Facts, Feelings, and Filters

A commenter writes,

Arnold’s argument that economics is about using particular frameworks as lenses for interpretation is also quite postmodern.

Well, sort of.

Consider three statements.

a) Amazon announced its intention to purchase Whole Foods.

b) Amazon should not be allowed to purchase Whole Foods.

c) Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods damages the prospects of other grocers.

(a) is an example of a fact. (b) is an example of a feeling.

(c) is an example of an observation based on a filter, in that it depends on one’s framework of interpretation. You might think one way if you see Amazon’s move as intensifying competition in the grocery industry. You might think differently if you see it reducing competition and/or as a signal that there is value in national grocery franchises (what if Google or Facebook decide they also want to own grocery stores?). And, yes, the drop in stock prices for other large grocery chains says that investors favor one interpretation more than another. But my point is that the interpretation is contestable.

Some more remarks.

1. In 20th-century philosophy, the Logical Positivists seemed to dismiss the concept of filters. They would regard (c) as an attempted fact-claim. Anything other than a fact-claim or a feeling is a dogma.

2. The Post-modernists take the opposite view. Every statement comes through a filter. This would make every statement contestable, including (a).

3. I wish to take an intermediate position. I believe that there are scientific observations and laws that are not contestable, but I also believe that filters are very important. Synonyms for filters include frameworks of interpretation, models, theories, and paradigms.

4. In Specialization and Trade, I argue against the dominant filter in macroeconomics, which I call the GDP factory.

5. In The Three Languages of Politics, I argue that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians each use distinctive linguistic filters. If you make an argument using terms that correspond to (for example) the progressive’s linguistic filter, a progressive will approve that argument, while it will fail to resonate with a conservative or libertarian.

6. In both books, I am suggesting that people think they see truth, but there are different plausible filters that would change their outlook.

7. However, I do not go so far as to say that there is no truth, and that any belief system is as good as any other. Instead, I am saying that sometimes there is more than one plausible filter. If you are sending a man to the moon or building a computer, you had better use the consensus scientific filters. In other realms, where causal density is high, no filter is robust.

8. If you want to be wise, you need to acknowledge the anomalies that cast doubt on your filters. Otherwise, you end up treating your filter as a sacred tribal doctrine.

9. There is a prominent version of post-modernism that I would term Left Post-modernism. Strictly speaking, post-modernism should lead one to be aware of many possible filters and skeptical of one’s own filters. In contrast, Left Post-modernism puts everything through the filter of race and gender and is entirely lacking in self-doubt. For example, in Sunday’s WaPo, Tung Yin writes,

Mass killings look the most like terrorism when their perpetrators seem the most alien from the Judeo-Christian, white majority.

This is Left Post-modernism treating its filter as a sacred tribal doctrine, ignoring some pretty obvious contrary evidence. Just off the top of my head, the Irish Republican Army and the Baader-Meinhof gang were labeled terrorists.

The WaPo itself has an analysis on line (not in print, that I could see) of Friday’s terrorist stabbing in Jerusalem, which is focused on “who they were working with and for.” That is one distinctive feature of terrorism, which is that the perpetrators claim to act on behalf of an organization that engages in terrorism. But far be it from Yin to admit that the term “terrorism” is anything other than a racist epithet.

Speaking of Friday’s attack, in which an Israeli policewoman was stabbed to death before the attackers were killed, The BBC notoriously headlined the incident “Three Palestinians killed after deadly stabbing in Jerusalem.” This is how they prefer to filter such news (although in this rare instance, following Israeli outrage the BBC later changed the headline). The WaPo filtered the news even more effectively, because I did not see any coverage of the incident at all in its print editions. It might otherwise disturb the narrative that the WaPo put forth prominently in recent Sunday editions, in which the Palestinians suffer from checkpoints for no reason under “occupation.”

The WaPo news and Outlook sections are now all Left Post-modernism, all the time. The editorial page is sometimes more broad-minded, but I have given up on the heavy-handed filtering disguised as reporting and analysis. For news, I look elsewhere.

This entry was posted in Economic education and methods, Three-Axes Model, Washington Post bias. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Facts, Feelings, and Filters

  1. Andrew' says:

    “Mass killings look the most like terrorism when their perpetrators seem the most alien from the Judeo-Christian, white majority.”

    As with the future of Amazon’s impact on grocers these assertions can be factually wrong, so I’m having trouble viewing this as an interpretation. I’m more scared of being labeled a terrorist than I am of terrorism as someone who on occasion might interacts with extremely white and extremely Judeo-Christian groups.

    • Andrew' says:

      Remember when the Obama admin. Justice Dept. Sent those memos warning that Tea Parry groups could be terrorist? So, I’m not filtering or spinning like the left.

    • lliamander says:

      > As with the future of Amazon’s impact on grocers these assertions can be factually wrong, so I’m having trouble viewing this as an interpretation.

