Scott Sumner  

Charles Cooke's lame dismissal of left wing nerds

PRINT
The Greatest Invention in Hist... The Fiscal Prognosis...

Here's Charles Cooke in the National Review:

One part insecure hipsterism, one part unwarranted condescension, the two defining characteristics of self-professed nerds are (a) the belief that one can discover all of the secrets of human experience through differential equations and (b) the unlovely tendency to presume themselves to be smarter than everybody else in the world. Prominent examples include MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry, Rachel Maddow, Steve Kornacki, and Chris Hayes; Vox's Ezra Klein, Dylan Matthews, and Matt Yglesias; the sabermetrician Nate Silver; the economist Paul Krugman; the atheist Richard Dawkins; former vice president Al Gore; celebrity scientist Bill Nye; and, really, anybody who conforms to the Left's social and moral precepts while wearing glasses and babbling about statistics.
Yes, I know this is meant to be entertainment and not a serious essay, but I don't think it even works on that basis. You'd like it to be at least slightly embarrassing for the people you are trying to skewer, but Cooke doesn't even come close. He sounds more like a high school jock mocking the straight A student. If I was one of those left wing nerds I'd feel even more smug about being on the right track after reading Cooke's essay.

Left wing hipster nerds do have two very serious weaknesses, which Cooke completely overlooks.

Weakness #1: Intellectuals on the left go through the following thought process. First they observe a "problem." Then they declare a "market failure." Then they consider what sort of government policy could remedy the problem. What they often overlook is that the problem is usually the side effect of other government policies. That doesn't mean the free market solution is always best; there may be cases where those other government policies are needed, and hence further regulation is required to overcome the side effects. The real problem is that it's much easier to dream up straightforward government policies to remedy a situation, than to envision how a problem is the side effect of other regulations. Or what further side effects will result from your proposed solution. That biases pundits toward supporting far too much government involvement in the economy

Alex Tabarrok posted a great example yesterday. The left blames the lack of a cure for Ebola on the greedy drug companies. Africans have little money to spend on newly invented drugs. But in fact a treatment has been invented by a private drug company. And the treatment does seem to have helped when recently given to an American suffering from Ebola. So why can't others buy this drug? The government (FDA) won't allow it, at least until extensive testing has been done. Keep in mind this is a disease that kills 60% of its victims.

Weakness #2: Left wing intellectuals believe they are pro-science and the right is anti-science. They are right that part of the right is anti-science, but they are equally anti-science. A few years back a distinguished left wing nerd was fired from his job as president of Harvard for making a very familiar scientific argument; that the distribution of innate intellectual skills among males might have fatter tails than distribution of innate intellectual skills among females. (BTW, lots of people thought Summers claimed men were smarter than women---not so. He said the distribution of skills might be wider. Most of his opponents didn't know enough about "science" to understand that distinction.) Whether you agree with Summers' theory, or whether you agree with me on global warming is immaterial. There's lots of data supporting both theories, and some against. What matters is that the left is just as intolerant as the right when their ox is being gored.

Unfortunately for Cooke, when I finished his essay I had more sympathy for people like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias than when I started reading. If it's to be a culture war, an us vs. them between Cooke on one side and Klein and Yglesias on the other, then I'm with the left wing nerds.

Cooke should know you fight fire with fire. The GMU bloggers (Caplan, Cowen, Tabarrok, Hanson, etc.) are at least as smart as those on the left, and have an even better appreciation of the subtle secondary effects of government regulation. Cooke should have touted the nerds on "our side."

PS. Just to head off misunderstanding on Summers, I am claiming that any arguments using the phrase "fatter tails" when not talking about the rear appendage of animals are "scientific." I'd guess roughly 50% are scientific and true and 50% are scientific and false, but they are all scientific arguments.

PPS. Obviously I was painting with a broad brush. Some on the left (such as Matt Yglesias) are more aware of side effects of government policies than others. But none are as aware of the problem as I think they should be.

