March 26, 2004

How Much Nonsense Does it Take to Discredit?

Over at Samizdata, they're noting Paul Ehrlich's 1968 prediction that India would never be self-sufficient in food. Six years later they were. It got me to thinking, why do certain figures seem to maintain credibility even though they have made ludicrous statements and predictions in the past while others who are guilty of far less foolishness lose their credibility and aren't ever treated seriously again?

It doesn't seem to follow any pattern of rhyme or reason though there are a few trends. The media seems to play a great role in enabling the rehabilitation of tattered reputations. It isn't absolutely necessary but it is quite useful if you happen to share a mindset with the media. I think that in this fashion, credible institutions can loan out a bit of their credibility and permit the discredited to make a recovery.

But having the mainstream media against you, while a handicap, is certainly not determinative as Richard Nixon proved in his several comebacks. So while access and good relations to the media is important, it is not determinative of the ability to make such comebacks. But what are the alternative factors?

The entertainment factor has to be one. I can't imagine shaman style punditry groups like the McGlaughlin Report would survive without being great fun. The prediction accuracy level there is horrible. I call them shaman style because they often seem to do as much good as a shaman (who mainly works through the psychological trick of the placebo effect). It's a wonder that nobody tracks these people's prediction accuracy record to give them a nonsense score exposing their level of craft v. blowhard. But nobody does it.

That's not exactly true. Donald Luskin and other "truth squad" efforts do go after certain figures, in Luskin's case, Paul Krugman. These efforts are narrowly tailored but deeply examine and attack credibility. There are other efforts like the Media Research Center that are broad but not as deep going after general inaccuracy creeping in via ideological bias.

All of these efforts seem to be about throwing things at the wall and seeing what will stick. There isn't any sort of public effort that I can find that examines all the variables of credibility and reputation so that you can achieve an effort that is simultaneously broad and deep. Note to aspiring academics, your thesis could be here.

Posted by TMLutas at March 26, 2004 08:22 AM