04 April 2013

There He Goes Again - Steve Landsburg Plays the Fool

"The one lesson I most want my students to learn is this: You can’t just say anything. It’s important to care about making sense. So I find it particularly galling when people violate this rule while presenting themselves to the public as economists." ~ Steve Landsburg
Last year Steve Landsburg, a faculty member in our Economics Department*, created a minor media fracas by channeling Rush Limbaugh's bigoted comments about Sandra Fluke. I commented here several times on Landsburg's sophomoric behavior.

Well, Landsburg is at it again. A short while ago he offered up this more or less incoherent blog post, which he has followed up with this typically condescending and dismissive set of rationalizations. Having offered up a conceptually flawed 'thought experiment' - one that any reasonable person would see not as intellectually intrepid but just inflammatory - Steve seems to opt for the standard 'I've been misunderstood' defense. And he then blames his audience for misunderstanding. Interesting, among the lessons I try to get students to embrace is that if someone misunderstands an argument I advance or point I make, the fault is likely mine, not theirs. The basic presumption, in other words that the burden falls on me to be clear. Not so for Landsburg, apparently.

But let's focus on substance for a moment. When I say Landsburg's initial post is conceptually flawed I have in mind such elementary  matters as failing to differentiate intentional from unintentional consequences, failing to see that rape is an act of power from which perpetrators derive 'psychic' benefits, failing to differentiate between the impact of ideas and physical assault, failing to see that in a democracy even erroneous or odd views get weighed in decision-making processes ... The post is not just offensive in its juvenile provocations, it is a mess. I would give my undergraduates maybe a C- if they submitted it in a course.

The episode has, predictably enough,  now made a splash in the press - look here, here, here, here, here, for instance. Much of the publicity is critical (mocking, even) and was initiated because some outraged students alerted The Gawker. All this criticism - public, mostly reasoned - is wholly appropriate. What is inappropriate is calling for his censure (as this on-line petition does) or disrupting Landsburg's classes. The best way to respond is to argue back in public - whether by showing just how flawed Landsburg's views are or by symbolic collective actions like this:

In this video from fall 2011 the Chancellor at UC Davis - who had whined that she felt threatened by peacefully protesting students - is shamed quite effectively. This is an episode of collective disapproval, no threat, no mayhem, simple shame mobilized to great effect.

I opened this post with a quote from another blog post by Landsburg. I think it is a lesson he needs to learn himself before imparting it to students. His posturing, his attempts at provocation, are truly embarrassing not just to the university but to himself.

Landsburg can say whatever he likes, however ignorant or offensive. But he has no expectation that anyone will treat he or his ideas seriously. He has to expect that others will respond - with arguments, mockery or silence. I hope he gets what he deserves in that regard.
*Please note: Landsburg is hardly an intellectual heavyweight. He is an nontenured faculty member, hired because our 'real' economists think teaching undergraduates is beneath them. His writing is mostly journalistic - a sort of poor man's freakonomics. There is nothing wrong with that. But it is a mistake to think his ideas carry immense weight on campus or anywhere else.

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