PPPS. I was going to say that progressives rely too much on "common sense," but Bryan won't let me get away with sloppy philosophy. So let me just say they rely too much on "initial instincts when presented with an issue the way it is generally framed in the media, and by economists."


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (33 to date)
Alexander Severns writes:

I think that Cooke was not demeaning nerds- part of the whole point of his article was that the left is engaging in faux-"nerdom". In one example mentioned in his article, the left and politically powerful engage in a shameless party of self exaltation and triumph, the "nerd prom" (White House Correspondents' Dinner.) Its a group ambitious ivy league rent-seekers and their media allies, who pose under the guise of nerdiness while being the near antithesis. On the other hand, I don't think Cooke would disagree that Cowen et al are "real" nerds, genuine academics who are generally disliked or misunderstood by the jocks of the world.
I did read it when it came out and its been a while so my own biases may have skewed my memory of the article. Also I agree that the tone was confused, like trying at times to be humorous but betraying significant malice/spite.

Alexander Severns writes:

I enjoyed the article for its delineation of "(a) the belief that one can discover all of the secrets of human experience through differential equations ." An useful, if incomplete, discussion of the Fatal Conceit in a forum that doesn't get it enough.

RPLong writes:

As in so many other cases, Thomas Sowell said it first and better.

Matt Buckalew writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Flocccina writes:
They are right that part of the right is anti-science, but they are equally anti-science.

The part the right is anti-science when it comes to evolution. I think that has very little effect on life and might even add value to life. The left is anti-science when it comes to GMOs, Pesticides and nuclear power. The cost of stopping using GMOs and nuclear would currently be small, but if the left won on pesticides the cost would be enormous! Even the cost to the left now of buying organic is not small, maybe 20% more for food.

(NOTE the left is anti- some aspects of human evolution (you alluded to one) and this is probably good and might add value to life).

Beside the left is winning much more of the battles so their blindness to science is a more serious matter.

Steve J writes:

Can we imagine a time where we consider opinions outside of group think? No that would be way too much work. Hurts my head to even think about it.

Larry writes:

Lefty analysis often starts by examining intentions. "Why do Obamacare haters want poor people to not have insurance?" Righty analysis often ends with the same. "The sloppy way in which Obamacare was drafted and implemented leaves you wondering whether it was really about improving health care or just about extending control over people's lives."

For lefties good results don't excuse bad intentions. For righties they do and bad results mock good intentions. "Greedy capitalists" make a great litmus test. Lefties can never accept them, while righties exclaim "capitalism works"!

Tom West writes:

(BTW, lots of people thought Summers claimed men were smarter than women---not so. He said the distribution of skills might be wider. Most of his opponents didn't know enough about "science" to understand that distinction.)

A university president's job is 90% PR. If your message is widely interpreted as "Harvard President says women can't do science", then you've blown it, even if that isn't what you said.

The fact that the mechanism of that downfall may well have been people who deliberately chose to misinterpret the remarks doesn't mean the remarks didn't do enough damage to the outside world (and Harvard's reputation) to merit removal.

(I'd have a lot more sympathy if he was simply a prof. But Harvard President? You don't get to step into that minefield.)

Jeff writes:

I think one of the insights he is groping for but failing to articulate is that people do a lot of motivated reasoning or perhaps what Tyler Cowen calls mood affiliation, where you have an opinion or belief already formed and then try to construct arguments or justifications for why you hold that belief or opinion. For smart, educated folks who are good with numbers, they can construct better arguments and justifications which are convincing not only to others but to themselves. The result is that strong powers of reasoning travel in tandem with stubbornness, smugness, overconfidence and self-righteousness, due to these folks' failure to recognize the confirmation bias at work in their own thought processes.

Or at least, that's my interpretation.

