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.