Nate Silver gets it; Tyler Cowen does not

Two of our favorite public intellectuals on the Internet (is that an oxymoron?) are Nate Silver (fivethirtyeight) and Tyler Cowen (marginalrevolution). We admire Professor Cowen because he is one of the few economists interested in human nature and culture. He teaches a course in “Law & Literature” and is a voracious reader of Latin American literature. (We studied Latin lit in college, and our academic field is law.) We admire Nate Silver because he has almost single-handedly dismantled the pernicious media monopoly of partisan political commentators or “pundits” in traditional print and TV media. We now admire Silver for his intellectual honesty. Recently, he wrote up a mea culpa titled “How I acted like a pundit and screwed up on Donald Trump“; here is an excerpt (emphasis added; footnote omitted):

Without having a model, I found, I was subject to a lot of the same biases as the pundits I usually criticize. In particular, I got anchored on my initial forecast and was slow to update my priors in the face of new data. And I found myself selectively interpreting the evidence and engaging in some lazy reasoning. Another way to put it is that a model gives you discipline, and discipline is a valuable resource when everyone is losing their mind in the midst of a campaign.

Then there is Tyler Cowen’s highly speculative, over-generalized, and (frankly) insulting cultural explanation of the rise of Trump titled “What the hell is going on?“; here is an excerpt (emphasis and ellipsis in the original):

The contemporary world is not very well built for a large chunk of males. The nature of current service jobs, coddled class time and homework-intensive schooling, a feminized culture allergic to most forms of violence, post-feminist gender relations, and egalitarian semi-cosmopolitanism just don’t sit well with many…what shall I call them? Brutes? Quite simply, there are many people who don’t like it when the world becomes nicer.  They do less well with nice.  And they respond by in turn behaving less nicely, if only in their voting behavior and perhaps their internet harassment as well.

Nice try, Tyler … After all, we understand academics are supposed to speculate about the nature of the world, but one’s speculations should at the very least be insightful and internally consistent. The problem with Professor Cowen’s “brutes” argument is that it is neither. If the world really is such a “nicer” place (how do we measure “niceness,” by the way?), why are so many car bombs going off in the Middle East and commercial planes getting blown up?


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