All’s fair in punditry and war

Should op-ed writers be forced to tell readers if they’re taking money in return for supporting a cause or interest? The Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Iain Murray says no.

In an article for the American Spectator, Iain Murray argues that readers should focus on the quality of a opinion writer’s argument rather than worrying about who’s paying them and why. According to Murray, dismissing an argument because it’s paid for is an example of the ad hominem fallacy not a valid argument:

If a writer does not disclose his income source, he is untrustworthy for not being transparent. If he does disclose his income source, he is a paid shill. Yet neither formulation speaks to the actual arguments.

Murray’s solution to this dilemma is to protect readers from their own irrationality and prejudice. So if an oil company is paying an opinion writer to tell readers that climate change is a beat-up disclosing this will only confuse readers. It plays into the hands of left wingers who tell a gullible public that researchers at privately funded think tanks are less trustworthy than university academics.

Reason magazine’s Cathy Young disagrees. In a piece for the Boston Globe she writes "Undisclosed financial interest in the slant of an article compromises a writer’s intellectual honesty and hence his or her credibility."

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38 Responses to All’s fair in punditry and war

  1. Tim Lambert says:

    You might be interested in my post on Murray’s article.

  2. James Farrell says:

    Tim’s maintains that ad hominem arguments are OK if they’re relevant. It doesn’t say that on the ‘fallacies’ page Don links to, but I think that’s the sensible line to take. Practical knowledge is always going to be based on a mixture of direct sense experience, cogitation, and authority, whether it’s the authority of paticular individuals or of a consensus of informed people. Authority in turn rests on two conditions, namely knowledge and credibility. It saves time in gathering infrmation if know which authorities are knowledgable and credible.

  3. Don Arthur says:

    James – the link I use gives this example:

    If… [a] used car vendor says, "Trust me, this is a good deal," without further proofs or arguments, you are entitled to take into account the profit motive, the shady reputation of the profession, and anything else you deem to be relevant as a condition of "trust."

    As you imply, a op-eds writer’s credibility is relevent because they usually do more than just draw out the logical implications of facts we already know. Often what they’re saying is "trust me, I’ve looked at all the relevant research and this is what it suggests". Then they’ll go on to cherry pick a few convenient quotes from a handful of studies and experts

  4. James Farrell says:

    OK, Don, I guess I didn’t read all the way to the end.

    It’s still not quite so simple, though, as facts versus opinions. If someone like our friend Murray writes that the ‘Mann Hockey Stick has been discredited’, is that more like the used car salesman’s saying ‘that the car in question is being offered at lower than the average or “blue book” price’, or is it more like his saying ‘Trust me, this is a good deal’?It varies according to the audience or customer, doesn’t it? Someone with little science background could spend ten years checking the ‘blue book’ of frontier climatology research publications, and still not be competent to verify the claim one way or the other.

  5. Homer Paxton says:

    I don’t think it matters.

    It is the research/ paper/views expressed that are most important.

    It is not to hard to determine whether the material is propaganda or genuine.

    I do recall two papers from the BCA that showed no correlation between productivity and individual agreements.
    I didn’t really care that the BCA funded the papers.
    I was more concerned with the papers themselves.

    Kim Hawtrey wrote one of the best papers on the banking industry. This was funded by the ABA.

    So what

  6. Anna Winter says:

    I think the difference lies in whether the person is presenting fact or opinion, and if presenting facts, whether a source is cited.

    So someone being paid by a company who then says “I think the company is good” is probably OK, since it’s opinion, and should be treated as so regardless of whose opinion it is.

    If on the other hand the writer is claiming to know things as a fact, but not backing up the facts with evidence, then knowing whose payroll s/he’s on does make a difference to whether you choose to accept those facts.

    I don’t think it’s as simple as saying it’s always irrelevant. I think there’s also a need for the reader to make a more nuanced assesment of what it means that the writer is on someone’s payroll.

    I’m a member of the ALP, so when I talk politics, it’s probably better that people know that up front. But what it means for my arguments isn’t clear cut.

    If I make claims of fact about the ALP, you could think they are wrong because I am biased. Or you could think I’m more likely to be correct because of my intimate knowledge of the party’s workings.

    Likewise, you could claim that my opinions are biased and should be dismissed because I am too personally involved in the successes or failures of the ALP to be honest about my views; or, you could think that my views are what made me choose to join the ALP in the first place.

    So I think a lot of it has to do with getting the reader to think about the implications in a more nuanced way than impartial observer vs paid shill.

