Arguing against the facts, and other affronts to fashionable opinion

On Sunday, Thomas Frank—who’s long been one of my favorite incorruptibles of the Old Left—unleashed a torrent of abuse on the class of Washington journalists who make up what he derisively terms the “data brigade.” It is roughly the same group of writers who I called the New Centrists last week, and Frank puts both their punditry and the public’s adoration of it together as a reminder of how dangerously intoxicating the airs of expertise can prove to be: “In our loving, doting attentiveness to the people we conceive to be knowledgeable authorities,” he writes, “we have imported into our politics all the traditional maladies of professionalism.”

Ezra Klein, though, is a fine writer himself—I started reading him at about the same time I discovered Thomas Frank!—and not one to let a misdirected attack meet its target. So he played verbal jiujitsu on Frank, arguing that it the great value of political science is that it allows us to back away from ex cathedra arguments by assertion, and to test our suspicions about the world in a methodical way. To refuse this, Klein argues, is to burrow down in the den of self-righteous infallibility, and succumb to “the natural tendency to believe arguments we like and dismiss the ones we don’t.”

It might seem like a minor methodological dispute between two men buried deep in the arcana of political journalism. But I think the Frank–Klein schism is representative of much more than that, for the very same fault line runs straight down much of liberal politics, and the dispute cuts strange borders through the heart of how we think about people, social problems, and indeed the very nature of humanity. Put very crudely, it divides those who value precision, analytical coolness, and above all the dream of objectivity from those who embrace—or at times even indulge in—such all-too-human qualities as moral conviction, aesthetic judgement, and sensory experience. We might call it the split between those who exult reasonableness and those who exult righteousness. It tracks very closely last fall’s debate between Leon Wieseltier and Steven Pinker as a term of abuse. Further into the weeds, we can find it in Noah Smith’s puckish synonymizing of “deontological” and “arbitrary” value systems.

For me, it’s like watching your parents fight: I wish the two sides could just get along already. But there is real disagreement here. For my part, I wish Frank had been more cautious about his claim, and, instead of tarring “political science” and “data” generally, focused instead on the ways in which the mania for objectivity, graphs, and statistics is itself a deeply ideological position, and one which is doubly dangerous since it takes on such a carefully neutral appearance. Ezra Klein and his gang are wonderful journalists, but Frank’s right that their understanding of the world is not governed solely by the impeccable orderliness of pure logic and empirics. Instead, their journalism floats in a sea assumptions which are at least in part determined by the interests of their class. The maddening repetition of phrases like “everything you need to know” or “explained in ten charts” are symptomatic of a worldview which conceives of political questions as a puzzle to be worked at by smart people who will discover a single correct solution. But, of course, that’s not how politics works. Political life it is infinitely and inextricably embedded in the deeply illogical—often inscrutable—hopes, fears, passions, and aspirations of the men and women who jostle together in a democracy. (Or, to put it differently: the world of humankind is not a Rubik’s cube.) And there is no such thing as the view from nowhere; the proprietors of a website whose tweeted about Frank’s piece: “With the bathwater of accountability having been drained, Thomas Frank decides to throw out the baby of expertise.” And indeed I think Frank went too far, since, in blowing up the floor beneath the smug “data brigade,” he leaves us with no standing on which to move forward on our ever-unfolding yet never-completable search for human understanding. And we have even less of a basis on which to make judgements about the relative merits of different kinds of policy interventions. There are ways of criticizing empirical absolutism without taking on the role of the Cardinal Inquistor, muzzling Galileo for his inconvenient observations.

I’m not trying to be trot out my own species of split-the-baby centrism here. Rather than happily judge both Frank and Klein in the right, I’d more likely say that both are wrong. I’m in favor of what the anthropologist Michael Herzfeld has called the “militant middle ground:”1 a full-throated defense of the claim that knowledge and communication are possible, while still recognizing that they are unavoidably riddled with assumptions and perspectives; and an interpretation of empirics which is generous enough to encompass not only numbers and charts but sensations, intuitions, interpretations, moral judgements, cases, and causes—in short, which draws on as many human faculties as we can muster, while remaining at all time humble about what it is possible to grasp with universal certainty.

  1. Herzfeld, Anthropology: Theoretical Practice in Culture and Society (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001)

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