Zombies, clear colorful language, and scientific honesty (some observations by Krugman)

by Carl V Phillips

An aside (long, thanks to copious copy-and-paste, but breezy) before I get back to some recent Very Bad Lies that I have not covered.  As regular readers know, I consider Paul Krugman to be the day’s leading public intellectual, a top-level scientist with a clever wit, great writing style, and deep insight about many topics.  In particular, he is one of the most insightful analysts of public epistemology and rhetoric.  Catching up on weeks worth of blog posts, I thought there would be some value in recounting some of his observations on those topics that relate to this blog.  (Note that I will not try to explain the substantive background — you can trace that back through his posts if you want to learn the economic science and details of the policy fights — but focus on his assessment of public discourse itself.)

A few observations about types of lies:

He often talks about “zombie lies“, claims that…

remain part of what [every naive or politicized observer] knows to be true no matter how many times they have been shown to be false. Kill them, and they just keep shambling along.

…and a bit different

I’ve written several times about cockroach ideas in economics — ideas that you try to flush away, but keep coming back. (Are cockroach ideas the same as zombie ideas? Not quite, I would say; I think of cockroach ideas as misconceptions held because the people holding them are just unaware of basic facts, while zombie ideas are held by people who refuse to acknowledge contrary evidence).

Based on this, I would make the very rough observation that about 95% of anti-THR consists of cockroaches, engineered lies repeated by the tobacco control industry’s cadre of useful idiots because they actually believe them, and about 4.9% consists of zombie lies from people who know enough to know that what they are saying has been debunked, but pretend not to.  Oh, and the other 0.1% are lies too — just original ones that have not yet been debunked.  I know of no one who admits the truth about THR and then goes on to argue a reality-based position in opposition to it.

Some of the liars (in his world or ours) are definitely not unaware that their claims have been debunked.  There are influential people in the tobacco control industry who privately admit that they know they are lying about THR, but…

But they won’t change course; basically, they can’t, for careerist reasons. And that’s the story of a lot of what’s going on now.

Ralph Waldo Emerson understood this. The original version of his famous quote — I had forgotten this — reads:  A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

I don’t know about the divines bit, but the little statesmen thing is completely accurate. Suppose George Osborne were to admit that austerity isn’t working. What, then, would be left of his claim to be qualified to do, well, anything? He has to stick it out until something turns up, no matter how many lives it destroys.

Krugman sums it all up similarly in the previously quoted post:

The amazing thing is the way men who know neither theory nor the history of previous crises are utterly convinced that they know what to do in our current crisis; and how their confidence in their prescriptions has been unaffected by the fact that they have been wrong about everything so far. Of course, what’s even more amazing is the fact that these men are actually running things.

Moving from the leaders to the useful idiots (though some of the powerful policy makers are actually just useful idiots), why are there so many of them?  One explanation is “affinity fraud“:

I never heard the term “affinity fraud” until the Bernie Madoff affair hit the news. But once you hear it, the concept is obvious: people are most easily conned when they’re getting their disinformation from someone who seems to be part of their tribe, one way or another.

On the question of science claims and the inevitable errors that will result when you are doing real science:

OK, first things first: back when the crisis started, I did expect to see deflation, Japanese style, if it went on for an extended period. I was wrong — and I did what you’re supposed to do (but far too people actually do) when they’re wrong, which is to look for an explanation of your error that is consistent with the available evidence.

Can anyone give me a single example of some member of the tobacco control industry who admitted they got something wrong and tried to figure out why?  Ok, ok, stop laughing.  We all know that they do not even recognize the possibility of incorrect science, because for them sciencey words are just political rhetoric.  What they make scientific claims, they are not actually related to truth-seeking, so it would not even occur to them that they need to respond to evidence that they were wrong.

One of Krugman’s best running observations, in my mind, is his condemnation of naive observers who insist that in any debate, both sides must have some legitimate points and that compromise is possible:

self-identified centrists are sounding crazier and crazier, as they try to reconcile their fanatical devotion to the proposition that both parties are equally at fault

Setting aside the political specifics his world, this certainly rings true about the world of THR.  Anti-THR liars would be in trouble, even given their cadre of paid and unpaid useful idiots, were it not for the fact that so many more people insisted on believing (based on nothing but naive trust) that they cannot be basing their entire position on lies.  If one side of a debate is honest, scientific, and appropriately self-examining and careful, while the other side refuses to recognize even the most basic truths and will say anything that they think supports their cause, and then someone seeks “compromise” or “honest reconciliation of the opposing views”, where does that leave them?  It leaves them living thoroughly in the land of lies.  Spit the difference between healthy and cancerous, and you merely have a smaller tumor.

Here is a little snippet, just for some of my UK libertarian friends who hate most everything about the EU and Westminster, and yet for some reason really hate Krugman’s criticism of their failed macroeconomic policies (who should really read this post).  Notice that he does agree with you about about what “conservatives” in government are up to these days:

As long as the spending ends up lining the right pockets, and the undeserving beneficiaries of public largess are politically connected corporations, conservatives with actual power seem to like Big Government just fine.

On the use of clear and vivid language:

Partly I use striking and sarcastic metaphors to break through the complacency of officials. But I also, more broadly, have an Orwellian purpose — as in George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, which everyone should read.

There are many fine things in that Orwell essay, but the section that has influenced me most is the one in which he takes a famous passage from the King James Bible and renders it in official-speak. The original:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

The rewritten version is

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

As Orwell said, the original isn’t just pithier and punchier; it contains vivid metaphors that convey the sense far better than just laying out the argument. Similarly, in reverse, rather than refer to

an economic view that has unfortunately retained considerable influence, possibly because it has a political appeal to some parties, despite extensive empirical evidence that appears to refute the proposition

why not just refer to it as a “zombie idea”? It’s not just shorter, it conveys the sense of what is happening much better — and it places the idea in question in the context of other zombie ideas.

Or as he put it more tersely:

Now, it’s true that I use picturesque language — but I do that for a reason. “Words ought to be a little wild”, said John Maynard Keynes, “for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking.”

Skipping a bunch in that post about EU government cluelessness, he concludes:

And let’s be clear: this stuff matters. The European economy is in disastrous shape; so, increasingly, is the European political project. You might think that eurocrats would worry mainly about that reality; instead, they’re focused on defending their dignity from sharp-tongued economists.

Hmm, sounds a lot like the EU health ministry.

And finally, the crowning observation he finished that post about Orwell with:

Now, of course, some people get offended when you refer to their ideas as zombies. But if you’re worried about giving offense, you should be an official spokesperson, not an independent commentator.

2 responses to “Zombies, clear colorful language, and scientific honesty (some observations by Krugman)

  1. Pingback: Zombies, clear colorful language, and scientific honesty (some observations by Krugman) | VapeHalla! | Scoop.it

  2. Pingback: Can we agree not to make obviously incredible claims? | Anti-THR Lie of the Day

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