  7. Ken Parish says:

    Excellent summary Anna. The article by Cathy Young linked from Don’s post is also worth reading. I wonder whether Homer and some other commenters have done so?

    Personally I think Fumento’s actions are somewhat less reprehensible than Bandow’s; it isn’t quite as directly a case of cash for comment. Nevertheless, IMO relevant affiliations should always be disclosed in any published book or op-ed piece.

    Homer’s argument (and that of Iain Murray), that we should simply judge opinion pieces on the quality of argumentation, founders on the basic fact that most of us have insufficient knowledge to do this except in a very small number of areas where we may have developed some personal expertise. For example, I can judge a legal opinion piece on the quality of argumentation, but I’m unlikely to be able to do this with an article about economics or nuclear physics. Hence I am reliant on heuristics, including especially the reputation and apparent expertise of the author. If we can’t rely on those factors because we can’t know whether the author really does hold the claimed opinion or is prostituting himself for cash (e.g. John Laws or Alan Jones, who demonstrably badmouthed particular companies but then miraculously changed their tunes as soon as they went on the payroll), then we unavoidably sink in a swamp of relativism/post-modernism, where the most strident or seductive voice prevails.

  8. whyisitso says:

    People who write opinion pieces usually become pretty predictable after you’ve read several (or less) of their pieces. I’m tired of reading Alan Ramsay and Mike Carlton because their views are so predictable and poisonously vicious, although Carlton seems to be under some misapprehension that his sarcasm is actually funny.

    Even worse than writers who don’t disclose an interest are those who expect to achieve authority from quoting un-named sources. Sometimes these are amusing, such as the recent one attributing to some unknown ALP MP that Kim Beazley is a “gutless shitbag”.

  9. Evil Pundit says:

    Often what they’re saying is “trust me, I’ve looked at all the relevant research and this is what it suggests”. Then they’ll go on to cherry pick a few convenient quotes from a handful of studies and experts.

    This is substantially the same way that academics in the humanities and social “sciences” work.

    Just as opinion writers should disclose their funding and political leanings, so should academics who write research papers or communicate with the public.

  10. John Quiggin says:

    Even when the salesman is saying “That car is below blue book price”, and you can check the book, you should be watching your wallet. There is usually a reason why a car is below blue book price, and the salesman has chosen not to tell you.

    That’s why (outside syllogistic logic) criticism of ad hominem argument doesn’t stand up. If you have enough independent knowledge to check not only what your source is telling you but what they are not telling you, then the source is redundant. If ou don’t, an interested source is unreliable.

  11. Yobbo says:

    And when John Quiggin writes a piece on economics that recommends more intervention on the part of government, people would do well to remember that the government pays his salary.

    So we can safely assume that John Quiggin will never recommend taxes be set to zero, regardless of whether it was correct or not, because if taxes were zero he wouldn’t have a job.

  12. Pingback: John Quiggin » Blog Archive » Ad hominem ad nauseam

  13. James Farrell says:

    “..if taxes were zero [Quiggin] wouldn’t have a job.”

    Not in Australia. At Stanford or Princeton probably, where they’d pay a bit more. But you can’t get good mangoes there, so you’re right – he’ll probably keep licking the hand that feeds him here.

  14. Ken Parish says:

    “So we can safely assume that John Quiggin will never recommend taxes be set to zero …”

    Nice cheap debating point, but fallacious just the same. First, the fact that academics are government-paid is disclosed in every piece they/we write by the very fact of being billed as a university academic. Secondly, there are some libertarian-oriented academics who do advocate low tax minimalist government prescriptions. Why? The traditional function of an academic (albeit now somewhat undermined by the prevailing corporatist pseudo-market mindset) is to be fearlessly independent-minded and search for new insights, and that function is fostered by institutional mechanisms like academic tenure which ostensibly makes people like JQ unsackable except for gross misconduct (although again that isn’t actually true these days either – they can “disestablish” a professorial chair relatively easily). Of course, academics should also specifically disclose any industry or other funding that is directly relevant to their research or expressed opinion.

    By comparison, op-ed pundits, radio shock jocks etc are vastly more susceptible to having their opinions bought or hired in the marketplace of ideas. Disclosure of direct payments or sponsorships where they impact directly on the subject under discussion is therefore essential. You really don’t need to go past the Laws-Jones “cash for comment” scandal to know this is true. It isn’t in fact a left versus right issue at all, although the reactions of some commenters on this thread suggest they can’t help seeing it that way.

  15. Jason Soon says:

    Prof Quiggin could easily get a job in any overseas uni or any economic consultancy if he wanted to.

