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.

Via Tyler Cowen, Benjamin Campbell and Samuel Wang report that your college major depends a lot on which particular psychopathologies are common in your family:

We surveyed an entire class of high-functioning young adults at an elite university for prospective major, familial incidence of neuropsychiatric disorders, and demographic and attitudinal questions. Students aspiring to technical majors (science/mathematics/engineering) were more likely than other students to report a sibling with an autism spectrum disorder. Conversely, students interested in the humanities were more likely to report a family member with major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, or substance abuse problems.

Is it science or is it bullshit? You make the call! But there's a chart to go with it, along with the usual throat clearing that this could all be due to nature, nurture, or a combination of both, so please don't send them any death threats. In any case, it all seems pretty plausible, doesn't it?

Fighting Bullshit

Karl Smith says lefty intellectuals have a problem dealing with bullshit. Case in point: Mark Zandi spending several hundred words this week demonstrating, yet again, that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac weren't responsible for the 2008 financial meltdown:

Mark, Mark. Clonazepam. It’s a beautiful thing. Let go.

I am betting that maybe five people in the US actually believe Fannie and Freddie caused the housing bubble. Maybe half a dozen more are actively lying about it.

The rest are just Bullshitting. That is, they don’t really care what the truth is one way or the other. This is just a way to gesture in the general direction of the federal government and say Urrhh!!!

Ah, but what's the proper response to bullshit? Karl is almost certainly right that among actual conservative economists, only a few actually believe that Fannie and Freddie played a big role in the financial collapse. But those few true believers have a significant effect on:

  • Other conservative thought leaders, who don't know anything themselves but are happy to parrot congenial talking points.
  • Conservative legislators, who need intellectual justification for their speeches on the House floor.
  • The media, which is willing to continue suggesting that this is a genuine controversy as long as conservative thought leaders and conservative legislators keep pushing it.
  • Millions of rank-and-file conservatives, who listen to Fox News and read the Wall Street Journal editorial page and honestly believe this stuff because they're getting it from people they trust.

Does Mark Zandi know this? Of course he does. He's not an idiot. But what's the proper response? If you ignore the bullshitters, then the anti-GSE narrative gets set in stone whether or not it's bullshit. If you fight it, at least it remains fluid for a while — possibly long enough for things to settle down.

So sure, it's kabuki. All of us who write about politics for a living understand that 90% (at least) of what we do is just shadow boxing. Controversies are invented, then debunked, then invented all over again, and debunked. Sometimes the inventors know perfectly well what they're doing, while other times they've talked themselves into actually believing their own nonsense. In either case, these things are mostly just proxies for the issues that really matter.

But so what? The Reichstag fire was wholly invented too, and look what happened after that. As demeaning as it is, fighting back against bullshit is every bit as important as fighting back against the real stuff.

Are dead people voting in South Carolina? That's what their DMV director claimed in a sensational hearing a couple of weeks ago. To stop this, South Carolina desperately needs its photo ID law — currently on hold thanks to the Chicago thugs in the Obama Justice Department — to go into effect. "We must have certainty in South Carolina that zombies aren't voting," said state Rep. Alan Clemmons.

Except, um, maybe not. The South Carolina attorney general's office gave the State Election Commission six names off the list of 950 allegedly dead voters, and guess what they found?

In a news release that election agency spokesman Chris Whitmire handed out prior to the hearing, the agency disputed the claim that dead people had voted. One allegedly dead voter on the DMV's list cast an absentee ballot before dying; another was the result of a poll worker mistakenly marking the voter as his deceased father; two were clerical errors resulting from stray marks on voter registration lists detected by a scanner; two others resulted from poll managers incorrectly marking the name of the voter in question instead of the voter above or below on the list.

So that's oh-for-six. Five of the six were actually alive and the sixth had voted absentee before dying. There's no evidence of any fraud at all, just the usual bunch of administrative slip-ups.

