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Through the looking glass

Ubs links to a Wall Street Journal column by John Yoo on problems with the Democrats’ presidential nominating procedure. Before going into the details of how Yoo makes a botch of election history, Ubs writes, “I’m not accusing Yoo of being ignorant of history. I know he’s a well-educated man, and his words in this column strongly suggest he knows exactly what he’s talking about. In spite of that, he somehow manages to turn history upside-down so that it seems to mean exactly the opposite. How one does that, other than out of ignorance, I don’t know. Outright deceit? A lawyerly disregard for anything but advocacy? I’m definitely accusing him of something, I’m just not sure what.”

My take on this is slightly different: I’m guessing that Yoo is like a lot of people who, once they take a side on an issue, quickly slip toward the assumption that all the facts automatically support their position. As a statistician, I’d like to think I’m particularly aware of the general issue of discordant evidence. (To take Yoo’s example, just because a particular nominating system might be bad, you don’t have to think that it’s bad in all cases–this is what seems to have led him astray in his discussion of the 1824 election, as Ubs discusses in detail.) In contrast, a lawyer may be trained more to brush aside or not even notice details that contradict his main story. Perhaps this is even more true of a lawyer such as Yoo who is famous for writing opinions that are kept secret.

The unwillingness to accept discordant evidence is not unique to lawyers, of course. Hal Stern once telling me about how, in the classic book on racetrack betting, Dr. Z’s examples were set up so his system always won. As Hal pointed out, no system will win all the time–all that’s required is that it beat the track’s 18% edge or whatever–but in a narrative it’s disturbing to see counterexamples (unless they’re clearly swallowed up into an “it’s all right at the end” narrative).

Anyway, that’s just a longwinded way of saying that I don’t think Yoo was necessarily being deceptive or malicious here. First, I think he probably is somewhat ignorant of the details of elections from the early 1800s (after all, so am I, and I’m a political science professor specializing in American politics); second, he can be falling into the unfortunate but common habit of just assuming that his argument, if correct, must hold in 100% of cases.

But, why?

The more interesting question to me, though, is something that Ubs doesn’t ask, which is why did Yoo write this Wall Street Journal column at all? With all his notoriety, wouldn’t he be better off keeping his head down rather than writing partisan articles that bring his name further to attention? After all, he’s not an expert on elections (at least, I can’t find any research by him on the topic), so presumably he could’ve recommended that someone else write that article. Why would he stick his head up like this and make himself a target?

Here my theory is that Yoo has fully gone through the mirror at this point and has emerged as a political activist. As an academic researcher, you have to be careful of what you say, lest it affect the reputation of your scholarly efforts. Thus the endless qualifications that I and others resort to in all our published work.

To elaborate further: I’m not taking about mistakes. Researchers of all levels of ability make mistakes. Yoo’s example seems different–the issue is not so much that he made some errors in his column, but that he stuck his neck out by writing a column on a topic where he’s not an expert, and then made the mistakes. It just seems so unnecessary to me.

But, and here the metaphor of the “looking glass” comes in: All of us who are applied researchers have mirror images in the public sphere, where our work–or distorted versions of our work–become more widely known. Many of us want to publicize our work–to write Wall Street Journal op-eds, as it were–partly just to make our work more widely known, partly to present our work the way we think it should be presented, and partly to position ourselves to be more likely to promote our future work. But in doing that we have to protect our research reputations. At some point, though, the publicity or advocacy becomes the point, rather than the research itself. For Yoo, perhaps his reputation as a researcher is so politicized at this point that there’s nothing left to protect. At this point, he might as well go for it and develop a name for himself as a freelance editorial-page writer?

As a researcher, I envy newspaper columnists’ opportunity to have their writings immediately read by millions of people. At the same time, I assume they envy my ability to spend as much time on in-depth research projects as I would like. On the occasions that I try to write something for a broad readership, I’m careful to protect my viability (as Bill Clinton might say) as a researcher. I wonder if Yoo has decided that the choice has already been made for him.

