Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sullivan, Malkin, and justified belief

Henry at CT dares Andrew Sullivan to engage in substantive debate with Cosma Shalizi about statistics, which literally caused me to laugh out loud. Of course, the idea is ridiculous. Andrew Sullivan's a journalist with a Ph.D. in political philosophy, and I doubt he's done any math beyond basic arithmetic in decades. Like most elite journalists, he probably considers mathematics --- which is merely the language of the universe, after all --- unworthy of the hard work it would take to relearn it. Much easier to weave a bunch of tangentially related sophistry and hope your listeners get too distracted to notice you've simply evaded the main point.

On a similar note, Ezra Klein recently dared Michelle Malkin to debate him about health care. She ran away, of course. Ezra Klein is a huge policy nerd who spends his days reading white papers about health care. Malkin is a shrieking demagogue who spends her days copying and pasting Republican talking points and minimally digested links into her offal-trough of a blog. Nobody with half a brain earnestly believes that Malkin knows anything about health care policy. And Malkin has a enough of a vestigial sense of dignity (even after doing this) to fear being completely humiliated by Klein. Her refusal was a foregone conclusion.

A common thread unites these two stories. Shalizi and Klein have made conscious life choices that narrow their respective subjects of expertise (with sometimes steep costs), and as a consequence they can speak about those subjects with authority. People who make such sacrifices do so because they care about the subject, which is to say that they care about the truth of the matter. They want to get things right, and to behave in a way that causes their audiences to become strictly better-informed than before.

Sullivan and Malkin are playing a fundamentally different game. Their mission is to attract attention and notoriety. They do not care whether their actions further the cause of knowledge, by which I mean justified and true belief. In fact, in their own ways, Sullivan and Malkin behave professionally in ways that directly inhibit the propagation of knowledge. Not coincidentally, this behavior has salutary effects on their careers.

Sullivan does not care whether a belief is justified and true; or, at least, he does not care enough to approach any given subject with the humility and patience to learn about it. He earnestly believes that there's value to stirring up the waters, even if the primary effect is to splash mud into people's eyes. This belief is convenient for him in two ways. First, it gives him permission to write about anything without understanding its substance; and being prolific is good for a pundit's career. Second, it places him at the center of controversies; and being part of a controversy --- regardless of the correctness of one's positions --- is also good for a pundit's career.

Malkin, for her part, understands that (like Jonah Goldberg) her job is not to investigate the truth of anything, but to spew a great volume of noise that echoes the prevailing Republican talking points. I don't doubt that, on some level, Malkin believes whatever she's saying at any given moment. However, the distinction between knowledge and faith is that knowledge is justified --- that there exists some combination of evidence and inference that logically leads one to the conclusion. Malkin has chosen to base her career instead on faith --- and not even faith in a stable set of fundamental principles, which might be admirable, but faith in the official Party truth of the moment. (Eastasia? We have always been at war with Eastasia.) As a propagandist, Malkin's mission is faith through noise --- produce enough noise, and you can reinforce people's beliefs in the Party without ever justifying those beliefs. Obviously, this behavior is good for her career. The more noise you produce, and the more closely you adhere to the Party line, the more likely that people in the market for such noise will choose to pay attention to you.

Sadly, Sullivan and Malkin are well-rewarded for doing what they do. In politics, the market for knowledge is much weaker than the market for noise. Knowledge is expensive and serves only itself, but noise is cheap and can be turned to the purposes of any buyer. We can heap contempt on Sullivan and Malkin, but I don't know how to change the underlying dynamics that elevate them to prominence.


  1. I wholeheartedly agree about Malkin, but I don't think Sullivan is part of anybody's noise machine. I certainly can't think of any party lines to which he's a dogmatic adherent. He certainly hasn't be shy about calling out Republicans when they lapse into hackery.

    Which isn't to say Sullivan isn't out of his league arguing about statistical methodology with an actual statistician. But almost everyone in the punditry business falls prey to the hubris of opining outside of their area of expertise from time to time. I think a talking head has to engage in much higher and more consistent level of dishonesty before it's fair to compare him to Michelle Malkin.

  2. No, Sullivan's not a party-line hack. I don't mean to conflate him exactly with Malkin.

    He is, however, a noisemaker, of a different sort. To a first approximation, he always positions himself to optimize his reputation as an "independent" thinker who punctures the pieties of both liberals and conservatives. Publications find him useful because this positioning attracts attention. In my opinion, however, this process produces noise, not signal, most of the time.

    So, of course Sullivan's less directly evil than Malkin. However, I think he may be more dangerous, because he's far more respected.