Fighting Bullshit, Part 2

| Sun Jan. 29, 2012 12:13 PM EST

Yesterday I suggested that fighting bullshit is every bit as important as fighting genuine misunderstanding. Karl Smith takes issue with this:

This is an important point but we should define a line between where the contributions of professional intellectuals end and where the contributions of professional advocates take over.

If there is genuine misunderstanding then there is a role for intellectuals to say — well actually I think it's like this.

However, once an issue simply [becomes] a proxy for which team you want to win, this is not our fight. There are good men and women who are paid to do that and they should.

However, our role is the spread of knowledge. Once people are no longer concerned with knowledge but simply scoring points, we should move on.

I don't get this at all. The case at hand was a Mark Zandi op-ed debunking the BS that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac caused the 2008 financial crisis. This wasn't a case of fighting BS with BS. Zandi was fighting BS with facts. Nor was it a case of harmless BS that only a small lunatic fringe believes. The Fannie/Freddie myth is believed by millions of people, some of them very influential, because they think the BS sounds plausible and they don't have the tools to evaluate it.

Generally speaking, the contagion vector for misinformation goes something like this:

Liars/hacks ---> Bullshitters ---> General public

Now, I do think public intellectuals have a responsibility to fight this stuff in a sober, factual, evenhanded way. They should leave the histrionics and cherry picking to partisan shills like me. Still, fight it they should. Their duty is to inform, and that duty stands regardless of where the misinformation comes from, what the motivation behind the misinformation is, or who the misinformers are targeting.

This task can't be left solely to popularizers and party wheel horses while academics limit themselves to conferences and professional journals. Public education is too important for that, and hearing the facts frequently and forcefully from those with the deepest knowledge of a subject is important since they bring with them with a level of credibility that no other source can match. Academics and other intellectuals don't have to take partisan sides, but they should take sides, and they should take them as publicly as possible.

POSTSCRIPT: By the way, just in case anyone is offended by the repeated use of the word bullshit in this exchange, it's worth noting that Karl and I are both using it in its technical, analytical sense as explicated by Princeton philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt in his famous essay, On Bullshit. There's a short summary here if you don't want to read the whole thing.

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