      Consider two contrasting statements:

      a) I see the brick is falling.
      b) the earth’s gravity is pulling the brick toward the center of its mass.

      The first is empirical; a factual claim in the properly scientific sense[1]. It is couched in the language of perception and observation.

      As for the second, it is certainly either true or false, but it is theory-laden (even if the theory is uncontroversial).

      [1]http://tofspot.blogspot.com/2010/12/war-between-fact-and-theory.html

  2. Adam says:

    OK, I think Handle was more accurate in saying that you are of a group that has learned from the postmodernist critiques but constitute an answer to them, which integrates some of their insights but ultimately is a distinct phenomena.

    You say: ” However, I do not go so far as to say that there is no truth, and that any belief system is as good as any other.”

    I want to emphasize that the idea of postmodernists claiming that “there is no truth” is mostly a caricature. There are some people like Rorty who certainly run that way, but most of the people who could be thought of as postmodernist thinkers did not believe that—including Derrida (someone in the last comment thread shared the recent Existential Comics making that point, which draws on specific things he himself said).

  3. Charles W. Abbott says:

    It’s often hard to learn much from the newspapers if you read them uncritically. As soon as you go from “What happened” to “Why it happened” or “What it means” we are on thin ice.

    As someone said “If you do not read the newspapers you are uninformed. If you read the newspapers you are misinformed.”

    I’m not sure to what extend the newspapers are post-modernist and to what extent they simply are in favor of “advocacy journalism.”

    Part of it is that journalists are often not especially smart or well educated, and many of them are not street-wise the way they were in the old days when they started early and (according to the stereotype) drank and told stories after work.

    It’s a tough job, or can be. Probably I would suck at it. But that’s still no excuse.

    as John Schindler puts it:

    https://20committee.com/2014/12/09/the-cancer-of-advocacy-journalism/

  4. Charles W. Abbott says:

    I know a teenage boy whose favorite sayings include Ben Shapiro’s quip:

    “Facts don’t care about your feelings.”

    Ben Shapiro is glib but has a certain gravitas.

    = – = – = – =

    A certain class of bloggers calls certain facts “hate facts” (one word) which seems more aggressive and in-your-face. This is probably someone on the alt-Right or at least a notice like Steve Sailer. It may be John Derbyshire, who is a talented essayist but a little too obsessed with “race realism.”

    The columnist / provocateur Gavin McInnes has used it at Takimag.

    BTW, while I write, someone else in the house has NPR new playing and the topic is “white supremacy and the alt-right.”

    Prof. Arnold, on point #8 above, here is a nice observation. According to Theodore Dalrymple, Charles Darwin wrote down every fact that opposed his sincere beliefs, because he suspected that otherwise he would soon forget it and forget that his mind had ever been exposed to it.

  5. Andrew' says:

    Skepticism of reason and its limits has some overlap with Burkean Conservatism.

    • lliamander says:

      An interesting point. What do you think distinguishes post-modernism from burkean conservatism?

      My first attempt would be that they each fall on different sides of Hanlon’s Razor: the former attribute the failure of reason to malice, and the latter attribute it to incompetence.

  6. Andrew' says:

    What is a good neutral definition of post-modernism? I don’t even think the definitions that supporters give are often charitable enough.

    For example, I’m quote sympathetic to the concept of micro-aggreasions in theory, though just willing to create macro-aggressions to remediate them.

    • Andrew' says:

      “4. In Specialization and Trade, I argue against the dominant filter in macroeconomics, which I call the GDP factory.”

      A filter could be wrong or it could be incomplete and the interpretation that it is the whole answer is wrong. Global warming comes to mind. All we hear is about how Republicans don’t believe in science. Anything you hear about economics, scientism, perverse incentives in academia, geoengineering solutions, humility, persuasion, patience, etc., comes from “people who don’t believe in science.”

    • lliamander says:

      I would like argue that Scott Adams is perhaps the most popular post-modern public figure at present. This is in large part because he uses simple language and humor to convey the ideas:
      – the power of the unconscious forces => “moist robots”
      – social processes and power competitions => “persuasion filter”
      – “Narrative” => “movie in our heads”

      > For example, I’m quote sympathetic to the concept of micro-aggreasions in theory, though just willing to create macro-aggressions to remediate them.

      do you mean “unwilling”?

  7. Lord says:

    C is an over generalization, neither true nor false unless overinterpreted. Since when does most like mean always? Someone is overinterpreting.

  8. rhhardin says:

    There are two postmodern views, the academic and say Derrida.

    The chief difference is about feelings: the academics hate the system they’re analyzing, and Derrida likes the system he’s analyzing.

    Derrida sees filters as part of the observer, not as something between the observer and reality, so it’s not so much a filter as just how things work, and something to be curious in following out, like a literary effect.

Comments are closed.