Also

The other question, I suppose, is why the Wall Street Journal would publish this. It makes sense for them to publish Yoo’s opinions on constitutional law (for example, Terrorists Have No Geneva Rights), but . . . his thoughts on the 1824 election?? Perhaps Yoo’s notoriety generates buzz and sells papers? (After all, Ubs and then I commented on his column, which we might not have done had it been written by an equally distinguished but less controversial law professor.) Then again, Meet the Press had Doris Kearns Goodwin on as an expert on plagiarism, so maybe the real issue is that, once someone’s connected, they tend to stay connected.

7 Comments

  1. Jim P says:

    You wrote:
    For Yoo, perhaps his reputation as a researcher is so politicized at this point that there's nothing left to protect. At this point, he might as well go for it and develop a name for himself as a freelance editorial-page writer?

    Do you think Paul Krugman has already made this leap?

  2. Andrew says:

    Jim,

    No, I think Paul Krugman is more like James Q. Wilson: someone with a very strong research reputation who also has developed a reputation as an advocate. Advocacy is different from scholarship, but I thought this particular Yoo article was striking because it was so far from his expertise. I'd think that someone who was worried about risking his scholarly reputation would be more careful about writing so far from his expertise without checking (for example, calling up a colleague in the history or poli sci department to make sure there were no serious mistakes.)

    I have no particular expertise to evaluate Yoo's scholarship–it's just that his op-ed seemed pretty off-beat, not really something written by someone who felt he had a reputation to protect. Krugman and others such as Richard Posner and James Q. Wilson express strong opinions but seem more careful when making factual claims.

  3. eric says:

    "once someone's connected, they tend to stay connected."

    That pretty much sums it up, I think. I think there is plenty of evidence to show that people who don't know what they're talking about are given outlets to speak about whatever the hell they want. This happens all the time and I don't think that anybody who makes the decisions much care about whose opinion is "actually" credible. Yoo's position as an op-ed writer for whatever paper is credibility enough for those who hired him, no matter what he says. I suppose if he said something that falls into some sort of taboo subject, that would be a problem.

    But really, he goes to the same parties and shakes the right hands.

    Eric

  4. Barry says:

    "Here my theory is that Yoo has fully gone through the mirror at this point and has emerged as a political activist. As an academic researcher, you have to be careful of what you say, lest it affect the reputation of your scholarly efforts. Thus the endless qualifications that I and others resort to in all our published work."

    Two comments – first, Yoo has already shown that he's a dishonest person. His role in the Bush administration was to write secret opinions to justify breaking the law. Not even public opinions to justify breaking the law, but secret ones. Anybody participating in an attempt to craft secret laws is simply dishonest (and quite evil); his actions struck at the foundation of US and common law.

    Second, he's not just gone through the looking glass and become a partisan activist, but has done things which would ordinarily result in exile from public life, with no real repercussions. Once one has done what he has done, been exposed, and still gotten away with it, the feeling of impunity has got to be strong.

  5. Andrew says:

    Eric,

    Sure, but if I were connected and could write an editorial about whatever I wanted, I'd still be super-careful about saying things that might be wrong. If I wrote an article about the 1824 election, I'd run it by someone who knows more about such things.

    Barry,

    I don't have any special competence to judge Yoo's ethics, but, again, I was struck by his lack of scholarly caution. When Yoo wrote his article, "Terrorists have no Geneva rights"–well, that's a matter of opionion. But I think of scholars as usually being more careful when it comes to historical facts.

    Again, it makes sense if you think of him as an activist. I have know idea whether Yoo knew (or whether he knows at this point) that he made mistakes in his column; my guess is that he just didn't bother to check.

  6. eric says:

    I see your point.

    But I have a sense that you are a bit more attached to responsible writing.

    Yes, he probably just didn't bother to check because he is a partisan activist.

    He's just doing his job to move the public discourse into a strictly ideological direction. Unfortunately, it seems that there is a sense common discourse that everything is a matter of opinion. Evidence means nothing.

    Certain members of our political elite use this to their advantage, in many areas. It's actually quite disgusting.

  7. eric says:

    I forgot to mention this, too. The editorial pages of the WSJ have a history of being drastically at odds with the facts being reported in the rest of the paper. It's really quite odd.