More metablogging

Neither Jason Soon nor Scott Wickstein likes the definition of “Fisking” by Volokh, which was suggested by Bargarz in response to my earlier remarks. I assume they feel the same about my own definition “a sharp putdown in which vigorous abuse is essential and logical reasoning is optional”
Scott, in email, points me to this definition from the Libertarian Samizdata glossary
verb. To deconstruct an article on a point by point basis in a highly critical manner. Derived from the name of journalist Robert Fisk, a frequent target of such critical articles in the blogosphere (qv).
Usage: “Orrin Judd did a severe fisking of an idiotic article in the New York Times today…”
Comparing this to the Volokh definition, it’s focused mainly on formal structure. That is, just as a sonnet must have 14 lines, a Fisking, in this sense, must include a substantial reposting of the original article, interspersed with critical comments.
The other point about the example is the absence of any direct element of personal attack. The example refers to “an idiotic article” whereas the Volokh definition, and my personal observation, suggests that Fisking is typically directed at an individual, based on hostility to their total position, rather than the ideas expressed in an individual article. As I said in my last post, the same word is used in different ways by different people, and any quest for the “right” definition is doomed to failure.
I also had an interesting email exchange with John Ray, who makes the point that some right-brain or rightwing blogs are, more or less explicitly, “preaching to the converted” and shouldn’t be expected to respond to criticism from the (political or neurological) left. I agree that this is right in some cases, and certainly it applies to his own blog, explicitly titled “Dissecting Leftism”. But I think the political blog norm is one of open debate, and any exceptions should be announced openly. I’ll put the entire exchange in my files when I get time.

Also, don’t miss the comment thread below, where Tim Dunlop suggests “Steynwalling” as a term for a failure to respond to criticism.

A final point is that everyone has assumed I’m condemning Fisking. I was about to say that I enjoy a good Fisking as much as anybody, but given that I think there is too much Fisking in the blogosphere, while others can’t get enough of it, this is obviously not true. Still, I get plenty of enjoyment out of what I regard as a good Fisking, namely a sharp putdown backed by a good logical critique.

Update 30/9 My full exchange with John Ray is here.

Fisking the fiskers

My brief aside about Fisking has raised plenty of attention. It began with a post in which I pointed out the failure of “right-brain” Australian fans of Mark Steyn (such as Professor Bunyip, James Morrow and Tim Blair to respond to repeated demonstrations by “left-brain” bloggers that Steyn’s columns are routinely based on plagiarism (usually with misquotation), urban myths and historical errors.
In the ensuing comment thread, I wrote
The blogs I think of as left-brain are analytical, rational and linguistically complex. Right-brain blogs are mostly emotive, irrational or anti-rational, and based on sharp putdowns (Fisking) rather than logical critiques.
Both Bargarz and Scott Wickstein think I’ve been unfair to Fisking. As a relative newcomer to blogging, I wasn’t around when the term was coined and I’ve never looked seriously into it. All I’ve done is follow links advertised as “Fiskings” and form my own judgements about what I’ve found. As far as I can tell, the sharp putdown is the critical component in a good (that is, widely linked) Fisking, and logical critique is at best an optional extra.
Before going on, I’ll concede one point raised by Scott, namely that Fiskings typically include a link to the piece being attacked, and therefore let the reader make up their own mind. Otherwise, Scott seems to accept my view that Fiskings are short, sharp and not very logical, but points out that “it’s a very time friendly way to write”
Bargarz disagrees, saying “Fiskings can involve putdowns but they should always use logic and facts to debunk the words or scribblings of the fiskee”, though he notes “a good Fisking is like a good wine, it’s often advertised as such but is somewhat harder to find.” Checking on the definition by Volokh, linked by Bargarz, I found this:

“FISKING: Three people asked what “group-Fisking” means in this post, which borrows the term from an InstaPundit post.
     The term refers to Robert Fisk, a journalist who wrote some rather foolish anti-war stuff, and who in particular wrote a story in which he (1) recounted how he was beaten by some anti-American Afghan refugees, and (2) thought they were morally right for doing so. Hence many pro-war blogs — most famously, InstaPundit — often use the term “Fisking” figuratively to mean a thorough and forceful verbal beating of an anti-war, possibly anti-American, commentator who has richly earned this figurative beating through his words. Good Fisking tends to be (or at least aim to be) quite logical, and often quotes the other article in detail, interspersing criticisms with the original article’s text.”

