Generally speaking, Marc Ambinder is one of the best political writers at The Atlantic, but he misses by a mile in Friday’s “Have Conservatives Gone Mad?” In it, Ambinder trudges down the latest fad in punditry, that the Right has closed its collective mind, and that the opposition to Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi has abandoned empiricism, as Jay Rosen put it on Twitter. However, as a defense of empiricism, Ambinder’s piece looks more like an instructional satire.
Let’s take his argument about the effectiveness of conservative opposition to the Democrats:
Mainstream conservative voices are embracing theories that are, to use Julian Sanchez’s phrase, “untethered” to the real world.
Can anyone deny that the most trenchant and effective criticism of President Obama today comes not from the right but from the left? Rachel Maddow’s grilling of administration economic officials. Keith Olbermann’s hectoring of Democratic leaders on the public option. Glenn Greenwald’s criticisms of Elena Kagan. Ezra Klein and Jonathan Cohn’s keepin’-them-honest perspectives on health care. The civil libertarian left on detainees and Gitmo. The Huffington Post on derivatives.
“Trenchant” is a subjective evaluation, but “effective” is testable. An empiricist would ask whether the criticisms have demonstrated effectiveness with the audiences of these critics, and whether other audiences have been moved more by other critics. The polling data indicates that Ambinder’s dead wrong about effectiveness. The loss of support from Democrats has been negligible over the last fifteen months, which are the core audience of HuffPo, Salon, and especially Keith Olbermann. Gallup shows a loss of only five points in that time among Democrats in support for Obama, while support among independents has dropped 19 points, from 62% to 43%, and 27 points among Republicans, 41% to 14%. Obama isn’t losing support from the Left; he’s losing it from the center.
Next, Ambinder offers a series of issues that he claims proves the lack of empiricism on the Right without supporting his argument at all:
It is absolutely a condition of the age of the triumph of conservative personality politics, where entertainers shouting slogans are taken seriously as political actors, and where the incentive structures exist to stomp on dissent and nuance, causing experimental voices to retrench and allowing a lot of people to pretend that the world around them is not changing. The obsession with ACORN, Climategate, death panels, the militarization of rhetoric, Saul Alinsky, Chicago-style politics, that TAXPAYERS will fund the bailout of banks — these aren’t meaningful or interesting or even relevant things to focus on. (The banks will fund their own bailouts.)
First, the claim that taxpayers fund the bank bailouts isn’t unique to the Right. After all, it’s not the conservatives in the Senate that are demanding financial-services reform, although it seems to be mainly the Right that wants an end to “too big to fail.” Taxpayers are guaranteeing those banks that received bailouts, which at the least involves a cost-of-money calculation, if it wasn’t for the fact that we’re already borrowing more than a trillion dollars a year just to fund the federal government’s operations. If any of those banks fail, then taxpayers will lose an investment that many of them didn’t want at all, and that will mean that they funded a bailout that merely postponed the inevitable. The larger question asked by the Right, which Ambinder ignores in this superficial construct, is whether taxpayers should guarantee banks against failure at all (as opposed to guaranteeing depositors to a certain level through the FDIC) — and for that matter, car companies and insurance giants, too. Given the massive amounts of money involved, an accusation of irrelevance seems a little odd, to say the least.
Climategate is an even better example. The entire issue is about empiricism, which Ambinder ignores. The computer models for anthropogenic global warming have proven ineffective for prediction. The East Anglia CRU e-mails show that the AGW industry among academics conducted purges and career sabotage against skeptics, hid contradictory data and results, and destroyed the raw data needed to validate the claims they made. Furthermore, the resulting scrutiny showed that the IPCC had built a significant portion of its fourth report on climate change on advocacy group claims that turned out to be hysterical and/or factually incorrect, especially these particular incidents over the last few months:
- Amazonian rainforest conclusions not based on scientific research but on advocacy group claims
- Mountain glacier claims based on unsubstantiated student theses and anecdotes from climber magazine
- Search of IPCC report footnotes exposes ten more student dissertations presented as peer-reviewed research
- African-crop claims exposed as false
- IPCC researchers excluded Southern Hemisphere data to exaggerate effects of warming on hurricanes
- Hurricane claims further exposed as false by actual peer-reviewed research — including by some AGW researchers
- IPCC withdraws claim that AGW will wipe out Himalayan glaciers by 2035
- IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri knew Himalayan claim was bogus for months before exposure
An accusation against AGW critics of anti-empiricism in this case is simply jaw-dropping. And considering that AGW advocacy aims to impose much greater government control over energy sectors in Western economies, it’s not an obsession with a minor political issue, either. It’s entirely relevant, especially as the Obama administration uses it to prepare its massive cap-and-trade effort. What the climate-change research needs in more empiricism, more skepticism and testing, and a lot less “Shut up, he explained” nonsense about “consensus.”
This “closing of the conservative mind” meme may have better support elsewhere, but defenders of empiricism need to employ it in their own arguments. Ambinder has done better work than this. Maybe he should get his data from somewhere other than MS-NBC and Salon.
Update: Jimmy Bise wants to give me an award for reading past the Olbermann paragraph. Just make sure the award is based on empirical data, please.