Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Comparative Hackery, Part 2

"Paul Krugman's … reputation as an economist has declined precipitously since he began writing [his NYT column]." (Niall Ferguson)

"Niall Ferguson devoted a column in the Financial Times to defending himself against something I said in a panel discussion. I can't imagine doing that!" (Paul Krugman)

I often tell that story about Paul Krugman's lecture in my writing seminars. My explanation for Krugman's intellectual composure, which, unassisted by slides or a script, is able to produce a coherent, articulate 45-minute lecture on the financial crisis, is that he must write often. In fact, we know he writes a weekly column for the New York Times, which isn't quite enough to explain it, but certainly evidence of a regular writing habit. For my part, I compose one of these blog posts every morning. This, I would argue, goes a long way towards explaining how I can deliver anything from a ten-minute contribution to a faculty meeting to a three hour seminar about how to improve your scholarly writing essentially at will. (I like to have a bit of warning, of course, but mainly to help me enjoy it and develop the presentation a little each time.) And there's a reciprocal relationship at work: I write about things that I talk about often and then write about and talk about.

Ferguson must, of course, also write often. So what is the difference? Well, based on my limited knowledge of how either man works, I can only guess. But it is my impression that Krugman uses his opportunities for public speaking (and probably also his academic opportunities, whether in the literature or in the classroom) to state his views. When, in my seminars again, I define "knowledge" in the classical way as "justified, true belief", I always emphasize that last word. You should not only write true and justified claims. You should write down what you believe. If you don't really believe what you are saying, you don't know what you are talking about. This, I suspect, is harmful to your style.

The working theory among Ferguson's critics these days is that he writes and speaks in public not to express his actually held views but to impress his highly influential audience. (In the case of the Newsweek piece this was suggested as his main goal. The fact that he also seemed to be writing to mislead the broader public was merely a means to an end. He was showing the powerful how useful he could be to them in their attempts to manipulate the powerless.) The charge here is intellectual dishonesty. (Eric Garland makes this charge explicitly. Krugman, for his part, says what Ferguson did was "unethical".) He is saying something he does not believe in order to produce a particular effect in his audience. (Given the way he distorts his sources, it is hard to imagine he doesn't understand himself that they don't support his argument.) This also, to my mind, explains why Ferguson's public speaking (and writing, actually) seems much more "affected" than Krugman's. Ferguson is obviously acting, performing. Krugman is just speaking his mind. He has something to say and, although it's something he's said before, he is saying it off the top of his head. Ferguson appears to be delivering little "bits" prepared for the occasion.

I'll drop this subject now. Truthfully, I don't have much of a horse in this race. I'm neither an economist nor a historian. I only envy the lively and detailed discussion that this case has been witness to. I wish we could have a similar discussion about intellectual honesty in organization studies. This is not just because it would improve our knowledge of the subject but because it would make the conversation interesting.

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