Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The Great Unraveling

On the plane, I read Eric by Terry Pratchett, and Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb. Both were good reading, and I think I'll probably pick up the sequel to Hobb's book soon. For the moment, though, I think I've switched gears -- in reading if not in music -- and after I came home this evening I spent some time listening to the local jazz station and reading The Great Unraveling by Paul Krugman, a collection of editorial essays taken from Krugman's regular New York Times column.

In the preface, Krugman states his background clearly:

Why did I see what others failed to see? One reason is that as a trained economist I wasn't even for a minute tempted to fall into the he-said-she-said style of reporting, under which opposing claims by politicians are given equal credence regardless of the facts. I did my own arithmetic -- or, where necessary, fot hold of real economists who could educate me on the subject I wrote about -- and quickly realized that we were dealing with world-class mendacity, right here in the USA.

Whether or not you agree with Krugman's conclusions -- I find his arguments compeling -- I find this paragraph very interesting. The first point he makes is that, in many areas, not all perspectives are equally valid. Certainly neither science nor mathematics are democratic endeavours. We don't legislate the value of pi, and we usually accept that someone who has spent years thinking about a technical topic might have some intuition that we lack. But a scientist or mathematician is only credible insofar as he can demonstrate his conclusions based on available data -- which should, ideally, be something that a non-expert could follow (though in some cases you might reasonably need to be a tenacious non-expert with a long attention span, and by the end of your endeavour you might no longer qualify as a non-expert). And this is the second point: opposing claims that can be judged on a factual basis should be judged on a factual basis. If fair and balanced coverage means that I say pi is about 3.14 and you say pi is about 2.86, so really we should weight both perspectives equally to guess that pi is 3 -- well, I suppose that means that life isn't fair by all lights. But then, who said it was?

As for the specific conclusions that Krugman draws -- well, I'll quote again:

But have I been right? Read the book and decide for yourself.

  • Currently drinking: Black coffee