Opinions, blogging, and Sturgeon’s Law

Yes, most opinions are worthless, because the people expressing those opinions aren’t experts on the topic at hand. But printing your opinions on dead trees is no guarantee of expertise, and there are genuine experts available on line. The problem, for the non-expert, is how to find them, and tell them apart from the cheap knock-offs.

Richard Shickel, film critic for Time, doesn’t think that criticism should be amateur hour:

…we have to find in the work of reviewers something more than idle opinion-mongering. We need to see something other than flash, egotism and self-importance. We need to see their credentials. And they need to prove, not merely assert, their right to an opinion.

Atrios, quoting only the last sentence, is shocked. This, he huffs, is “How some people see the world.” Kevin Drum is amused by Shickel’s obvious neophobia &#8212 Shickel compares blogging to finger-painting as forms of mindless self-expression &#8212 and by the huffing and puffing of Pulitzer Prize winner (who knew there was a Pultizer for jackassery?) Richard Ford, who comes up with this gem:

Newspapers, by having institutional backing, have a responsible relationship not only to their publisher but to their readership in a way that some guy sitting in his basement in Terre Haute maybe doesn’t.

Order! [Raps gavel.] Order! The meeting will be in order. The meeting will be in order.

All right, then.

* Of course everyone has the right to hold and express any opinion he pleases.

* And of course the right to express an opinion that anyone else ought to pay attention to has to be demonstrated, not merely asserted. On any given topic, only a tiny minority &#8212 not, of course, the same majority for each topic &#8212 really knows what it’s talking about. A somewhat larger minority has enough background to recognize which opinions are expert opinions and which are just hot air. And the vast majority is clueless: that is, each of us is clueless about the vast majority of complicated questions in the world.

My opinions about cars, or infantry tactics, or basketball, or low-temperature physics, or symphony orchestras, or Iranian politics, are worthless except insofar as they’re parasitic on the opinions of someone who knows more than I do, and the only wisdom I can have on those topics is the second-order wisdom that knows its own ignorance (and perhaps how to frame an intelligent question for an expert to answer). That’s the point Socrates kept trying to make, until his fellow-citizens got bored and decided to shut him up for good.

* And of course the capacity, and therefore the right, to express an expert opinion has nothing to do with the financial standing of the publisher, or with whether the opinion appears in a blog, on the tube, or stamped on dead trees. Brad DeLong, on his blog, expresses expert opinions about macroeconomics. Most of the people who write about macroeconomics for the mass media can’t even tell expertise from hot air, and lack even the Socratic wisdom that knows what it doesn’t know.

A literary blog has one huge advantage over a commercial reviewing outlet such as the New York Times Book Review or the New York Review of (each other’s) Books: it isn’t supported by publishers’ advertising, and therefore isn’t part of the racket that keeps books from small presses, or self-published books, from being reviewed at all. It has a second advantage: that the people writing for it don’t usually derive much, if any, income from it, and therefore don’t need to stay on the good side of an editor who in turn has to stay on the good side of the publishing companies who buy the ads that pay his or her salary.

Yes, commercial publishing and its electronic analogues in the broadcast media sometimes play a useful filtering role, whether the topic is literature or politics or the stock market. (Only sometimes, of course: the pig-ignorant and bigoted Lou Dobbs, for example, appears on both CNN and CBS, which seem unashamed. And sometimes what gets filtered out is inconvenient truth of one or another variety.)

The link structure of the blogosphere plays a similar role. We have yet to see which model does a better job for which sorts of topics. But it’s safe to say that there aren’t many topics on which there isn’t at least one blog that’s head and shoulders above Time for expertise, depth, and honesty.

Some degree of informational disintermediation is inevitable, now that I have direct access to your mind, and you to my writing, without the intervention of a typesetter. Freedom of the press is now available even to those who don’t own one; that must in some ways be A Good Thing. But as a result those who want reasonable people to pay attention to their opinions are going to have to figure out some way to demonstrate their credentials other than by appearing in a well-known publication.

All of this reminds me of Sturgeon’s Law, named for the great SF writer Theodore Sturgeon, who was supposedly accosted at a Greenwich Village literary party by someone who said to him (I’m quoting from memory), “Sturgeon, how can you stand to publish in those science fiction magazines? Ninety-five percent of the stuff in them is crap.” To which Sturgeon calmly replied, “Ninety-five percent of everything is crap.”

Word. The trick is finding the other five percent, and knowing it when you’ve found it.

Update David Blumgart, one of Daniel Drezner’s commenters, corrects the quotation: apparently Sturgeon originally saidNinety percent of everything is crud.”

Note, by the way, that on this sort of question I trust an anonymous Wikipedia author implicitly to get it right: far more than I would trust, say, a critic for Time. (Even The New Yorker turns out not to be infallible; I once saw there a reference to “Walter W. Rostow,” when LBJ’s last National Security Adviser was named Walt Whitman Rostow; his law-professor brother was Eugene Victor Debs Rostow.)

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

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