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InsiderOnline Blog: April 2014

The Problem with Vox.com

Vox.com, Ezra Klein’s much-anticipated website that promises to “explain the news in real time,” launched this week. If you’ve followed Klein’s career so far, you know he has a habit of saying that he follows the evidence not a party line. Indeed, his own lead essay at Vox (“How Politics Makes Us Stupid”) laments that so many smart people use evidence not to form conclusions but rather to strengthen arguments to which they are already committed.

You probably also know, if you’ve been following Klein, that his work is decidedly liberal. So does that mean that conservatives who disagree with Klein are against evidence? However much Klein and his cohort of explainers might want their audience to believe that, it just isn’t so. In fact, as David Harsanyi explains in an article titled, “How Vox Makes Us Stupid,” Klein’s shtick reveals his own biases:

We weigh tradeoffs. We “fight” about it. We come to an agreement. Or maybe we don’t. “Evidence”—by which explanatory journalists mean data they’ve decided is important—doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Just because we can compile some evidence that banning alcohol or rationing food would lead to a healthier America, does not mean that coercion is tolerable. Maybe evidence can demonstrate that Obamacare has helped the uninsured. Yet, if it also undercuts religious freedom and creates dependency that voters find corrosive or immoral, it’s no longer just a debate about numbers—it’s a debate about competing values. […]

It’d be easier to buy into the whole explanatory journalism experience if the editor-in-chief believed confirmation bias and identity-protective cognition existed on both sides. Not just with a throwaway line, but with an example. In Klein’s thought experiment, though, it’s radio host Sean Hannity—not Paul Krugman or Rachel Maddow—who is captive to an audience of rabid ideologues that would run him out of business if he took a contrarian position. [The Federalist, April 8]

The technocratic critique of the conservative position, explains Yuval Levin, is itself an example of bias in action:

[Our constitutional design] is a system that assumes we will never fully persuade one another in politics, and indeed that assumes we are probably all wrong — which we probably are. It is therefore a political system that makes us less stupid, not (as Klein suggests in the title of his piece) more so.

But the fact that among the roots of our political differences is a difference about epistemology — about what we can know in politics and how we can know it—means that this Madisonian conclusion is often itself one of the points of debate between Left and Right.

American progressives have long contended that as social science enables us to overcome some of the limits of what we know, it should also be permitted to overcome the constitutional limits on what government may do. They take themselves to be an exception to the rule that all parties see only parts of the whole, and therefore an exception also to the ubiquity of confirmation bias, and so they demand an exception to the rule that no party should have too much raw power. […]

But the progressives’ understanding of how social science can come to know society and of how such knowledge might be put into effect has itself been a point of great contention with conservatives — who tend to think that a society’s knowledge exists mostly in dispersed forms and therefore that public policy should work largely by enabling the dispersed social institutions of civil society, local community, and the market economy to address problems from the bottom up through incremental trial-and-error learning processes. This is a view of public policy that is generally compatible with the limits the constitutional system places on government, while the progressive preference for consolidated knowledge and centralized action tend to be far less so, and not by coincidence.

Many serious people on the left don’t believe this disagreement about the proper way to obtain and act on social knowledge is a legitimate difference, or rather they treat the technocratic attitude of the modern Left as common sense and therefore as not requiring justification. [National Review, April 9]

Anyone who thinks that serious thinkers on the Left are immune to the temptation to reverse-engineer arguments to arrive at pre-determined conclusions should be reminded that Klein once argued that Obamacare sticker shock couldn’t be a real thing. People had to know higher premiums were coming, he reasoned, since liberal policy wonks who read the bill knew they were coming. [Washington Post, June 1, 2013]

Posted on 04/08/14 08:04 PM by Alex Adrianson

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