“Hey, Paul Krugman”, Confirmation Bias, and the Pop-idolization of Academics

Jonathen Mann writes a song a day, everyday. Last thursday he posted the “Ipod Antenna Song” which was featured in Apple’s July 16th press conference on “Antenna Gate“.

When you write a song everyday, and you aren’t terrible, some of them are going to be good. This is actually his theory – given any stable proportion of good songs to crap, the greater the total number, the greater the total number of songs – the greater the number of good songs. One of his good songs, “Hey Paul Krugman, where the hell are you man?” has over 240 thousand hits, and has been featured on Network television (see Krugman’s response).

The song portrays Krugman in a positive light, ridicules current treasury secretary Timothy Geithner for using TurboTax, and asks why Krugman isn’t in the administration, and out “on the front lines” making decisions, instead of “writing a blog” and for the New York Times.

It’s a fair point – Krugman could probably make a significant contribution to US policy if given a change, but it would likely be at the expense of strategic elite interests. But this song is mostly not about the message, but the medium. The fact that public intellectuals become something like pop idols tells us something about the way democracy functions today. As soon as Krugman is a romanticized hero of the liberal “left” (centre), and I think that’s what goes on through this youtube-ization of assent, readers will encounter his work through a confirmation bias.This doesn’t make Krugman wrong, but it does make his advocates less believable.

Milan has written about confirmation bias on his blog, as well as on his climate blog, burycoal.com. When I brought up his dislike of Chomsky as a form of confirmation bias, he specifically asserted that confirmation bias is less of a problem when directed towards individuals than towards ideas. And, he might be right – but I still think it’s a problem. When people become fans of an academic to the point of idolization, they don’t treat that thinker’s work critically enough – at least not from the perspective of that figure’s detractors. On the other hand, people resolutely opposed to figures to the point of hatred also fail to say anything intelligent, i.e. Faye’s recent book on Heidegger’s Naziism (see also recent NY Times articles on Heidegger).

Maybe the most pernicious characteristic of confirmation-biased arguments is that bad arguments get repeated. This seems true in the case of climate denial, and among defenders of racist political ideologies. However, it very well might be true of myself, and my support for Chomsky, Anarcho-Communism, and a resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict along the Green Line and for the fulfillment of UN resolution 194.

However, I don’t think it does any good to bring an ad-hominum argument against someone, i.e. “the problem with your political position is the confirmation bias which follows from supporting your politics”. All one can do is be open to honest critique of actual positions, i.e. “what is wrong with what this person says”, and produce the source. Anyone unwilling to debate political, philosophical and economic issues based on decidable facts and observations about positions is not willing to debate them at all.

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4 thoughts on ““Hey, Paul Krugman”, Confirmation Bias, and the Pop-idolization of Academics

  1. Confirmation bias is more something to be aware of when we are interpreting information ourselves, and less something to be brought up in the course of debate between people.

    In the latter activity, arguments should be evaluated on the basis of logic and evidence, rather than the reasons why a person chose to adopt them (though speculating on that can certainly be interesting).

  2. “In the latter activity, arguments should be evaluated on the basis of logic and evidence, rather than the reasons why a person chose to adopt them (though speculating on that can certainly be interesting).”

    In general, this is true. However, since not all arguments occur on the basis of logic and evidence, it’s essential to have an understanding of dialogue that includes emotions and biases. While it’s not valid to bring up someone’s “bias” as a reason they are wrong, it is essential to have some understanding of why another person might express extreme disregard for logic and evidence.

    Actual dialogical incidents of disregard for evidence can be emotionally destabilizing to a party who is attacked. This is because we usually assume in argument that both parties respect logic and evidence – when this assumption becomes demonstrably untrue, one needs some kind of story as to why the norms of dialogue have broken down. This is not that different from the way one’s world is shaken when someone we trust betrays us, i.e. in cases of cheating on romantic relationships – in both cases an event makes us question basic assumptions we make about our ability to know and understand the world.

  3. Thinking about this more, I feel more confident in my intuition that there is something interesting about this Jonathen Mann character.

    These songs are potentially something like public opinion lightening rods. They spread over the net like wildfire because they elicit some kind of emotional response. “Hey, Paul Krugman” just feels true, given a kind of everyday liberal understanding of what’s going wrong.

    Another one of his songs, about the iphone antenna, captures the public over-reaction called “Antenna gate”. The song feels like a catharsis – simply by pointing out that you can return the iphone if you don’t like it. Something so simple, and yet in this case, somehow profound. Falsely profound, probably. The theological economy of apple worship is only superficially about returnable consumer products.

  4. [I]t is essential to have some understanding of why another person might express extreme disregard for logic and evidence.

    This is one reason why I find Holocaust deniers interesting. They seem to make a good case study.

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