of elite universities. In class you're king, the students are voids to be filled with your wisdom, and you have incredible, unilateral power to force students to adhere to your preferred dogma. Let's take a hypothetical constitutional law professor whose leanings are strongly to the political left. Put Larry Tribe in his class and Larry will almost certainly get an "A". Put Robert Bork in his class and, if he truly has a good mind, Bork will also get an A for what I expect would be a brilliant exam answer that just happened to depart dramatically from the professor's own beliefs. But there's another type of professor - one who might even tell class, "I will grade you on the quality of your ideas, not your ideology," and who might sincerely believe it, who would almost assuredly give Bork a poor grade. The subconscious rationalization would be, "I'm not punishing you for your ideology or for disagreeing with me, but because I'm right and thus you're wrong." Students who uniformly get good grades from professors with divergent ideologies have very often mastered the art of echoing back what the professor wants to hear. Not a great way to learn, but potentially very helpful if you want "straight A's".

Many years ago, I watched a commencement address once by a law professor who was respected within his field of study. But he didn't speak from within his field. He instead tackled an entirely different discipline, and presented a pedantic but poorly constructed speech. My father, a Ph.D. in the subject discipline, was present, so after the speech was over I gave him a "WTF?" look. He responded that it's not at all unusual for people who excel in one field to assume that they're equally competent in all fields. They underestimate the work involved in achieving mastery of a field, and rattle off the facile as if it's profound, and confidently make claims and draw conclusions that would be more at home in an undergraduate's essay than in a speech to the newly degreed. He pointed out that it's extremely rare for a scholar to be proficient, published and respected in more than one field, pointing to J.B. White as one of those rare individuals.

I was reminded of this by Jonathan Adler's post linking to a hubristic, attempted take-down of Paul Krugman by Richard Epstein. Epstein is certainly a capable law professor, but his response to Krugman splashes about in an intellectual wading pool. On healthcare reform he favors the status quo, in which the government pays for more than 50% of health care expenditures, because he doesn't understand the proposals, he believes that compelling more people to buy private insurance reflects "open disdain of market principles", and he doesn't know how things will turn out. On the other hand, he's all in favor of eliminating the estate tax (because dead people represent the "most productive portions of the population"... or does he mean their heirs, who don't yet even have the money), and replacing income taxes with a "general flat consumption tax", because, you know, you don't have to drink any Kool-Aid to see that as a perfect market-based solution that doesn't involve any unknowns. Some of the commenters at Volokh have a lot of fun poking holes in Epstein's various arguments.

My point is not that Krugman's argument is infallible, or that other qualified people (and, as suggested earlier in this post, people who are simply interested in wrestling with ideas) can't find fault in them, disagree, or challenge Krugman's assumptions and conclusions. I see this more of an example of how people who really should know better can be blind to their own inadequacies, both in terms of their knowledge of the subject matter and their ability to think through the issues. (I'm reminded again of the Dunning-Kruger effect.) And also how mainstream media publications will invite contributions that have little or no merit on the basis that they relate to issues that are under debate or are otherwise provocative, even though a responsible editor would send them back with a suggestion that the arguments should be predicated on fact and logic.

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