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A Palin Thought Experiment

July 13th, 2009 · 12 Comments

After a bout of initial confusion, at least some Palinistas have come around to the view that the Alaska governor’s resignation is actually a canny maverick move after all—or at any rate, have gotten in enough time practicing in front of the mirror that they’re able to say so straightfaced. But I find I can’t help imagining what the reaction would have been a month ago, from the very same people, if some wag had suggested that it would be in the best interests of both Alaska and Palin’s own political prospects to step down—and indeed, to cite as the public reason for her resignation the burden of fending off frivolous ethics complaints brought by political enemies.

At best, it would have been seen as a bad joke—a satirical “helpful suggestion” that could only have been offered by someone plainly hostile to Palin. We’d be assured, of course, that Sarah Barracuda would never dream of folding under pressure like that. Just think of the message it would send—capitulating to a pressure campaign by a bunch of lefty bloggers? Neville Chamberlain would have been invoked.

This is obviously a bit speculative, but there have, in fact, been some folks suggesting that Palin ought to resign over the past few months. All, as far as I can tell, were on the left. I don’t recall seeing any Republicans saying: “You know, maybe that would be best.”

More generally, given the transparently partisan way professional ideologues tend to respond to political events, I wish someone would start some sort of Hypotheticals Registry for pundits.  You’d describe, in abstract terms, a potential political controversy or scandal—a program of warrantless wiretaps, an Argentine mistress, an abrupt resignation amid a flurry of ethics charges—and then get the talking head brigade to register in advance how outrageous the behavior in question is. Not that most of them aren’t clever enough to find grounds for distinguishing the actual fact pattern from the hypothetical they responded to when it becomes necessary to do an about-face, but it might at least be more entertaining to watch them squirm a bit.

Addendum: Something felt nigglingly familiar about that last paragraph—I realize it’s because it’s fairly similar to author David Brin’s call for a “predicitions registry.” What Brin wants is to hold pundits accountable for their claims about what is or isn’t likely to happen, which may also be a good idea, but it seems to me that a lot of punditry is normative rather than predictive. The point of the Hypotheticals Registry is not so much to see if the bobbleheads make the right calls about what will happen, but whether they can accurately forecast their own reactions to political developments from behind a partisan veil of ignorance.

Tags: Horse Race Politics · Journalism & the Media


       

 

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 steve // Jul 13, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    We have such a registry already. It’s called “the Daily Show”. Given the level of media attention and clips available to us now days, it’s perfectly possible to go find when a politician or ideological talking head contradicts themselves on the particulars of a given situation. You don’t even need to use hypothetical circumstance because almost everything has been done before.

    The problem isn’t knowing this, or anticipating the inconsistencies in advance. It’s that “they” don’t care about being logically consistent on principles in the application.

  • 2 Eric the .5b // Jul 13, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    “at least some Palinistas have come around to the view that the Alaska governor’s resignation is actually a canny maverick move after all”

    Fox News and others were pushing the “this is a simultaneously politically crafty and utterly selfless move” line early last week.

  • 3 DivisionByZero // Jul 13, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    I’d rather have someone that can spin both sides of the issue write-up the “argument” that will be inevitable, read it aloud, and ask the talking heads if they have anything to add? It’d be a short show. It’s embarrassing that I don’t even need to read/watch/listen to the news anymore because I know exactly what both sides will say before they say it. Obama and McCain occasionally surprise me.

  • 4 Justin // Jul 13, 2009 at 8:05 pm

    It’s an interesting idea you’re proposing. In a somewhat similar vein, there’s the website Wrong Tomorrow, which hasn’t quite gotten traction yet. It’s also a little slanted towards tech news right now, but I think that’s just a function of where it’s been promoted.

  • 5 Chris Anderson // Jul 14, 2009 at 1:55 am

    In reference to the ‘predictions registry’ – Longbets appears to put together a great site….and you get to put your money where your mind is.

  • 6 Chris Anderson // Jul 14, 2009 at 1:56 am

    http://www.longbets.org/

  • 7 Abby Kelleyite // Jul 14, 2009 at 10:33 am

    I think you could blend the ideas of the predictions registry and hypotheticals registry by creating a futures market in pundit predictions. Right wing pundits should particularly like this market-based approach and nothing would keep them from investing in their own future positions save for the massive losses they might face if they do not live up to their predicted responses. What a wonderful way to internalize the external costs of bad punditry.

  • 8 dsimon // Jul 14, 2009 at 11:37 am

    A book on pundit accuracy came out a couple of years ago. Here’s an excerpt from the review in The New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/12/05/051205crbo_books1?currentPage=1
    ___________

    It is the somewhat gratifying lesson of Philip Tetlock’s new book, “Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?” (Princeton; $35), that people who make prediction their business—people who appear as experts on television, get quoted in newspaper articles, advise governments and businesses, and participate in punditry roundtables—are no better than the rest of us. When they’re wrong, they’re rarely held accountable, and they rarely admit it, either. They insist that they were just off on timing, or blindsided by an improbable event, or almost right, or wrong for the right reasons. They have the same repertoire of self-justifications that everyone has, and are no more inclined than anyone else to revise their beliefs about the way the world works, or ought to work, just because they made a mistake. No one is paying you for your gratuitous opinions about other people, but the experts are being paid, and Tetlock claims that the better known and more frequently quoted they are, the less reliable their guesses about the future are likely to be. The accuracy of an expert’s predictions actually has an inverse relationship to his or her self-confidence, renown, and, beyond a certain point, depth of knowledge. People who follow current events by reading the papers and newsmagazines regularly can guess what is likely to happen about as accurately as the specialists whom the papers quote. Our system of expertise is completely inside out: it rewards bad judgments over good ones.

  • 9 Clint // Jul 14, 2009 at 12:40 pm

    “After a bout of initial confusion, at least some Palinistas have come around to the view that the Alaska governor’s resignation is actually a canny maverick move after all”

    Who knows what it is. Applying basic reasoning to her actions yield little understanding. I wouldn’t be surprised if her resignation stemmed from a childing stubbornness — the same kind that made her a bit of a maverick in her own campaign last year.

    But who can tell with That Woman?

  • 10 NadavT // Jul 14, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    I really like both the idea of a hypothetical registry and a predictions registry. My own idea is to create a “credibility registry” that would consist of a short questionnaire with items including:

    1. Provide three guiding principles that inform your judgments.

    2. Describe a time when you learned something that caused you to change your mind.

    3. Describe a time when you were right while other pundits were wrong.

    4. Describe a time when you were wrong while other pundits were right.

    And so on. The point would be less to point out hypocrisy than it would to inform people about the ability of pundits to think critically about issues, rather than simply reacting with knee-jerk partisanship. If Bill Kristol honestly thinks that he has never been wrong, it would be nice to have him state that officially.

  • 11 Rob // Jul 14, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    You’d describe, in abstract terms, a potential political controversy or scandal—a program of warrantless wiretaps, an Argentine mistress, an abrupt resignation amid a flurry of ethics charges—

    Or finding a brick of $100,000 in someone’s freezer, or a bunch of lobbyists in the Cabinet or someone attempting to sell a Senate seat or, for that matter, someone driving off a bridge with his mistress and leaving her to drown.

  • 12 Barry // Jul 15, 2009 at 10:50 am

    “Our system of expertise is completely inside out: it rewards bad judgments over good ones.”

    That’s only if one believes the justifications. Think of the system as rewarding useful propaganda, and it works pretty well.

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