Journalism justifies the liberal arts

…in the same way that HIV justifies condoms.  Way back in my first year of undergrad, I took a course in informal logic — essentially, an introduction to arguing a position.  (Readers who’ve known me since my first year of undergrad might be forgiven for suspecting that I put all that knowledge in a safe place and didn’t touch it again until, say, 2006.)  This course was my first exposure to such wonderful terms as argumentum ad ignorantiam and post hoc ergo propter hoc, which is to say that it served as initial prophylaxis against dumbworm exposure from the sort of journalism I’m about to mock.

First we have an example of argumentum ad metum — incidentally, I learned to love casual Latin-dropping in a formal logic course — from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

I had to check the date (not April 1st) and the URL (not The Onion) to make sure I wasn’t being trolled by Radley Balko (h/t, btw).  It however appears that we are being treated to a fantastic scare-mongering piece on “kids these days” soaking Gummi bears in vodka so they can get teh drunx0rz on the sly.

The piece’s pervasive lack of skepticism astounds me:

Mike Eliason, a school resource officer at Apple Valley High School, said his sons at Mankato State and St. Cloud State universities have reported seeing people getting intoxicated swallowing the bears.

“I have no doubt in my mind that [teenage] kids are doing it,” said Eliason, a board member and past president of the Minnesota Juvenile Officers Association. “We may not see it in schools but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”

That’s right: based on second-hand information from college kids, we are to believe that college kids are soaking Gummi bears in vodka and chewing on them instead of just, you know, drinking the vodka and eating the Gummi bears like reasonable people.  But wait, it gets better:

Although no students have been caught in Minnesota as yet, no one doubts that kids are soaking Gummi bears with booze or finding other creative ways to get drunk.

“We talked about it at our last meeting,” said Ann Lindberg, chemical health coordinator for the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan School District in Dakota County. “I’m sure it is happening here to some degree. We just haven’t caught anyone at it yet.”

Aww, lookit that, class!  It’s a handsome specimen of argumentum ad ignorantiam with textbook coloration and morphology.  Throw in a dash of cui bono on the side: notice that the folks who’re scare-mongering are the ones who get more money when people freak out about the weird shit “kids these days” do to themselves in the name of getting loaded.

And what weird shit there is!

In the past few months, reports have also surfaced nationally of kids — boys and girls — inserting vodka-soaked tampons into their bodies, funneling booze into their rectums and even placing open liquor bottles against their corneas in a practice known as “eyeballing,” or absorbing booze through the blood vessels in the eye. All are ways to absorb alcohol through the skin, bypassing the digestive system and getting the alcohol straight to the bloodstream.

OW!  OW ow ow ow ow ow owowowowowwww.  If you didn’t clench right up with sympathy pains twenty words into that paragraph, you don’t actually know what vodka is.  Which, it strikes me, might be a good way to test for dumbworm infestation.  (Demonstrated knowledge of vodka, I mean, not the tampon thing.)  Eyeballing?  Seriously?

Arguing that a few people across the country have done stupid painful shit involving alcohol — and then posted video of the same to Youtube — is not controversial.  Arguing that, perhaps, stuffing a vodka-soaked tampon up one’s southern orifice of choice as a fraternity/sorority/varsity-team/whatever initiation rite is becoming more common as the internet starts to obsess over it with the internet’s usual enthusiasm for laughing at other people’s expense… well, that’s unlikely to be controversial, but cite your fuckin’ sources, kthxbai.  Arguing that these horribly painful and humiliating practices are widespread ways for people to pursue pleasant levels of intoxication, though, is extraordinary, and demands extraordinary evidence.

Next we discover that David Warsh and Paul Krugman have been trying to airbrush Hayek out of the history books.  They claim that “Friedrich Hayek is not an important figure in the history of macroeconomics”, and that the recent revival of Austrian economics is merely political histrionics.  Krugman’s evidence for this point is that he’s Paul Krugman, and has a Nobel, and you aren’t and don’t (appeal to authority); Warsh’s evidence, believe it or not, includes a rather slavering discussion of Hayek’s divorce (ad hominem).

Alex Tabarrok is having none of it:

Let’s instead consider some of the reasons the Nobel committee awarded Hayek the Nobel:

Hayek’s contributions in the fields of economic theory are both deep-probing and original. His scholarly books and articles during the 1920s and 30s sparked off an extremely lively debate. It was in particular his theory of business cycles and his conception of the effects of monetary and credit policy which aroused attention. He attempted to penetrate more deeply into cyclical interrelations than was usual during that period by bringing considerations of capital and structural theory into the analysis. Perhaps in part because of this deepening of business-cycle analysis, Hayek was one of the few economists who were able to foresee the risk of a major economic crisis in the 1920s, his warnings in fact being uttered well before the great collapse occurred in the autumn of 1929.

It is true that many of Hayek’s specific ideas about business cycles vanished from the mainstream discussion under the Keynesian juggernaut but what Krugman and Warsh miss is that Hayek’s vision of how to think about macroeconomics came back with a vengeance in the 1970s.

And about that politics thing (reductio ad ridiculum, though Krugman thinks he’s calling out an argumentum ad populum):

One can also judge Krugman’s claim that “the Hayek thing is almost entirely about politics rather than economics” by looking at who other Nobel laureates in economics cite. Is Hayek ignored because he is just a political thinker? Not at all, in fact in an interesting exercise David Skarbek finds that Hayek is cited by other Nobel laureates in their Nobel talks more than any other Nobel laureate with the exception of Arrow. (The top six cite-getters are Arrow, Hayek, Samuelson and then tied in citations for fourth place are Friedman, Lucas and Phelps.)

Russ Roberts has more.


3 Responses to “Journalism justifies the liberal arts”

  1. December 6, 2011 at 19:16

    I may not know much about economics, but I do know that once you soak a tampon with any kind of liquid it expands greatly and loses all significant structural coherence. So you’ll need a very large and insensitive orifice to facilitate insertion.

    I believe I’ll take mine in a glass and on the rocks with just a dash of scotch, thank you.

    • December 6, 2011 at 19:20

      Let’s not let something so vulgar as facts get in the way of a good scare-mongering, though. What’s important is that the author of the piece cares very much about youth drinking, as do the people quoted in the piece, and if it saves the life of just one child it’ll all be worth it.

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