About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Buzzing About the Bema

by Steve Neumann

It’s cliche to claim that around the clock news outlets and social media such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter have revolutionized our culture and raised our global consciousness. These technologies have provided us with many benefits: they brought the gruesome reality of war and other political injustices into our living rooms in real time, which has inspired more and more people to oppose unnecessary or immoral wars and interventions; they have enabled greater communication and understanding between cultures; and they have even contributed to economic growth by allowing both corporations and individuals to reach ever wider audiences with their products and services.

This trend is not without its side effects, of course - chief among them the fact that anyone can say anything at the press of a button pretty much with impunity. And this unfortunate effect has grown so much just in the past decade that it has now become an unsettling cacophony, a near-constant noise that refuses to relent. Unless you live in a cave in the mountains, your environment is saturated with it. And the ejaculations of these media have increasingly become less about expressing oneself than about persuading others to think and believe as we do - in other words, to impose our values on others. 

It seems to me that this is most evident in the political sphere. When it comes to politics, everyone’s a pundit; and whether we offer original analysis or regurgitate the opinions of our favorite thinker or talking-head, we are making assertions - arguments that contain evidence and assumptions that aren’t readily offered or apparent. It seems that very few people actually take the time to vet the information that comprises the substance of their tweet, status update or fifteen minutes of verbal diarrhea on The O’Reilly Factor. Many people simply see the title or tagline of an article that confirms their preconceptions and promptly jettison it out into the Informatosphere. 

To make matters worse, the things that matter most to us are inevitably tied up with politics of some sort - the rules, regulations and laws that are being contemplated by our elected officials. And things get confusing really fast. When we’re this inundated with information, with passionate and strident opinions, how do we make the time to separate the wheat from the chaff? How can we have time to read the original article that led to our friend’s tweet, or the soundbite we heard on the news, when we’re driving our kids to school, burning the midnight oil to get those TPS reports done, trying to stave off heart disease at the gym, or simply enjoying a wee dram of Bulleit bourbon to ward off the winter chill? 

When it comes to politics, we tend to rely on the “experts,” the columnists, talk-show hosts and public figures with whom we have an affinity. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. None of us really has the time - and frequently not even the aptitude - to become subject matter experts, so we look to authority figures in those domains to help us work out our beliefs and opinions about things. When it comes to physics, for example, I trust people like Sean Carroll to tell me what the physical world is really made of. So when it comes to politics, we naturally gravitate toward those whose “job” it is to work on such things. But why is it still so confusing? Why do we still have a sense that we’re often being lied to, or harbor strong feelings of skepticism and distrust? 

Plato would probably blame it on the drones. Not the unmanned aerial vehicles that can assassinate you with rockets - but not entirely unrelated, either. In The Republic, Plato famously describes what he considers the downhill slide of political organization from aristocracy to tyranny. Unlike us moderns, he didn’t have a high opinion of democracy; for him, it was just a gateway drug to tyranny. But when Plato talks about the drone, he means that citizen who is “neither ruler nor subject, but spendthrift,” akin to the male honey bee in the beehive, having all the sex but doing none of the work. He goes on to say that “while the keener sort speak and act, the rest keep buzzing about the bema and do not suffer a word to be said on the other side; hence in democracies almost everything is managed by the drones.” Plato believed that the drones become the dominant political figures, and blames “freedom” for creating conditions in which they flourish. He even believed that they’re fiercer in a democracy than in other forms of government. 

But do we have those kind of drones in our society today, or are they of a different sort? I would say that the drones of our society today are the professional political pundits. They are the ones who try most strenuously to persuade everyone to their view of things while at the same time trying to silence any opposing voices. The next time you watch a talking-head show, just try not to imagine the raucous back-and-forth exchanges between pundits as a swarm of honey bees whose nest has just been disturbed. But the real problem is that these drones are more concerned with the efficacy of their rhetoric than with the veracity of their facts. 

University of Pennsylvania Professor of Psychology Philip Tetlock published a book in 2005 entitled “Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It?” His research showed that accurate long-term political forecasting is pretty much impossible. But since then, we’ve had the infamous Nate Silver episode, where he accurately predicted Obama’s reelection amid the outrage of the Right, which showed that short-term prediction is possible to some degree. It was controversial because it not only showed the relative vacuity of most pundits’ “gut feelings” but also because it provides a precedent for a potential benchmark in political forecasting. Pundits might have to rely less on impassioned rhetoric and more on rigorous and “objective” analysis. 

Tetlock believes that if pundits realize that their accuracy can be benchmarked, then this will elevate the quality of public debate. But I’m skeptical. We’ve all heard political pundits and lackeys hedge and hem and haw when confronted with information that puts their judgments in doubt, or even contradicts them altogether. I have yet to see one say, “You know, you’re absolutely right; I was wrong.” People may temporarily doubt their most cherished presumptions, but they almost never go back and totally reevaluate them. But as I said before, punditry is less about disseminating truth than it is about bolstering the prejudices of, and mobilizing the armies of, the base of the party to which their leash is attached. 

I find it interesting how prescient Plato was when he also said that the drones “try to convince the poor that the rich are oligarchs, and they try to convince the rich that the poor are going to revolt.” Income inequality is a reality, and there are definitely pundits out there who try to convince others that the rich really are oligarchs - hell, I might even be one of them. But I don’t think pundits are necessary for the rich to know that the poor are going to revolt - just look at what happened with the Occupy movement two years ago, spreading from Manhattan to the rest of the globe. 

But I guess now that nearly everyone can be considered a “lay pundit” because of blogging, Twitter and Facebook, there’s not much hope that we’ll be able to drown out the buzzing of the drones, or decipher a signal amidst all that noise - at least not without a lot of effort on our part.


  1. Steve, agreed. On climate science denialism, we've already seen how people will actually dig their heels in further when faced with more evidence of the reality of climate change.

    So, I suspect that pundits did the same re Silver, and would double down when presented with more evidence of how objective analysis can hold them accountable, but prove them right if they're good -- they'll double down on digging their heels in on the accuracy of their proprietary polling without revealing why it's proprietary, defend the history of their gut instincts, etc.

  2. At least one pundit has discussed where he went wrong last year.


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