This is the story of voter fraud in a microcosm. Claims of fraudulent voting become urban legends practically before the first YouTube video goes up on someone's website, but upon investigation the actual incidence of voter fraud turns out to be virtually nonexistent. Despite Newt Gingrich's infatuation with having MasterCard run our country's immigration program, anyone who's ever worked in the private sector knows that keeping customer and prospect mailing lists clean is a huge pain in the ass. If you manage to stay even 95% accurate, you're a genius. That's doubly true for voter registration rolls, which are a nightmare of people moving, dying, getting married, registering twice by mistake, providing incorrect addresses, and so forth. After any election, you can always find thousands of discrepancies if you look hard enough.

But almost none of them ever turn out to be actual voter fraud. The registration rolls might be sloppy, and poll workers might make mistakes, but practically no one who's ineligible to vote ever shows up at the polls and tries to vote. Study after study after study has made this crystal clear.

But it doesn't matter. The 950 graveyard voters in South Carolina have now entered the pantheon of voter fraud paranoia. That'll be good for passing photo ID laws, which tend to suppress the turnout of Democratic-leaning voting groups, and it'll be good for Republican Party fundraising, but not for much of anything else.

We haven't had a picture of the cats up on the fence lately, have we? Let's fix that. Wednesday was a lovely day here in southern California, and Inkblot and Domino both took turns promenading up and down the fence in the early morning sun. (Though not that early. They both need their beauty sleep.) Quite frankly, they both look fundamentally, profoundly more presidential than any of the folks running in Florida. If you live in the Sunshine State, I recommend you write in the cat of your choice on Tuesday.

Matt Yglesias notes a tension in lefty thought today: the stuff we all support (better healthcare, more teachers, childcare, new infrastructure, etc.) is in the non-manufacturing sector, and yet we all cheer when President Obama calls for increased focus on manufacturing. So which do we want? More people working in manufacturing or more people working in service and construction industries? It's hard to have both, after all.

For the time being, let's put aside the question of whether we should take Obama seriously on this subject (I suspect not) and whether lefties are really all that committed to manufacturing in the first place (ditto). Instead, I'll repeat a point that I think Matt probably agrees with: the real issue isn't manufacturing per se, it's the tradable sector. That is, we really do have a long-term trade deficit problem, and weakening the dollar is unlikely to fix this all on its own. We also need to make stuff that other people want to buy from us, regardless of whether it comes from someone with a manufacturing NAICS code. So whether we like it or not, we really do need to have more workers in the tradable sector. In practice, this probably means more people working in manufacturing, since that accounts for a big chunk of the tradable sector, but maybe not.1

Either way, though, we can't import oil from Saudi Arabia and MacBooks from China forever unless we figure out something to sell back to them. We can't all be MRI techs, home nursing companions, and K-12 teachers.

1And just to get everyone riled up, I'll point out that the content industry (movies, TV shows, books, music, etc.) is one of the most important non-manufacturing components of the tradable sector. It's why every administration ever, both Democratic and Republican, has supported strong international IP protection. This, perhaps, suggests an even bigger tension in lefty thought than whether we really love manufacturing.

The Wall Street Journal has apparently tapped into the tea party id today and written the ur-text of modern-day climate denial we've all been waiting for. Ed Kilgore, from his new perch at my old perch, reads it so I don't have to:

In these turgid lines can be found a treasure trove of prevarications. You've got your impressive-sounding list of scientists agreeing with the Journal (with no corresponding list of those who disagree; the newsprint or bandwith necessary to publish those would bankrupt even the WSJ). You've got your quote marks around the term global warming. You've got your allusions to the silly "Climategate" kerfuffle. And you've got your unsubstantiated allegations of "persecution" of the brave "heretics" who dare stand with poor, puny Industry against the awesome power of academics.

Originally, climate denial went through three stages:

  1. The world isn't warming.
  2. OK, it's warming, but it's not man-made. It's just natural climate variability.
  3. Fine, people are responsible. But it's not economically worth it to do anything about it.

