Can you judge a book by its cover?

by on August 2, 2007 at 7:48 am in Books | Permalink

I read Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide, by Gerard Prunier, and was quite impressed.  I thought "what a smart and unbiased introduction to such a difficult topic."  But why was I impressed?  I don’t know nearly enough about the topic to judge the material.

I was impressed because the author sounded so reasonable and so intelligent.  But I can’t cite any really good reason to believe this was more than a trick.  Prunier sure didn’t seem as if he were trying to talk me into a hidden agenda.

Bryan Caplan offers his heuristics for trusting a source or not; here’s Arnold Kling on the same.  Here’s David Henderson’s podcast on disagreement.

I tend to trust sources who use their intelligence to point out flaws in their own positions.  But is this more than an aesthetic preference on my part?  What’s so trustworthy about that?  Maybe I’m just looking for people who remind me of myself, and what’s so good about me anyway?

If my trust standard works, it is only because not so many people use it.  If more readers trusted on the basis of "using intelligence to publicly question one’s foundations," that standard might be too easily to manipulate.

In other words, it is the stupidity of much of the audience (they can be fooled by simple tricks, complex tricks are not needed) which makes it possible for the more sophisticated readers to read signs of intellectual dishonesty and get closer to the truth.

Let’s say you have a medium — call it a blog — which is read only by very smart people.  Simple, relatively discernible tricks won’t be used.  Should those readers then have a special distrust of the authors? 

1 datacharmer August 2, 2007 at 8:21 am

On the limit, it shouldn’t really matter how smart your readership is. Assume MR readers are a smart bunch: so, you would want to employ sophisticated techniques to conceal your biases. But with a blog, we read your viewpoints and stuff every day. If we are indeed smart, you may fool us for a little while – in the long run, however, nothing will work.

And it just takes a few smart ones amongst your thousands of readers to ‘out’ you: comments are usually open. I am confident you have no secret agenda – that is other than taking over the world!

2 Derek SCruggs August 2, 2007 at 8:31 am

Speak truthiness to power! 🙂

3 mkl August 2, 2007 at 9:14 am

seek out the categories of misjudgement prevalent among professionals – where are doctors most
likely to misdiagnose, institutional investors lose their shirts, etc.

4 mtlippincott August 2, 2007 at 9:55 am

I think jb is onto something. Using those who can argue against their own stance convincingly (or can point out the flaws in their argument) as a heuristic for spotting someone you can trust seems reasonable as opposed to being just an aesthetic preference. It’s kind of a derivative of the scientific method where you make a hypothesis and test it repeatedly. And the best (the only?) way to do this is by trying to find counter evidence or prove that it is false, rather than trying to prove that it is true. So those who exercise self-doubt seem to be those who are just following the thoughtful and honest method of testing and challenging their own beliefs.

5 mike August 2, 2007 at 10:28 am

This reminds me of the salesman’s tool of raising legitimate and generally well known issues with their own products / positions, not necessarily to address them directly (which might give the impression of tokenism), but to make their presentation appear balanced, the presenter thoughtful, and introduce some apparent humility. The key is figuring out who your audience is … if you’re trying to persuade, this is useful; if you’re rallying the faithful it’s unnecessary.

That said I still tend to fall into your camp on this issue, although with experience my level of skepticism has increased substantially.

6 Jeff Smith August 2, 2007 at 10:57 am

I have had a related discussion with both graduate students and colleagues. Some colleagues advise graduate students not to point out the flaws in their work on the theory that that is the job of others. I encourage students to point out the flaws in their work because it shows that they are serious scholars and also because that way the work does a better job of contributing to the literature.

My sense is that the treatment effect of my advice is heterogeneous: some students do better on the job market by being up front about weaknesses, others do worse. I am not clear that I can sign the average treatment effect on the treated.

I would be curious to know what Tyler and Alex tell their students.


7 Jeff Smith August 2, 2007 at 11:32 am

I think the comments section of most any blog makes it abundantly clear that it is a good thing that policy is largely guided by expert, rather than popular, opinion.

This is not a claim that expert opinion is always, or even usually correct. Rather, it is a claim that it is correct more often than popular opinion and, when wrong, generally wrong in less harmful ways (and more prone, though still not very prone, to self-correction).


8 TGGP August 2, 2007 at 2:29 pm

David Sucher: Caplan argues that on average the experts are more correct than the general public. Taking the consensus of the experts would then be wiser than taking the democratic consensus of the general public. You state that the experts stood by GWB, but you have not shown that they have done so to a greater degree than the general public. I recall polls on the eve of the invasion showing a very large amount of support, and Bush still got re-elected.

9 guy in the veal calf office August 2, 2007 at 2:50 pm

Caplan argues that on average the experts are more correct than the general public.

That doesn’t convince me that experts should be permitted enhanced ability to enact policy or laws. Experts tend to overvalue their own opinions, to latch on to career enhancing exciting new (and un- or under- tested) theories and tend to make it a personal crusade to see their theories enacted, often forgetting the rules of civil society (e.g., Marxists). The public acts as necessary inertial weight against such experts.

While I haven’t read them, others have discussed the value of experts The Experts Speak by Cerf & Navasky, Expert Political Judgement and, the name and exact phrasing escapes me, but someone coined the “Seer Sucker Theory.”

10 Ross Levatter August 3, 2007 at 3:02 pm

A simple heuristic for judging the truth of an argument on a topic of which one has little knowledge is to see if the person making the argument has also spoken out on any topic of which you do have knowledge. If his arguments in an area of your expertise are convincing, this is a reason to trust his arguments in areas where you are not an expert. (Note: This is, of course, a rebuttable reason, but a reason nonetheless.)

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