  16. derrida derider says:

    dsquared had it right in a justly blogosphere-famous post here . Do read the whole thing but the relevant passage is:

    ‘There is much made by people who long for the days of their fourth form debating society about the fallacy of “argumentum ad hominem”. There is, as I have mentioned in the past, no fancy Latin term for the fallacy of “giving known liars the benefit of the doubt”, but it is in my view a much greater source of avoidable error in the world.’

    In reading an article I’d like some information to let me estimate the probability of the writer being a “known liar”.

  17. Yobbo says:

    “Secondly, there are some libertarian-oriented academics who do advocate low tax minimalist government prescriptions.”

    You mean in public universities Ken? I know there are many Libertarian-minded academics, but they tend to work for organisations like TCS and Cato, whom John Quiggin considers irredeemably biased because they take money from corporations.

    All this thread is really saying is that it’s only ok to be paid for your work if the person paying you is the government. Governments don’t tend to employ people who think that governments should be abolished. This is why they end up at places like TCS and Cato, because there are some people who are willing to pay to see that libertarian thinking sees the light of day (like tobacco companies and oil companies).

    Who is sponsoring who is so utterly irrelevant that it makes people like Quiggin and Lambert look like pedantic crybabies when they spend far more time talking about who funds who than they do actually addressing any arguments.

    ” It isn’t in fact a left versus right issue at all, although the reactions of some commenters on this thread suggest they can’t help seeing it that way.”

    Of course it’s a left vs right issue Ken. Leftists have access to all the public funding they could ever wish for, (because governments love people to think that the best solution to all our problems is more powerful government) and they seem to have framed the “taking money from government is ok but taking it from private organisations isn’t” argument so well that even supposed centrists like you seem to have fallen for it.

  18. Yobbo says:

    Jason, of course you are right that JQ could get a job elsewhere. And Techcentralstation writer Glenn Reynolds could get a job elsewhere that isn’t funded by petrodollars too. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop Quiggin and Lambert from dismissing anything written there as “tainted”. So I hope you can see my point.

  19. Evil Pundit says:

    What is this special quality that makes government money untainted, while commercial money is tainted?

    Has it been isolated and measured?

  20. Tim Lambert says:

    Yobbo, I find it amazing that you have so totally and completely missed my point. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have advertisments in a newspaper. I’m saying that they should be identified as advertisements. Is that clear now?

  21. Anna Winter says:

    Yobbo, your argument doesn’t address the fact that often people make associations and take paid employment from places because those places share a similar philosophy, rather than forming their philosophy to match their employer.

    So it doesn’t neccesarily negate their argument that their income relies on their personal philosophy actually occuring. It’s another piece of information, that’s all. It isn’t a get-out-of-addressing-the-argument-on-its-merits card.

  22. Don Arthur says:

    Yobbo says — “All this thread is really saying is that it’s only ok to be paid for your work if the person paying you is the government.”

    If that’s what people are arguing they’re wrong. But I certainly treat research findings from think tanks differently to findings published in peer reviewed academic journals. This has nothing to do with differences in the moral character of people who work in think tanks or universities. It’s all about how the institutions work.

    Think tanks are much more like marketing organisations than university departments are. They usually start with the policy framework they want government to adopt and then look for ways to sell it to opinion leaders. It’s all part of the ‘war of ideas.’

    In universities there are always zealots with an opinion to sell, but their zeal is tempered by processes like peer review and internal codes of ethics. It’s relevant for lay readers to ask whether other experts regard the work as credible. Peer review isn’t infallible but it’s a useful signal.

    And sometimes academics have interests they need to declare. Research projects can have industry support and academics can have business interests. If a research project is sponsored by government or industry an academic ought to declare it when they report the findings.

  23. Yobbo says:

    “Yobbo, your argument doesn’t address the fact that often people make associations and take paid employment from places because those places share a similar philosophy, rather than forming their philosophy to match their employer.”

    You haven’t been paying attention Anna. That’s exactly the argument I’m making. It’s Quiggin, Lambert and Arthur who are arguing that anyone who works for a private think-tank is a paid mouthpiece/stooge.

  24. Yobbo says:

    Lambert, that isn’t what you’re saying at all. You make it a point to ignore anything written on TCS simply because they are sponsored by some kind of corporation you don’t like. You dismiss anything written there out of hand without even considering the argument.

    It’s nothing better than argument from ad hominem and everyone knows it except you and John Quiggin.

  25. Tim Lambert says:

    Yobbo, did you read even one word of my post? Or did you just make something up and attribute it to me?