William Newman writes:

Dogma that heritability in humans is zero is also anti-science. I'm not talking about high skepticism about work that seems to be recreating classic racist conclusions here; reasonable people might disagree about how paranoid people should be about results for a technically complicated politically radioactive issue like that, more or less like the deeply screwed up results of 30 or 40 years ago about how economically competitive the USSR and mainland Chinese economic systems were. I'm talking about very basic individual heritability issues, especially observing how children's traits are correlated with their parents (e.g., reading a lot if their parents read a lot) and earnestly attributing 100% of the effect to something (lots of books in the home!) other than ordinary genetic inheritance without bothering to control for inheritance. People who read that without snorting are very similar to people who uncritically accept anti-evolution bunkum (e.g. species not being able to evolve even over geological timescales). Heritability is absolutely fundamental to evolution by natural selection. To merrily wish heritability away whenever heritability would be inconvenient for one's social "scientific" soundbites is at least as messed up as wishing away evolution itself. And in this case the messed-up-ness seems to be university faculty with government grants, not hecklers with fringe websites.

I have seen this many times in newspaper-level reports, and twice I have chased it into the technical literature, never very energetically but enough to conclude that the main pattern is universities publishing pseudoscience uncritically reported by newspapers, not universities publishing science which is distorted by newspapers. Once was skimming the downloadable paper behind http://www.arnoldkling.com/blog/a-grandparent-effect/ and the other was flipping the book _From Parents to Children: Intergenerational Transmission of Advantage_ when I happened to notice it being returned at the UT Dallas library and was allowed to intercept it for five minutes.

Jeff writes:

Tom West,

Summers' comments didn't come out of nowhere. Harvard had been subjected to accusations of sexism/gender bias due to the skewed sex ratio of the faculty in many of its departments. You're saying he'd "blown it" by offering a perfectly rational and, in my opinion, convincing defense of his university's hiring practices. What was the alternative? Spout a bunch of pretty lies and obfuscations? How did we get to a point, exactly, where academics offering perfectly reasonable interpretations of empirical observations constitutes "stepping into a minefield?"

Quite a healthy attitude you've got there.

Steve J writes:

@Jeff,

How did we get to a point, exactly, where academics offering perfectly reasonable interpretations of empirical observations constitutes "stepping into a minefield?"

Ha! Tyson, Dawkins, Harris, Nye, etc are all asking the same question.

Philo writes:

"Then they consider what sort of government policy could remedy the problem. What they often overlook is . . . ." Another thing they overlook is that usually their preferred government policy would work only if the bureaucrats were single-mindedly devoted to carrying it out. In other words, they ignore Public Choice.

And sometimes their preferred government policy really would not be practicable even if the bureaucrats' motivation were ideal, for lack of necessary knowledge. For example: "The government should intervene in asset markets to prevent bubbles from forming."

MikeP writes:

Steve J,

There is a difference between stepping into a minefield, a la Summers, and building your career in a minefield, a la Dawkins, Harris, and Nye.

Incidentally, why is Tyson in that list? If it's for Cosmos, I'd say that's another case of stepping.

Don Boudreaux writes:

Excellent post.

I write here briefly to defend Richard Dawkins from some mistaken insinuations issued by Cooke and some commenters. It's true that Dawkins chose to be a bulldog for atheists in the intellectual battle against theism. But Dawkins's genuinely scientific and scholarly contributions are far larger than anything he did on that front. His 1976 book (The Selfish Gene) is that rare species of book that is both accessible and interesting to intelligent lay people and a work that made a fundamental contribution to science.

Also, regardless of how much or how little you agree with Dawkins, you cannot read him without being impressed with his skills as a writer. His 1987 book, The Blind Watchmaker, might well be the most beautifully written science book in history.

Scott Sumner writes:

RPLong, Yes, Mankiw quoted a great example a few days ago.

Don, I agree about Dawkins.

Everyone, The issue, of course, is not whether Summers was wise to make those comments.

Scott Sumner writes:

Richard, Thanks. That's the first time I've heard Tyson speak.

Hazel Meade writes:

One part insecure hipsterism, one part unwarranted condescension,

He gets this part right, and then goes off the rails. The left's problem isn't excessive use of statistics or nerdishness. It's the moral, cultural, and intellectual posturing. They think they are superior to everyone else in every possible way.

