Arguing with Windbags

Kevin Drum highlights a post by Brad DeLong kvetching about being on a panel discussion with Larry Kudow without sufficient time to persuade an audience that he is far smarter than Kudlow and a comment on that post by an attorney who observes that, “on a panel with one lefty, a few centrists, a few conservatives, and a raving nutbag. Who wins the debate? Who cares? The nutbag is always legitimated by being there.”

DeLong’s frustration is understandable if unwarranted. One must adjust one’s argument to the audience and occasion. If you’re on a huge panel discussion with ten minutes to get your point across, then you have to focus on the three or four key points that you want to across to the audience. It’s not surprising that someone who does a television show for laymen is better at that than a professional economist who writes detailed policy papers to be read by fellow experts, but that’s life. The guy who’s right doesn’t always win a popularity contest, after all.

The attorney’s point, though, is actually much more interesting. One obnoxious person can definitely derail a panel discussion, totally obviating any good points made by the others. I’ve witnessed two panels (the California gubernatorial recall debate a few years back and an event hosted by “The Week” magazine last year) totally hijacked by Arianna Huffington. She’s a master at saying things that are maddeningly stupid and demonstrably untrue with such speed as to make the head spin. Subsequent speakers spend their alloted time trying to correct the facts, which may or may not to have anything to do with what they were supposed to be talking about. At the end of the night, though, all anyone remembers is Arianna Huffington.

There are, as several of DeLong’s commenters suggest, ways to stop this. Ideally, such people wouldn’t be invited to series panel discussions. Alternately, serious experts would decline invitations to appear alongside these people. Or, at least, the panel moderator would reign in the windbag.

That all presumes, however, that panel organizers are more interested in having a profound exchange of ideas than drawing an audience. Or that the serious experts or more interested in rational discourse than getting invites to high-profile events. Neither assumption is warranted, judging from the evidence.

UPDATE: Bithead observes, correctly, that one’s perceptions of windbaggery may vary.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    Kevin Drum highlights a post by Brad DeLong kvetching about being on a panel discussion with Larry Kudow without sufficient time to persuade an audience that he is far smarter than Kudlow and a comment on that post by an attorney who observes that, “on a panel with one lefty, a few centrists, a few conservatives, and a raving nutbag. Who wins the debate? Who cares? The nutbag is always legitimated by being there.”

    Notably absent from the discussion is the possibility that the estimations of who is and is not a ‘raving nutbag’ may be off.

  2. But aren’t we always told we need balance and must listen to all viewpoints, whether it is between right and left, statists and libertarians, Greeks and Persians, NCAA or NIT, or even sane and crazy?

  3. Michael says:

    But arent we always told we need balance and must listen to all viewpoints, whether it is between right and left, statists and libertarians, Greeks and Persians, NCAA or NIT, or even sane and crazy?

    Should we give equal time to viewpoints that are demonstratively false? I don’t think so, for that would only cheapen the debate and obscure useful viewpoints.

    For the most part, opposing viewpoints each hold valid beliefs based on their interpretation of facts, but the facts themselves are not brought into question. When you are forced to try and convince someone that a fact is a fact, you lose the opportunity to convince them that your interpretation of those facts is right.

    For an example, take Global Warming. Most debates center around the cause, but if you add someone to the panel that claims the earth is not warming at all, then the useful debate is sidetracked.

  4. Bithead says:

    Should we give equal time to viewpoints that are demonstratively false?

    How to demonstrate this, without debate of the matter?

    And, who gets to chose which viewpoints are factual? Do such people themselves have biases?

    As an example, the press likes to think themselves the arbitotr of such matters, but they too are biased.

  5. John Burgess says:

    Bithead: To a degree. Having a flat-earther on a panel dealing with geology is probably not worth the debate. Similarly, those who insist on the veracity of Noah’s Flood, a 5,300 year age for the earth, or a proponent of the hollow earth theory.

    Some things are adequately known as false that they don’t need to be argued, at least in certain contexts.

    A debate between various hollow earth advocates could be interesting in its own right, but in a different venue. I’d probably watch it until it became too boring.

    And yes, the media–with its own baggage–is certainly the arbiter, or at least ‘mediator’ in a lot of these things. That implies a responsibility, of course, but whether they step up to take that responsibility is its own debate.

    OTOH, the ‘Jesus Tombs’ thing got a TV debate that pretty much closed the issue down. So baby kudos, anyway.

  6. Michael says:

    And, who gets to chose which viewpoints are factual? Do such people themselves have biases?

    Facts are independent of viewpoints. You are entitled to your own viewpoint but not your own facts, and someone once said. As John Burgess pointed out, some things are not subject to debate, because they are observably true.

  7. Bithead says:

    With all this in mind, then, if the current “discussion” as regards “global warming” comes to mind. There’s an awful lot of nonsense being passed out as fact by those who are trying to convince us, a logic and a little, that the world is going to end if we don’t (fill in the blank)

    if we shut off discussion as his proposed in some comments in this thread, how to expose this nonsense as such?

    And John, your comment as regards the flat earth society, as well received. And there again, however , such a nonsense is easily rebutted.

    History is replete with examples of where debate about what constituted fact was shut off. I’d just as soon not repeat their mistakes.