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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Evil Spirits, Markov Processes, and The New York Times

Last week we classified the commonly encountered liberal mathematicians into four species: the spherical horse, the happily ignorant, the NYT victim, and the true believer. Having dealt with spherical horses, we turn now to the happily ignorant and the victims of the New York Times.

The happily ignorant are an innocuous group consisting of those mathematicians who devote so much of their mental energies to mathematics that the little residual brain power remaining for their political discussions leaves them sounding like children in elementary school. No one on the left or right pays them much heed; so, we need not concern ourselves with them further.

The victims of the New York Times (and NPR - thank goodness the Valentine's Day fund raiser is finally over) constitute the largest subgroup of liberal mathematicians. Their primary sources of information are the NYT and NPR. These scholars, often extremely intellectually aggressive within their own disciplines, passively accept the most vacuous political analysis that the Times can offer. Reflecting their information sources, their understanding of the economics of any policy question is extremely primitive. Because they all have the same news source, a circuit around the faculty lounge yields the same regurgitation of Krugman "analysis" from multiple mouths. Left wing politics ensues.

I would like to see an assault on the NYT's dominant position on the academic's breakfast table - an assault that moves beyond moaning about the obvious liberal bias of the paper. I began reading the Wall Street Journal in my teen years, hoping that regular reading of the Journal would make me a savvy investor. When I began grad school, the NYT was everywhere, and I started reading it regularly too. By the time I graduated, however, I had largely abandoned the Times. When comparing the Times to the Journal, I was deeply impressed by the Journal's far better track record in predicting the future consequences of current actions. I assume this is due to their conservative outlook and their focus on economic analysis. For years they railed about the ticking time bomb that was Fannie Mae and the devastating impact its implosion would have on the economy. They were painfully correct. When Chavez first campaigned in Venezuela, they predicted his eventual assault on democracy. Correct again. On a smaller time scale, the rapid run up in credit card interest rates following the recent congressional imposition of new restrictions on credit card issuers, followed very closely the scenario predicted by the Journal. By contrast, the Times's aneconomic analysis seems to leave them unable to link cause and effect. They often call to mind people in a preliterate, prescientific society who attribute their illnesses and mishaps to evil spirits because they don't understand the link between hygiene, contagion, and disease. Blithely reading the Times is what probabilists call a Markov process. Quoting Wikipedia: a Markov process "is a mathematical model for the random evolution of a memoryless system, that is, one for which the likelihood of a given future state, at any given moment, depends only on its present state, and not on any past states."

After several years of seeing the Journal's forecasts frequently verified six months later, while the Times would simply change the subject from the failure of their analyses, I became unwilling to waste my precious time on the New York Times. Unlike Adam Sandler's character in 50 First Dates, I could not invest in a partner who greeted each new day apparently oblivious to everything learned in the previous 24 hours.

Of course all papers have their own weaknesses and ideological blind spots, the Journal included. So, it is useful to obtain your news from multiple sources. My conservative friends are amused by my regular daily attention to National Public Radio. Yes, NPR is strongly biased to the left, and Daniel Shore makes me nauseated whenever he blathers on. On the other hand, the primary way for any reasonable news source to mislead is not by telling bald lies, but by describing the mouse in the room in great detail while neglecting to mention the elephant looming over the mouse. (Reputedly, the NYT is no longer reasonable). With multiple sources, someone always mentions the elephant.

The conservative blogosphere should focus less on the bias of the Times and its ideological clones (which Taranto describes so well) and focus more on concrete examples of the greater clarity and predictive power associated with the conservative worldview.


  1. No comments, eh? That's a shame - but thank you for writing regularly anyway.

    I think one of the ways one can distinguish educated conservatives from liberals is by their discernment. Simply put, conservatives (in academia especially) have more practice not believing everything they read, or hear.

    We understand that everyone has bias (even academics who will admit to bias in the abstract but deny it in the particular) because we see that bias so clearly. The academic conservative is faced every day with the contradiction of otherwise intelligent and thoughtful people holding beliefs which differ fundamentally from her own. It doesn't take long to see that our liberal friends must be seeing the world through glasses of a different color entirely, and as such are deeply biased but may not know it. The honest conservative then must conclude that she also has her own biases, but is empowered by the self-knowledge of the fact.

    What strikes me is how little empiricism is applied to political thought, even among hard scientists. Spherical horses aside, can we not simply examine a bit of history to see what happened the last time Political Theory X was applied? In science, observation always trumps theory (unless the subject is global warming, I suppose).

    So maybe that's another topic - though you may have addressed it already, since I haven't finished reading your back posts. In what ways should the disciplines of mathematical and scientific process apply to political thought? Is there a place for empiricism in politics?

    But then I suppose, perhaps that's the point of this blog...

    Anyway, thanks again. Cheers!

  2. Great post! the other thing I have noticed is that conservatives are more sure of themselves and less sensitive....I dont know why...but it seems to be the case generally...