This definition has something for everyone, including as it does both “forceful verbal beating” and “logical criticism”, so I thought I’d try and track back to the original attacks on Fisk’s Afghan story.

And this brings us back to the beginning of the circle. The most cited attack on Fisk I could find was by the egregious Mark Steyn. As you might expect, logical criticism was not a central point of Steyn’s piece.
Words are used in different ways by different people. But I’d say that, both etymologically and in most current usage, a “Fisking” is “a sharp putdown in which vigorous abuse is essential and logical reasoning is optional”

By the way, Bargarz joins the dreaded ABC in misspelling my name as “Quiggan”. This plays merry hell with the search engines. Also, I realise that, as usual, I haven’t got around to welcoming Bargarz before copping a critique from him (I won’t call it a Fisking). Anyway, he’s welcome!

Checks and balances

My colleague Alex Robson attacks the Fairfax press, and Ken Davidson in particular, for referring to a balance of payments deficit, saying that we have a “current account deficit” and that “the balance of payments always balances” since the current account deficit is matched by capital account surplus, that is by borrowing from overseas (if’s odd to think of borrowing as creating a surplus, but that’s the way the accounts work).

If you’re going to throw stones on this sort of thing, you need to be on firm ground yourself, and Alex’s ground is rather shaky. Official statistics don’t refer to a “current account deficit” but to the “balance of payments on current account”, which is routinely shortened to “balance of payments”, since as we know, the “balance of payments on capital account” is just the same number with the opposite sign. So it’s a bit rich to call someone “illiterate” for referring to a “balance of payments deficit”.

Alex offers a lot of other quibbles, but doesn’t address the crucial issue. Is a continuing deficit in the “balance of payments on current account” benign or dangerous. Economists have debated this vigorously over the past decade. I lean, with Ken Davidson, to the view that it’s dangeorus.

Outdated assumptions

Policy debates are often based on outdated assumptions, and this is certainly true of the US. For example, most Americans believe that the US is a big donor of foreign aid and would be better off attending to problems at home. Fifty years ago, the US was a big donor. The Marshall Plan consumed between 2 and 3 per cent of the national income of the United States in the years immediately after World War II. But today, he United States is by far the least generous donor in the developed world, allocating 0.1 per cent of national income to official development aid, about one-third of the proportion for the EU
As the US Agency for International Development notes, a strong majority of Americans say that the United States is spending too much on foreign aid. But this attitude is based on the assumption that the U.S. is spending vastly more than it is, in fact. Asked what an ‘appropriate’ amount would be, the median level proposed is 5 times present spending levels. …Asked to estimate how much of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, the median estimate was 15 percent, 15 times the actual amount of 1 percent. The average was even higher — 18 percent. When informed about the actual amount of spending on foreign aid, a strong majority favors either maintaining it or increasing it.

Much the same is true of the belief that US military might protects those freeloading Europeans. A typical statement comes from Janet Albrechtsen , citing US analyst Robert Kagan, who says:

“Europe is a military mouse. Kagan points out that Europeans spend their money on socially progressive welfare and indulge in their transnational pursuit of collective security in the comforting shadow of the US’s enormous military muscle”

This was a defensible claim when the NATO and the Warsaw Pact were facing off along the East German border. But today it’s just stilly

There is still a large US military presence in Europe. But it’s there for the convenience of forward basing near the Middle East, not to protect the Europeans.
Moreover, the idea that Europe is a ‘military mouse’ is nonsense. Four of the top ten military spenders are EU members, and there is no potential adversary who comes anywhere near the collective spending of the Europeans (China and Russia together spend less).