Kevin writes:

Also regarding Summers, the fact that it's a minefield is pretty convincing evidence that David is correct.

Tom West writes:

How did we get to a point, exactly, where academics offering perfectly reasonable interpretations of empirical observations constitutes "stepping into a minefield?"

When he's the President of Harvard. At that point, he's no longer an academic, he's the symbol of higher education incarnate.

And with that position, it's no surprise that many people are waiting to use his words to support their position - in this case, the position was "there is no discrimination, women just can't do science".

In the end, the world was stupider for his remarks, regardless of what he actually said.

Quite frankly, like politics, you don't take a position like that if you believe the truth of your remarks absolves you of the responsibility for the effects of them on the public at large.

There are reasons why sensitive topics are not the subject for ruminations by public officials.

Anyway, back on topic, I'd say that the left's anti-science isn't so much a denial of the science, as a judgement that the risks aren't worth the rewards (GMOs, nuclear power). The right's anti-science has often been "I don't like the result, so the science is wrong" (AGW, evolution).

ThomasH writes:

Weakness # 1 is not confined to "leftists." The immediate responses to 9/11 left us with a lot of spending on "security" with questionable cost benefit ratios. Abortion regulations, voter fraud, anyone?

And the kind of wonks cited are not likely to oppose, indeed are the ones likely to come up with different FDA procedures that better weigh costs and benefits new drugs.

Tracy W writes:

Tom West:
A politician does have to have an eye to the implications of what they are talking about.

But, it's really really bad that you're saying things like "sensitive topics are not the subject for ruminations by public officials."

Freedom of speech has pragmatic value. Public officials' views are important too, they, by the nature of their jobs, have the unique experience of having to balance the competing needs of massive numbers of people, all convinced that their interests are the most important ones. And this applies not just to monetary budgets but to time and attention as well. Cutting public officials off from speaking "on sensitive topics" cuts us off from an important source of information and thus impoverishes us.

I'm not saying that public officials' views are inherently more valuable than anyone else's, just that they come from a different background than journalists or public intellectuals, and that diversity is the valuable bit.

Jeff writes:
Quite frankly, like politics, you don't take a position like that if you believe the truth of your remarks absolves you of the responsibility for the effects of them on the public at large.

I read this to say, essentially, that controversial opinions and facts cannot and should not be stated publicly because of the strong reactions they may incite, and anyone who does so deserves what they get. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the ugliness of that sentiment speaks for itself.

LD Bottorff writes:

I have to disagree with Tom West. The ability to make small but important distinctions is what signifies intelligence. Summers made his remarks to people who should have been intelligent enough to understand him. There was no excuse for the emotion-laden response that resulted.

Tom West writes:

anyone who does so deserves what they get.

Not "anyone" - someone whose *job* it is to keep everyone as happy with the institution as possible.

And honestly, is the idea that you have no responsibility for the damage and destruction you cause any less ugly?

Also, I suspect that most people here would have very little difficulty with a low level employee being let go because remarks they made, misinterpreted or not, damaged (or disparaged) their employer.

Personally, I am not of the opinion that the more powerful you are, the less you should be held responsible for your mistakes, although it often works that way in real life.

Ak Mike writes:

Don't get mad at Tom West - he's a Platonist, who believes in the concept of the Noble Lie.

Tracy W writes:
Not "anyone" - someone whose *job* it is to keep everyone as happy with the institution as possible.

But that's not the president of Harvard's job. His job is to do what's best in the long-term interests of the institution. As a university, that includes supporting freedom of speech, including on issues that people often find offensive.

I don't think anyone has, or should have, a job of keeping everyone as happy with the institution as possible. Unless you define "possible" incredibly restrictively.

And honestly, is the idea that you have no responsibility for the damage and destruction you cause any less ugly?

Well, yes, indeed, I think the idea of toleration of speech is not merely less ugly, but actually beautiful. As are its results.

What's ugly is the violence and destruction the opposite attitude leaves in its path.