  26. James Farrell says:

    Just to clear up one small point, Sam: do you think op-ed writers and researchers should declare their affiliations and sponsors?

  27. Evil Pundit says:

    … often people make associations and take paid employment from places because those places share a similar philosophy, rather than forming their philosophy to match their employer.

    This argument of course applies to think tanks and opinion columnists just as much as it applies to academics.

    None of these groups has a greater claim to truth than any other.

  28. Yobbo says:

    James: I think the quality of the article should be allowed to stand on it’s own merits.

    Everything written somewhere is sponsored by someone. As I have already said, the left in particular is so hot about this issue because most of their sponsorship comes from government and “Non-Profit Organisations” like greenpeace. For some reason many people seem to think these are less corrupting influences than a for-profit corporation. As if governments and NGOs don’t have agendas they’d like to push.

    It is nothing more than an attempt to silence their opponents by ad-hominem attack, in the grand tradition of the left. I suppose we should at least be thankful they don’t have access to icepicks.

  29. Yobbo says:

    I should add that it should be obvious that who is paying who is pretty irrelevant in the end. People are going to write what they believe whether people are paying them to do so or not.

    I routinely blog in favour of big business despite not having held a paying job of any sort for nearly 8 years. I don’t need BAT to send me money to decide that people should have the right to allow smoking in pubs. I don’t need Singapore airlines to pay me to say Qantas is terrible.

    If they wanted to send me money anyway, I certainly wouldn’t turn it down. Does that make me a sellout if I was going to write about it anyway?

    In the same way, the fellow travellers of the blogosphere all got behind Greenpeace when they started ramming Japanese whalers, despite all the evidence to the contrary. I don’t think for a second that any of them are on Greenpeace’s payroll, but they still perpetrated their lies anyway, because they are committed to the cause.

    The reason companies give money to op-ed writers isn’t to persuade people to write favourable copy for them. It’s to ensure that the people who are already writing op-eds favourable to them don’t have to go looking for a job as a bank teller to pay the bills.

    I thought this was pretty obvious to everyone, but I guess it goes to show that you can never take anything for granted where the hysterical left is concerned.

  30. James Farrell says:

    ‘People are going to write what they believe whether people are paying them to do so or not.’

    What, all of them? You don’t think the world is teeming with paid propogandists and spin doctors? From someone who trades on being streetwise, that seems surprisingly naive.

    Your first argument – ‘Everything written somewhere is sponsored by someone’ – was more promising. It’s obviously true in some sense. Marx made a similar observation. To simplify, we could suppose further that people only comment on issues in which their sponsors have an interest. Then we could just apply the same discount factor to all claims. The distortions would all cancel out, so no one would need to declare anything. Like simplying a fraction.

    It’s fair enough reasoning if you accept the premises. But I’d still rather have the disclaimers, myself. I’ve see too many episodes of Media Watch and read too many Tim Lambert exposes. Incurably brainwashed by the hysterical left.

  31. Yobbo says:

    If you still watch “Media Watch”, then you are incurably brainwashed.

  32. Tim Lambert says:

    So Yobbo really doesn’t think that advertisements need to be distinguished from other content.

    Yobbo, if you are working for Qantas and writing an ad for them, you don’t write what you believe, you write about how good they are. Or you get fired.

  33. pad says:

    “So Yobbo really doesn’t think that advertisements need to be distinguished from other content”

    You can’t see the difference?

    Are Lambert and Quiggin prepared to foreswear tenure- give it up and not accept it if offered?

    Is Quiggin prepared to promise that in the unlikely event of a labor government he won’t accept any paid, honorary posting or consultancy of any kind with anything to do with climate change?

    Is he? Are you?

  34. Yobbo says:

    Yes Tim, but we aren’t talking about advertising, we are talking about op/eds.

    Most people are able to tell the difference between the two without signposting.

  35. derrida derider says:

    So, Yobbo, I expect you think it fine if, say, Chavez writes a paid-for op-ed under a pseudonym that declares all is fine in Venezuala. Readers, according to you, would not be influenced by it because they’ll already be in a position to evaluate it against their fine understanding of the Bolivarian revolution.

    Obviously you’re keen on having a well informed populace – not.

  36. Yobbo says:

    Derrida – if someone was to write an oped saying all is fine in Venezuala it would be laughed out of the paper as it should be. This would be the case whether Mr Chavez personally paid to have it written or not. That is my point.

    There are plenty of people writing ignorant, ill-researched, misleading and frankly useless opinion articles all over the world as we speak, and the vast majority of them are doing it without financial backing of any sort.

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