It’s true that the Europeans still have a force structure that’s basically oriented to fighting the Red Army on the North German plain, so they can’t match the US capacity to deliver large armed forces anywhere in the world. But even in such activities as protection against terrorism, it’s far from a one-way street. The day after Albrechtsen’s story, the French (until last Sunday the prime targets of American derision) rescued a bunch of American schoolchildren from rebels in the Ivory Coast.


Vis Macintouch, I found this fascinating etymology (or entomology) for the term“bug”. I’d always believed the Grace Hopper version (an actual moth found in ENIAC). But I guess it was too good to be true. There was a real moth though, and it’s now on display at the Smithsonian.

Mickey's rose-colored glasses

Poverty is rising in the US, but the news is all good according to Mickey Kaus who seizes on estimates of a decline in the poverty rate for black children in 2001, despite a general rise in poverty and a decline in median incomes, and castigates the NYT for not mentioning it. Of course, welfare reform gets the credit. In Mickey’s world, welfare reform would get the credit if Saddam Hussein decided to resign. (I’m only half-joking. Mickey has, at least semi-seriously, tried to blame the S11 terrorists on European welfare states).
Mickey cops a hiding from Brad DeLong, who calls his attack sleazy and notes that the number of black children in the survey on which the estimates are based is too small to allow a statistically significant finding.
I got in touch with the top US expert on poverty data, Tim Smeeding of Syracuse University. He tells me that the data are collected in March of each year and cover the entire preceding year. This means that the current survey doesn’t really capture the impact of the recession and things will almost certainly be worse when the 2002 data come out.
I’d add one more point. Particularly in 2001, the recession was concentrated in manufacturing and had a disproportionate effect on men. Service industries, where most women, including supporting mothers, are employed, continued to grow, and have only recently started to slow. This can be seen from the fact that median income for women rose while median income for men fell (note to Kaus fans: since very few former welfare recipients get anywhere near the median income, so no credit can be claimed for welfare reform here). This reinforces the point that it’s the 2002 data that really matter.

The left brain talking to itself

Just about the whole of left-brain Oz plogdom has weighed in to the intertwining threads started by Ken Parish and me yesterday. There are lengthy posts from Jason Soon and Tim Dunlop, as well as comments from Scott Wickstein (politically on the right, but definitely a left-brain thinker). Gareth Parker(another rightish left-brainer) is away at the footy so we’re missing his thoughts.

On the other hand, even though I started out by pointing out that Mark Steyn, a favorite of right-brain blogdom, is a serial plagiarist (as Don Arthur puts it, a blogger without the links) and prone to historical howlers, none of our leading right-brain bloggers has bothered to respond, let alone to acknowledge error. As the dominant group in blogdom, they seem to have adopted the attitude they attribute to the ‘lefty mass media’ – namely that criticism from bloggers can safely be ignored.

Jason raises the issue of labelling and is inclined to deplore it, particularly when it’s pejorative. I think labelling is an inevitable consequence of the way our brains are wired – they are basically categorizing machines. This in turn reflects the fact that we evolved in a world where it was more useful to see discrete categories than continuous variables. For example, plants are safe or dangerous to eat, animals are predators or prey and so on.

In political terms category labels like ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are still useful, even though they are necessarily oversimplifications and therefore dangerous if misused. People use them as identifiers for their own side, as well as to label opponents. For example, both ‘economic rationalist‘ and ‘warblogger’ started out as in-group labels, although they are now also (mostly?) used in a pejorative sense.

It’s also true that political processes tend to convert a continuum of opinion into a few discrete groups. On Iraq, for example, you can class pretty much everyone into one of three groups
(i) those who want war, with or without UN approval
(ii) those who want Saddam disarmed, and are prepared to support a UN-backed war if he tries to stop inspections
(iii) those who are unconditionally against war
Each of these groups contains many shades of opinion. For example, some of group (i) would prefer to have UN and NATO backing, while others would much rather not. But at least for the moment, most members of any of the groups regard all fellow-members as allies, and members of other groups as opponents.

PS: For those who missed it, Ken Parish links to this Hemispheric Dominance Test. I turned out to be evenly balanced, basically because my physical existence is as chaotic as my mental existence is linear.

