In defense of sophistry
posted at 2:31 pm on November 3, 2012 by Jazz Shaw
For anyone who writes about politics professionally, there always comes a point where you ask yourself, what the heck are we doing here? Let’s face it… it’s not actually pure journalism in the classic sense, assuming that exists any more. The idea of collecting, sorting and disseminating news about current events is an appealing one and it’s a product which people have long shown an appetite for. But it didn’t take more than a few minutes for powerful people to realize the potential of being able to spin that coverage to bend public opinion in their direction. (In fact, the history of American newspaper publishing could fairly demonstrate a case that the motive predated the first actual publications.) So in terms of modern American politics, what is the value of punditry?
Matt Lewis seeks to answer this question in his column, In defense of punditry.
To be fair, I have also been skeptical of predictions made by political pundits — going so far as to pronounce that a monkey would have as good a chance of making correct predictions.
But while I am skeptical of political pundits, I am equally skeptical of the utopian notion that the “best and the brightest” young technocrats can crack the code and build a “model” to predict the complexities of human behavior…
Regardless, I have little skin in this game. Punditry and commentary will, of course, live on. The rise of the technocrat may make life harder for those who do horse race “process” coverage, but it can’t speak to what should happen — what policies a good society should embrace. And that’s what should interest us most.
It’s a nice, if somewhat idealistic notion. But I find it interesting – and somewhat telling – that Matt chooses to open his column with a quote from Edmund Burke. “But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever.”
Punditry, in the common parlance, is accepted to be the opinions or methods of a learned person, expert or authority who makes comments or judgments, especially in an authoritative manner. But no discussion of political punditry seems to take place without Burke’s hint of sophistry lurking in the background. If the sophist seeks to deceive by weaving facts and distortions together while speaking in an authoritative fashion, doesn’t that mean that pundits from opposite ends of the spectrum will always look at each other as nothing but budget rate sophists?
Both Matt and Tim Carney pointed out a rather apt quote on this idea.
@drgrist: The dream that dispassionate experts can transcend and avoid ideological struggles is as persistent as it is futile.
If that sounds like an unpleasant tablespoon full of honesty, it probably is. There’s a natural – and not necessarily harmful – tendency for any of us to relay descriptions which are favorable to our candidate, our party or our ideology. We tend to report a bit more glowingly on surveys which favor our side and look at little harder and more skeptically at those bringing bad news. We admire and quote speakers who support the goals we hope for and raise objections to those who don’t.
But we can still draw some lines in the sand. If you’re reading a site which routinely reports things like “insider news” that John Roberts is retiring, you may want to rethink your opinion of them. If somebody regularly runs stories saying that 5,000 people showed up for a rally for Candidate X and numerous photos show there were only fifty people in the crowd, it’s probably time to shop for opinions elsewhere. This dates back to the yellow journalism newspapers in the American east in the early 1800s.
Either way, Matt Lewis brings up some good questions. A lot of writers doubtless wake up the day after every election and look in the mirror asking one question. Are you a pundit or a sophist? Or is there that much of a difference anymore?
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