But conservatives have more recently backpedaled not just a single step in this process, but all the way back to the paleolithic era they're so fond of pretending to know more about than the folks who actually study it:

  1. Global warming is the biggest hoax ever put over on the American public.

This all fits in with the paranoia and conspiracy theorizing of the conservative base these days, which is pretty much identical to the paranoia and conspiracy theorizing of the far right since at least the 1930s. Climate change isn't merely wrong — that would be boring — it's an immense conspiracy being waged by a group of nerdy scientists (who want funding) and tree huggers (who are desperate to control everyone else's lives). And it's a damn successful conspiracy, too. Despite the fact that it requires thousands and thousands of participants from nearly every country in the world, with new collaborators earning PhDs every month, not a single one of them has broken the climate omerta yet and blown the whole thing open. But someone will, any day now. Just you wait.

Emily Yoffe writes today about the Soup Nazi approach that modern animal rescue groups take toward deciding who is and who isn't fit to adopt one of their pets. As she says, this isn't just a dog thing:

You might think adopting a cat would be easier than getting a dog. After all, the solitary, self-sufficient feline is the perfect pet for the working person. But I heard from people who were turned down because of the curse of full-time employment—the cat may ignore you, but you should be home all day anyway. Others were told they need to accept a pair of cats or get nothing. And don’t even think about telling the rescue people your cat might go outside occasionally. Lisa wrote to say that she rescues strays that live in her house but are allowed outdoors. When she was looking for another cat and explained this to the person at the shelter, they turned her away.

For any species, the outside world is full of dangers, even potentially deadly ones. Maybe we all should stay inside (and avoid bathtubs and stairs). I have one cat I can’t budge off the couch with a forklift. But the other bolts from between our legs when the front door opens and would be miserable contained in the house. I’ve had successive sets of cats for more than 30 years and have concluded the risk of them going outside is worth their happiness—and they’ve lived to ripe ages. Is it really sensible to keep rescued cats out of loving homes from which they may take an occasional stroll? 

I was immensely pissed off at the rescue shelter that we last tried to adopt a cat from, though judging from what Yoffe says, they were pussycats (so to speak) compared to lots of others. I'm appalled that so many of these groups apparently prefer to keep hundreds of cats caged up and obviously unhappy forever rather than adopt them out to someone who they feel is, perhaps, ever so slightly unsuitable in some obscure way. "Perhaps you should try a kill shelter," we were finally told after two hours of cat surveying and form filling out, in a tone of voice normally reserved for child molesters and rapists.

In the end, we did go to our local municipal shelter, the same one that we adoped Inkblot from, and took home Domino. So I guess it all worked out in the end. But it left a sour taste in my mouth that I don't think I'll ever get rid of.

From Renae Hathway, Ron Paul's former secretary, on his famously racist and loony newsletters:

It was his newsletter, and it was under his name, so he always got to see the final product. . . . He would proof it.

This should surprise exactly no one, but it's still good to get it on the record. And there's more:

A person involved in Paul’s businesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid criticizing a former employer, said Paul and his associates decided in the late 1980s to try to increase sales by making the newsletters more provocative. They discussed adding controversial material, including racial statements, to help the business, the person said.

“It was playing on a growing racial tension, economic tension, fear of government,’’ said the person, who supports Paul’s economic policies but is not backing him for president. “I’m not saying Ron believed this stuff. It was good copy. Ron Paul is a shrewd businessman.’’

What a creep. All things considered, though, I guess I'm glad this came out today, not yesterday. Paul deserves all the grief he's gotten over this, and I'm delighted to see his phony teddy bear image permanently tossed in the dustbin of history where it belongs. Still, I'm not sorry that we didn't waste debate time on this nonsense. It might have taken valuable attention away from Newt's plan to turn the moon into the 51st state.

No one asked me, but I just want to briefly weigh in on the question of whether the increasingly brutal primary process will hurt Mitt Romney in the general election. No. It won't. Voters will forget the debates even happened about ten seconds after the last genuine competitor (i.e., everyone except Ron Paul) drops out. Intra-party feuding will stop about ten seconds after that, when everyone remembers that Barack Obama is Hitler. And the Obama campaign itself, though I'm sure they're enjoying the bloodletting, probably had better versions of all the anti-Romney attacks already prepped and ready to go before the first GOP primary even got started.

Any other questions?