Discretion is not a one-way street

Stephen Odgers of the NSW Bar Association gives a useful critique of NSW Opposition leader John Brogden’s call for mandatory minimum sentences. He says

“An example is murder. Brogden will create three classes of murder, carrying mandatory minimum sentences of life (for murder of a police officer, in or out of uniform), 25 and 15 years. To test the merits of this policy, we should consider some examples.

Is 15 years or more appropriate for a son or daughter who gives a drug overdose to their terminally ill parent as an act of mercy killing? Or for a young man who was sexually abused as a child by an older man for a period of years, does not go to the police because he fears no-one will believe him and then bashes his abuser, killing him although he only intended serious harm? What about a woman who has been the victim of domestic abuse and decides, finally, to take revenge?

What about a pub brawl gone wrong? What about a mentally disabled offender whose capacity for judgement was impaired? A spur-of-the-moment act by an 18-year-old of good character who is deeply remorseful and unlikely ever to reoffend?”

Odgers is spot-on in saying that issues like the probability of reoffending are more relevant than “making the punishment fit the crime”. I’d be much more impressed, though, if he followed his logic through and argued for long sentences for habitual/career criminals, even if their offences are not as serious as murder. Consider for example, a violent burglar, or a standover man who severely injures somebody as part of an extortion racket. The community would be better off if such people were locked up until they were too old to do any harm. The same applies to some types of sex offenders, who are at very high risk of reoffending.

Hi Uncle

Another welcome, this time to “Uncle” whose blogtitle, ABCwatch, is self-explanatory and whose pseudonym I take to be a play on “Auntie”. In a reversal of normal blogging form, he’s started out by saying something nice about me.

“PLANET QUIGGIN. I like John Quiggin. He is good to travel with. Just make sure you get off before the terminus.

The occasion for this entry is John’s latest piece on how to deal with international aggression. If Auntie wishes to employ persons of leftish persuasion – and she should – she really should choose people with the integrity to argue their principles openly. Instead we get snide manipulation, on which, no doubt, I’ll be moved to say more later.”

Severing the corpus callosum of blogdom

The distinction between the left and right hemispheres of the brain is one of those startling scientific discoveries that has passed (in an oversimplified form) into popular folklore. As we all know, the left hemisphere is supposed to control rational thought, language and calculation, while the right hemisphere controls emotion and creativity.

Most of the evidence on this came from ‘split-brain’ surgery, where the corpus callosum (the bundle of nerves connecting the two hemispheres) is severed. As a result, information supplied to the left hemisphere is unavailable to the right hemisphere, and vice versa.

Something very similar seems to have happened in blogdom though the main problem seems to be with information flowing from the left brain to the right brain.

For example, when right-brain blogger Professor Bunyip observed that Ken Davidson had borrowed significant bits of a recent column, Ken Parish was quick to link to it and to give a thoughtful discussion of the issues involved.

By contrast, a good deal of recent left-brain activity has pointed out that right-brain favourite Mark Steyn’s columns are routinely based on extensive borrowing (usually with misquotation), urban myths and absurd historical errors. But Professor Bunyip, James Morrow and other right-brain bloggers have continued quoting Steyn with approval and without reference to the left-brain.Tim Blair, another Steyn fan, also ignored the issue, though I don’t think he’s quoted Steyn since it came up. A partial exemption goes to Bernard Slattery. Although he did not take much notice of the left-brain efforts, he took the trouble to do a Google search and noted the dubious quality of one of Steyn’s sources.

(To make the left-brain, right-brain metaphor work properly, we need to class Jason Soon with the left brain, since he certainly does engage in sensible debate with the left-brain of blogdom . But Jason is one of those hard-to-classify mixtures of libertarianism and social democracy, and can’t really be called a rightwinger).
Update: The comments thread for this post is intertwined with that over at The Parish Pump so you have to read both to get the full story. Comments are great, but I wonder how much interesting content is being lost forever in locations that are apparently inaccessible to Google and even more prone to failure than blog archives.