Also, I suspect that most people here would have very little difficulty with a low level employee being let go because remarks they made, misinterpreted or not, damaged (or disparaged) their employer.

I suspect you are muddling up what should be legal with what is a good idea.

Personally, I am not of the opinion that the more powerful you are, the less you should be held responsible for your mistakes, although it often works that way in real life.

But, what if those mistakes provide great value?
To quote from J.S. Mills book On Liberty:

But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

Dustin writes:

Tom West

I couldn't disagree with more on RE: Summers

Tom West writes:

> I couldn't disagree with more on RE: Summers

Not a problem. I have an opinion, not God's word.

I'm probably especially sensitive to the Summer's case, because I was involved in HS computer science education at the time.

Not only did I see the "See Harvard says girls can't do science" show up on the Internet, but I encountered roughly that sentiment from a high school teacher who was tired that the administrators were trying to get him to encourage more girls to take math/science and in his case, computer science.

Summers provided just the justification he needed to go from "making somewhat of an effort" to "ignore more administrative waste of time".

At that point, I really knew the subtle damage Summers comments had caused. He'd unintentionally provided a whole class of people with just the excuse they needed to not bother to try to counteract their natural tendencies (that we all have) to assume that non-zero correlations are essentially 1.

Tracy W writes:

@Tom West:
What you're missing is the damage that the efforts to suppress and chase out Summers caused, I've seen the meme on the internet about how "academics are suppressing the truth!"
That's the ugliness of suppressing speech that I described earlier.

What's more, feminism has charged through this objections before. Such statements as you describe ("See Harvard says girls can't do science"), were very common in the 1960s and 1970s. Feminism won over them, there's no reason to think it's now some shaky flower that should be protected from battle.

Tom West writes:

Well, I have to grant you that is a cost.

Personally, I think the costs being paid are substantially less than the cost of the damage that occurs when the research is misused to cause a lot of harm, so I'm not as upset as I could be.

I'll admit that it's a catch-22 for these sciences. A lot of them are basically useless at this point, sort of the phlogiston level of physics, and are pretty much only good for confirming whatever prejudice people already possess.

It's possible with a lot more work, they could become actually useful, but I'm not really willing to spend then next 50 years watching the social damage as "science" is used to justify whatever evil some group is prone to.

Essentially, I'm better with "academics are suppressing the truth" than with "See, legitimate scientist says we need to [insert awful thing here]".

Also, I'm a pessimist. The human mind is geared to assuming that non-zero correlations are one, so unless there's constantly a fight, we'll tend to retreat to "women are this", "men are that", "this race is this", etc. wherever we see a non-zero correlation.

Equal rights are, in my opinion, *not* natural, so it means that we can never assume that it's safe.

[And yes, I suspect if it wasn't for the rather self-interested over-reaction of some of the academics at the talk, the story wouldn't have made it into the general consciousness. So, suppression can blow up and make things worse. I just think it _usually_ keeps scientists away from topics that will cause a lot of social damage.]

Tracy W writes:

So, Tom West, you think we should shut down research on the social sciences?

That's what all your argument seems to be implying, but it's such a breathtaking solution that I doubt I'm reading you right.

The human mind is geared to assuming that non-zero correlations are one, so unless there's constantly a fight, we'll tend to retreat to "women are this", "men are that", "this race is this", etc. wherever we see a non-zero correlation.

That's an argument for more freedom of speech. As J.S. Mills pointed out, when an idea is not debated and not exposed to full criticism, it tends to become a dead letter. If we follow your suggested approach of suppressing speech about controversial topics such as non-zero correlations, people won't have to grapple with that there is a big difference between non-zero correlations and one. And we don't need "science" nor Presidents of Harvard to see non-zero correlations. There were riots about foreigners in London, for example, long before the University of Harvard was ever founded.

Equal rights are, in my opinion, *not* natural, so it means that we can never assume that it's safe.

And, what's more, I'm pretty confident if we ever did assume that they were safe, they'd be dead, only given lip service.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top