The terms of modern debate

12 03 2007

Statues in Prague

Here’s something that I’d like to tackle in my thesis:

The Berkeley economist Brad DeLong talks about “un-discourse situations”. In his case, it’s a panel on U.S. savings rates over the past generation. DeLong is one of nine panelists, most of whom represent academic constituencies. However, one of the panelists, the supply-sider Larry Kudlow, is just plain loopy, and when his turn came, aggressively argued for a perspective that is represented only by right-wing think tanks. DeLong also suggests that Kudlow is being intellectually dishonest:

What is one to do? You watch a guy—Bob Solow [who spoke earlier in the panel]—one of the smartest and most thoughtful people I know, having his intellectual impact neutralized by a guy—Kudlow—who really isn’t in the intellectual inquiry business any more. Kudlow clearly has not thought through the biases and gaps in the household net worth number: if he had, there is no way he could say what he is saying.

Of course, to those well-versed in the subject, the gaps in Kudlow’s speech would have been glaring. But convincing experts appears not to be Kudlow’s aim. Instead, his aim is to muddy the waters, and his intended audience is not academics but laypeople.

But there are ninety minutes for a panel with nine people on it. To the audience it looks like two cocksure economists who disagree for incomprehensible reasons. And my ten minute share will come too late to try to referee Solow-Kudlow in any fair, balanced, and effective way.

It’s what DeLong terms an “un-discourse situation”, and while he doesn’t come right out and say it, it’s the preferred method of argument for the new breed of conservatives in the U.S., who are going over the heads of the experts to “catapult the propaganda”.

Clearly, the same sort of thing has been going on in other areas, too, with evolution and climate change two more fronts in the right’s never-ending culture war.

Update: What I meant by my intro was that when I come to look at the climate change data I gather from blogs, I need to devise a coding schedule that somehow can uncover whether blog posters (and commenters) are being honest in what they are saying, or whether they seek simply to give credence to viewpoints that otherwise would (and should) have no part in the public debate.


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