Thursday, December 18, 2008

Expert Opinions

But, of course, standing by your opinions and staking your reputation upon them has its difficulties as well...

An 'expert' doesn't so much argue the various sides of an issue as plant his flag firmly on one side. That's because an expert whose argument reeks of restraint or nuance doesn't get much attention. An expert must be bold if he hopes to alchemize his homespun theory into conventional wisdom. His best chance of doing so is to engage the public's emotion, for emotion is the enemy of rational argument. And as emotions go, one of them -- fear -- is more potent than the rest. The super-predator, Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, mad-cow, crib death: how can we fail to heed the expert's advice on these horrors when, like that mean uncle telling too scary stories to too young children, he has reduced us to quivers?
-- Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics

Commercial ideas

That is, ideas as a medium of commerce. It's something that's been niggling me, at the edge of my mind. It has been there for some time now and only now can I put my finger on enough of it to express it in words. Allow me to illustrate the point with an example, a Google search:

Why Obama can't win

I checked this link as the meeting of the electoral college jogged my mind to an article by Shelby Steele and for fun I put the name of that article into Google. Today, I see links to Steele, another for conservative writer Alex Castellanos, and then, here's one from the NY Times:

‘Why Obama Can’t Win’ Author Defends Analysis

and a blogger of like mind:


and there it was, the thing that had been bothering me all this time...

This information age that we live in has no accountability. There is no one going around to people when they're wrong and telling them they were wrong, and there are no consequences for being wrong. When I'm a doctor and do something wrong, people will die. Shelby Steele and Alex Castellanos devoted thousands of words to a position that today is unassailably wrong and...there's no fallout whatsoever. Barack could win and did. But no admission of mistake, or misanalysis or unwarranted assumption. Just fades away like nothing was said at all.

But the Net never forgets, does it? And the reason why there's no consequence for it being wrong is because the position was valueless in the first place. It didn't matter to the person writing it. They didn't have to believe any of it. And it barely mattered to the person reading it, if they were smart. It was merely means to an end. That end was money. Publicity. Notoriety. The idea was just a commodity. Not something of weight, worth, something that could change the world. Not a principled stand attempting to incite serious discourse. Not a life's work or a vision of the future. It was just an item of commerce, the stuff of a salesman. The commercial idea.

What has this world come to? When did we get to a place where what people say doesn't matter? Where all that matters is making noise, to hell with being right or wrong in the end, with admitting you were mistaken? If you don't stake your name on your word, why should anyone listen to you?

These talking heads, pundits on TV, you'll never hear them say 'Yeah, I was way off on that one." Is it pride, or do they not even remember what they said, it being so trivial? I'm not sure which I would prefer. All I know is this, this world has a zillion opinions out there, and our brains are so suggestible in general. And the only ones (opinions and brains) of any value are the ones that 1) put enough thought beforehand into what they say to stand by it, 2) those that admit when they are mistaken and 3) those that revise their opinions to approximate the truth. But when your opinion is only good for getting you hits on a blog and paying your bills via CNN or a university salary, why would anyone do any of those three things? Why not just say something debatable enough for people to attack it or defend it while you get the attention?

What exactly is an idea worth these days?