Experts and amateurs

The nice thing about blogging is that people will read your thoughts even about stuff you don’t really understand.

My constant readers and academic acquaintances know that, when I write here about drug policy or crime control, I write ex cathedra as an accredited expert, while my thoughts about how to pay for music or what to do about Iraq or who’s going to be elected President are those of an amateur. In the latter set of cases, if the actual arguments are convincing to you, that’s fine, but the fact that something is my opinion isn’t really any independent reason for believing it to be true. To most casual visitors, however, including those following links, that distinction is invisible.

Still, I’m aware of the distinction, or try to be, and am willing to retreat pretty quickly when some actual expert on whose territory I have encroached tells me that one or another of my amateur thoughts is actually completely full of sh*t. Even if I don’t fully understand why I’m wrong, I’ll usually take an expert’s word for it that I’m wrong, unless an equivalently credentialled expert tells me that I was actually right. (One key difference between an expert and an amateur is that the expert knows the range of tenable views on the issue in question, and can distinguish legitimate disagreement from mere error.)

These thoughts are occasioned by Brad DeLong’s critique of Daniel Drezner for Drezner’s attack on Paul Krugman.

Krugman is a very smart fellow: scary-smart, maybe-gonna-win-a-Nobel-in-economics smart. And within his domain of economics, he is also an A-1 certified expert. The Times hired him to do a column mostly about economics, and by a quirk of timing he started to write just as George W. Bush started to spread his particular brand of bushwa all over the question of taxation and budget deficits. Krugman was appalled both by how transparently false Bush’s arithmetic was and how unwilling the media were to call his lies for what they were. (Note that, starting with a huge surplus and having promised tax cuts and a balanced budget, Bush is now promising to try to cut the record deficit in half by the end of his second term, without ever admitting that his original projections were deliberately falsified.)

So Krugman got madder and madder about that, and started to notice that Bush’s talent for plain and fancy prevarication wasn’t limited to economics, and that the tendency of the media to treat his assertions that 2 + 2 = 22 and that the world is flat as legitimate opinions worthy of serious discussion wasn’t limited to economics either. That led Krugman to stray from writing about economics, where he was and is an expert, into writing about other matters, where he’s just a smart amateur. Being an amateur, and being filled with rage by the constant lying of Team Bush, led Krugman to make some mistakes, and to be insufficiently willing to admit it when he had made them.

That created the opportunity for a group of right-wing bloggers — Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Reynolds, and Mickey Kaus chief among them (I’ll call Kaus “neoliberal” rather than “right-wing” when he remembers that there’s actually a difference) — to attack Krugman’s credibility, not merely on the political stuff where he is an amateur but on the economic stuff where he’s the expert and they’re the amateurs. For ammunition in that campaign, they relied on Donald Luskin, a bush-league quasi-economist who has never (to my knowledge) had an academic appointment or published in a learned journal, and who makes his living touting stocks.

By quoting Luskin as if his views were entitled to consideration as expert views, Sullivan, Reynolds, and Kaus managed to convince themselves, and the more credulous of their readers, that Krugman was what Luskin is: a mere political hack, with no professional reputation to protect or intellectual self-respect to lose, writing whatever nonsense might convince an unwary voter. It should have, but apparently did not, worry them that Luskin was an obvious lunatic — he once wrote after attending a Krugman lecture that he was “worried that I’d gotten too close to something infectious” — and a thug, who used a transparently meritless lawsuit and the threat of forcing Atrios to reveal his identity to bully Atrios into ceasing his (perfectly accurate) criticism of Luskin.

Apparently, one of the people taken in by this little con game was Daniel Drezner. Drezner is also a very clever fellow, and a real expert in his own domain: my colleague Amy Zegart tells me he’s about the hottest thing there is among the younger international-relations scholars. But Drezner seems to have picked up the idea that Krugman tends to be sloppy and/or dishonest even when writing about economics, so he was willing to believe Luskin when Luskin said that one of Krugman’s comments about how bad the labor market picture really is was simply false-to-fact. Writing as Andrew Sullivan’s locum tenens, Drezner accused Krugman of misrepresentation.

However, Drezner turned out to be wrong about that. Krugman wasn’t relying on the numbers Luskin pretended (and Drezner believed) he was relying on, but on a different set of numbers that say exactly what he said they say. All that Luskin managed to refute was his own misstatement of Krugman’s views. Brad DeLong lays it out in detail, in the course of laying Drezner out in lavender.

I think it’s reasonable to blame Drezner a little bit for being taken in even at first. One should be very reluctant to believe that a respected academic expert such as Krugman, speaking within his domain of expertise, is simply full of hot air, and one should never do so on the mere say-so of a hack such as Luskin. (That’s why the good Lord gave us telephones and email accounts: so we could check with real experts before making buffoons of ourselves.) But error is human, and if Drezner had backed off quickly and gracefully it would be poor manners for anyone else to crow over him for it.

Alas, being a fill-in for Sullivan, who is often wrong but never in doubt and who never, never admits error, seems to have had a bad influence on Drezner, who has yet to retract and apologize, as he certainly should. (He posted a half-hearted update, apparently in response to an email from DeLong, that noted a difference of opinion without actually taking anything back.)

Here’s hoping that being back in his home weblog, away from Sullivan’s evil influence, will restore Drezner to his natural good nature, good taste, and good sense. Smart and sensible conservative voices aren’t so common that we can well afford to lose one.

Update No such luck. Back on his own blog, Drezner reacts defensively. He neglects the stongest evidence for Krugman’s claim that the labor market is the worst it’s been in twenty years, the lengthening duration of unemployment, and he elides the differences between cyclical phenomena (the softening labor market that started in 2000-2001) and secular trends (risking female labor-force participation). He says, reasonably, that since Krugman didn’t specify what he meant, Drezner couldn’t have been expected to know. And he wonders why Brad DeLong is so upset.

The point that Drezner misses is that he (more politely than Luskin) accused Krugman of either incompetence or dishonesty in a matter within Krugman’s professional competence. “Krugman is either wrong or has a different definition of ‘unusual’ than the rest of the English-speaking world. Distortions such as this …”

Not only are such charges unlikely to be correct, they are, if believed, extraordinarily damaging. That’s two good reasons for making them only hesitantly and retracting them quickly when they turn out to have been incorrect.

Update here.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

7 thoughts on “Experts and amateurs”

  1. When academics attack

    Whoa, blogging isn’t all fun and games. It gets pretty serious when you start questioning people’s professional credibility, particularly when those people happen to be highly-respected academics. Mark Kleiman provides an excellent play-by-…

  2. Krugman's poop doesn't stink, either

    Mark A. R. Kleiman: Experts and amateurs Mark Kleiman firmly criticizes Dan Drezner for his disagreement with Brad DeLong about Dan Drezner's criticism of Paul Krugman, driven by Dan Luskin's

  3. Hiss. Hiss, I say.

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  4. Krugman’s poop doesn’t stink, either

    Mark A. R. Kleiman: Experts and amateurs Mark Kleiman firmly criticizes Dan Drezner for his disagreement with Brad DeLong about Dan Drezner’s criticism of Paul Krugman, driven by Dan Luskin’s

  5. Blog experts and amateurs

    UCLA professor Mark A. R. Kleiman uses some pointed blogger critiques of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and Chicago professor Daniel Drezner to make interesting points about the clash of expertise and amateur observation on the Web. Separately, …

  6. The Message, Not the Messenger

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  7. Matt Stoller, tendentious liberal

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