Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Tempest In A Dismal-Science-Teapot?

In his salad days, this blogger engaged in many jousts in cyberspace — hurling flames with glee — but now, this blogger is long past such childish sport. However, it seems that a pair of Harvard economists have gotten into a virtual spat with a Princeton economist with a Nobel Prize and a HUGE vat of ink at the NY Fishwrap. Another dismal scientist weighs in with a lecture on virtual civility to the combatants. Will they heed the call to cease and desist or will they go on to MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction)? If this is an example of (fair & balanced) ado about nothing, so be it.

[x Forbes]
Optimal Civility
By Adam Ozimek

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There has been some discussion of civility as a result of Reinhart and Rogoff’s open letter to Krugman, which included accusations of incivility:

We admire your past scholarly work, which influences us to this day. So it has been with deep disappointment that we have experienced your spectacularly uncivil behavior the past few weeks. You have attacked us in very personal terms, virtually non-stop, in your New York Times column and blog posts.

This has highlighted a question to me that is aside from the RR vs K debate, which is what optimal civility looks like? Civility is just one characteristic with which you could throw in the related writerly characteristics of generosity, harshness, and others. The case for writing with civility is that doing otherwise has a poisonous effect on debate. People who you might persuade stop reading you, those who write in disagreement are pressured to return the incivility, which in turn drivers other readers out of the conversation. I believe it also affects those you are being uncivil towards in more than their rhetoric. Good counterarguments are much harder to acknowledge and even see when they come with a spoonful of “you’re a ***** idiot”. Through this process incivility leads to defensiveness, and this in turn drives polarization. In addition incivility drives people out of the debate. Writers may have counterarguments to some piece they read but don’t want to reply because they don’t wish to be the target of incivility and personal attacks. Overall, I would characterize the internet in suffering from too little rather than too much civility.

However, does incivility not have it’s place? If not incivility in the sense of writing rudely, there is at least a place for harshness, and writing aimed at lowering the status of a writer in everyone’s eyes. Ken Rogoff once wrote an open letter to Joe Stiglitz about a book of his that while civil certainly contained the goal of lowering readers opinions of Joe overall. For example, the point of this story is to show that Joe Stiglitz has a massive ego and is overconfident, and then to draw the line between these characteristics of Joe and the weaknesses in the book:

One of my favorite stories from that era is a lunch with you and our former colleague, Carl Shapiro, at which the two of you started discussing whether Paul Volcker merited your vote for a tenured appointment at Princeton. At one point, you turned to me and said, “Ken, you used to work for Volcker at the Fed. Tell me, is he really smart?” I responded something to the effect of “Well, he was arguably the greatest Federal Reserve Chairman of the twentieth century” To which you replied, “But is he smart like us?” I wasn’t sure how to take it, since you were looking across at Carl, not me, when you said it.

My reason for telling this story is two-fold. First, perhaps the Fund staff who you once blanket-labeled as “third rate”—and I guess you meant to include World Bank staff in this judgment also—will feel better if they know they are in the same company as the great Paul Volcker. Second, it is emblematic of the supreme self-confidence you brought with you to Washington, where you were confronted with policy problems just a little bit more difficult than anything in our mathematical models. This confidence brims over in your new 282 page book.

The tone here strikes me as civil, but the overall point is fairly harsh: Joe is an overconfident jerk, and you can see it in his book and in real life. Should Ken Rogoff have left this personal criticism out of the review? If it’s true then it is important information for readers to know. After all, having an idea of how meta-rational writers are matters, and even the most civil among us contain the un-meta-rationality of others as a subtle theme in our writing. Is outright accusing someone of being a poor thinker too harsh, while subtly implying it as an underlying blog theme acceptable? This feels like what the civil part of the blogosphere thinks is correct, though it’s hard to say since we talk so little about optimal civility and rarely are transparent about our thoughts on it. This rule kind of makes sense as a way to criticize and lower the status of some thinkers without raising the defensiveness of that thinker and their fans that I mentioned earlier. But I do think that many readers miss these subtle underlying themes and so don’t have as good of an appreciation of meta-rationality as other readers do.

In addition, I mentioned earlier that incivility can drive people out of the debate entirely if they don’t want to be the target of harsh personal criticisms. But some people should not be involved in some debates. If they have an audience and bring only noise and misinformation, then their non-participation is important. I am skeptical however that this the best mechanism to enforce non-participation. Dislike of harsh responses is not very strongly correlated with poor thinking, and I think this mechanism drives out more good arguments than bad.

Even the most civil writers recognize the importance of sometimes being harsh. Take Tyler Cowen’s review of Naomi Klein‘s Shock Doctrine, which closed with this:

In the same interview, Ms. Klein also tellingly remarked, “I believe people believe their own bulls—. Ideology can be a great enabler for greed.”

When it comes to the best-selling Shock Doctrine, that is perhaps the bottom line on what Klein herself has been up to.

This is funny, harsh, and useful for readers to see Tyler saying because it is a signal of the extent to which he sees her writing and thinking as low quality. But in part this harshness retains it’s value because Tyler is overall a very civil writer who is spare with his harshness. This same sentence from Brad DeLong, who is harsh and uncivil regularly, would not catch the readers attention nearly as much or carry much informational weight.

So where does this leave us? Overall I regard the blogosphere having too little rather than too much civility. But harshness, personal criticisms, and attempts to lower the status of other thinkers does have it’s place. What is the optimal amount of incivility then? I don’t have a good answer for this even a very coherent way to think about it, as you’ve clearly seen by now. Many people may be bored by discussions of how civil we should be, or more broadly how we should write, and consider it political correctness taken too seriously. But I think this applies simply to calls for more or less civility. I’m asking for arguments for optimal civility, and optimal writing style in general. If you wish to make the case for more, less, or status quo civility then let’s have it defended on these terms. Ω

[Adam Ozimek is a senior analyst at Econsult Solutions. He joined the Philadelphia constulting firm in 2008. Ozimek holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from West Chester University and received a Masters of Arts in Economics from Temple University and he is pursuing his PhD in economics from Temple University, with specializations in industrial organization and public policy, and applied econometrics.]

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