Blog about a column about the Harper’s letter: Here’s some discourse about a discourse about what happens when the discourse takes precedence over reality

I read this op-ed by Tom Scocca and I have some thoughts.

To start with, as the above title indicates, the topic is very “meta.” Scocca’s article is a response to an open letter which is a response to criticisms of other people’s negative responses to other people’s criticisms.

As a statistician, I can relate to meta-style arguments, because statistics is itself very “meta.” We’re solving applied problems, while at the same time watching ourselves solving these problems. Formalizations of our solutions become workflows, then methods, sometimes even theorems.

I can also relate as a blogger. Blogging is all about links and responses and responses to responses. A regular feature in any blog thread is the comment mocking the blogger for spending so much time and space on some trivial topic, followed by a comment mocking the original commenter for bothering to waste time in the comments section, etc etc. It’s reply-all loops all the way down. Recall also the Javert paradox.

Here’s the story. Harper’s magazine published an open letter signed by 150 journalists, academics, and others, promoting open debate and “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society.” Scocca criticized the letter on three grounds:

1. He argues that the letter is “studiously vague about exactly what it meant to warn the reader against,” offering platitudes about free speech but not pointing to readily available specific examples of people losing their jobs or being stopped from doing their jobs because of employers stopping them from exercising their free speech.

2. He argues the letter misses historical context: “this pattern of targeted pressure and overreaction is not a new crisis. It has been established for years by now, in right-wing and left-wing outrage campaigns alike, and the fault lies with the institutions that still haven’t figured out how it works, not with the generalized, newly ascendant cultural revolution that the Harper’s letter or Trump wishes to raise the alarm about.”

3. The letter claims that “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away,” but Scocca points to recent history that action, as well as argument and persuasion, is one way that ideas, bad or good, get defeated. Scocca’s not arguing that you win by silencing or wishing bad ideas away; rather, he’s saying that exposure, argument, and persuasion aren’t enough either.

Here’s what I think. Item #1 is the kind of thing you’ll get from a mass letter. Not long ago I was asked to sign a mass letter (on a completely different topic, and I responded:

I’m glad you’re doing this. In general I don’t like signing this sort of group letter, in part because I feel like I can contribute more effectively with an outside perspective. Thanks for understanding.

I was kind of afraid that people would be mad at me for not signing, but they weren’t. They really did understand!

One reason I didn’t want to sign this recent letter (again, not the Harper’s letter, it was something different) was the experience I had a few years ago being on the committee for the American Statistical Association’s statement on p-values. There was disagreement on various points, but we were feeling a lot of pressure to just get the damn document out there, so I agreed to green-light the statement, with the understanding that the reservations by myself and others would be appended to the official report. Well, it didn’t quite happen that way. The ASA did publish my response, along with others, but these responses were not easily accessible if you went to the main document.

Anyway, my point is that, with rare exceptions, a letter written by committee will be vague and it will have problems. That’s just the way things go. A document with 150 signatures will be political, and it’s no surprise that it will be vague rather than specific and platitudinous rather than clever.

That is not to say that I oppose mass-signed documents. Indeed, I signed such a letter myself not so long ago. That one was a letter written by Valentin Amrhein, Sander Greenland, and Blake McShane that many people signed. That’s how I think it makes sense to do it: not a letter with 150 authors, but a letter with one author, or some small number of authors, and many people signing. Then the lines of responsibility are more clear: the authors are responsible for the details of the letter, and the others are expressing agreement.

Item #2 above (the lack of historical context) doesn’t bother me so much. There are lots of things to care about, and sometimes you have to bring up a topic when you have the chance to do so.

Item #3 above is more interesting to me. I agree with Scocca that the Harper’s letter is offering a false choice between defeating bad ideas by “exposure, argument, and persuasion” or “trying to silence or wish them away.” As Scocca said, there’s also political action, which doesn’t fall under either category.

One other thing. Scocca links to this news article by Tim Marchman, who writes that the letter “advanced the uncontroversial position that open debate is good.”

Unfortunately, “the position that open debate is good” is not at all uncontroversial!

The Association for Psychological Science doesn’t like open debate. If you engage in open debate with them, they’ll falsely accuse you of implying “that the entire field is inept and misguided.” The Freaknomics people don’t like open debate. Question them and they’ll call you a weasel. Cass Sunstein doesn’t like open debate. If you ask whether social science findings can be replicated, he just might compare you to the former East German secret police. This was an event that led to the following immortal reply from Nick Brown:

It’s a good thing the Stasi existed. Otherwise people who wish to draw absurd parallels between modest social or scientific movements and the secret police of murderous totalitarian regimes would probably have to use the Gestapo as an analogy, and that would just be tasteless.

And don’t get me started on David Brooks. Brooks was one of the signers of the letter, and he doesn’t like open debate either! He publishes false things, never retracts them, and never engages with his critics. “The position that open debate is good” is so controversial that it’s possible to sign a letter supporting this position and still not support it.

So, yes, I agree with Scocca that this particular letter has problems—problems that I’d say are unavoidable given the way the letter was prepared—I can’t agree with the claim that the points in the letter are empty. The world is full of Sunsteins: influential thought leaders who want to maintain their power by suppressing dissent, people who think they know best and you don’t. Supporting free speech is not empty.
Some more background on the Harper’s letter is here and here.

It’s strange to talk about this sort of issue, in comparison with something like “Retire Statistical Significance,” which was the petition that I signed. One one hand, free speech etc. is much more important that statistical significance. On the other hand, these policy and discourse issues are so vague that, as Scocca puts it, “Generalities can mean whatever a person wishes them to mean.” I’m generally opposed to the process by which discussions of substance get sidetracked into discussions of tone, but there’s no such thing as a tone-free discussion, so at some level, discussions of tone are unavoidable.

P.S. The New York Times article describes the signers of the letter as “artists and intellectuals.” Scocca characterizes them as “journalistic, academic, artistic, or literary figures.” The signatories also include some political activists, a labor leader, a retired diplomat, and a retired athlete. One question I have is: who did they decide to send the letter to? For example, the letter is signed by David Brooks but not Gregg Easterbrook. Francis Fukuyama but not Niall Ferguson. Steven Pinker, but not Cass Sunstein. Noam Chomsky, but not Marc Hauser. Malcolm Gladwell, but not Brian Wansink. Did Easterbrook, Ferguson, Sunstein, Hauser, and Wansink not agree with the petition? Did they agree but not want to sign? Or did nobody ask them? That would be kind of sad. Does that mean these people aren’t major public intellectuals anymore?