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Thursday, September 01, 2011

On the "Left Turn" at the Volokh Conspiracy

Brian Leiter writes critically about the Volokh Conspiracy's decision this week to give a guest-blogging spot to the Dickensian-named Professor Timothy Groseclose, who is writing about his new book, quietly titled Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind.  Leiter titles the post "Pseudo-Science Watch" and refers to Groseclose as "a political 'scientist' selling his snake oil about 'liberal bias' in the media."

I've been sickly fascinated by Groseclose's posts this week.  I haven't done the work on this that Brian has, and I surely lack his pungent tone.  Still, I agree that the posts, to say the least, raise serious questions about why this work deserves the label of "science," let alone what justifies the tone of utter certainty that pervades Groseclose's description of his book (which, to be fair, I haven't read).  It was rough enough to read Groseclose declaring that his "belief that the left tend to be more vicious than the right" was thoroughly justified because "they worship 'the god of Equality.'"  A statement like that is so vacuous that I was compelled to read the linked introduction to the book in hope of a clearer explanation of this belief, where I found . . . more vacuousness, just at greater length, along with the obligatory cite to Saul Alinsky.  Whether the media generally betrays a liberal bias or not, color me unconvinced by Groseclose's own account.  

That said, I want to say a word in defense of the VC crew.  

It hasn't been all garlands for Groseclose at VC.  Orin Kerr has devoted several fine posts to carefully questioning Groseclose's methodology; they are written in a polite tone, but I think it is fair to call them highly skeptical.  And it must be said that the blog's regular commenters have been lively in raising similar questions.  The VC has commenters of different political stripes, but it's fair to say that on the whole they are more likely to be receptive to Groseclose's claims than many other audiences would be.  Nevertheless, many of them, including quite a few who count themselves as conservatives who believe there is a liberal media bias, have pushed hard against Groseclose's posts.  Groseclose himself, to his credit, has felt compelled to devote a lengthy post to responding to all those critical comments, and several posts responding to Orin in particular.  Of course some commenters have defended him too, resorting most recently to the somewhat amazing complaint that it's rude of the VC to invite Groseclose to post on the blog and then have the temerity to actually ask critical questions about his posts.

I understand why one would question why Groseclose was invited to be a guest in the first place.  But I think it's only fair to point out that his time on the VC has been more of an inquisition than a coronation, and that the tone in both Orin's posts and the comments has been mostly civil but extremely critical.            

Posted by Paul Horwitz on September 1, 2011 at 08:17 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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I, too, have not read Prof. Groseclose's book, and do not offer any opinion on his methodology. However, one would have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to think that liberal bias permeates the legacy media. This usually plays out in the questions that aren't asked and the assumptions that are not even noticed let alone questioned.

Posted by: DBLS | Sep 1, 2011 8:38:49 AM

I appreciate your comment, but just to be clear, both my questions about his work, as presented in the VC posts and the introduction I read, and the questions raised by Orin and other commenters at VC, are not directed at whether a liberal bias exists in some or many sectors of the media. Orin, if I recall correctly, stated that he believes there is a liberal media bias. The questions concerned the methodology and especially many of the assumptions and assignments (ie., characterizing a particular think tank or politician as falling on the left or right side) made by Groseclose. In this case, at least, having read most of the comments and all of Orin's posts, I wouldn't even say that the criticisms are, in general, a way of quietly questioning the possibility, probability, or certainty of liberal media bias. I think the questions that have been raised are above-board and fair -- and persuasive.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Sep 1, 2011 9:03:27 AM

I, too, have not read Prof. Groseclose's book, and do not offer any opinion on his methodology. However, one would have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to think that conservative bias permeates the legacy media. This usually plays out in the questions that aren't asked and the assumptions that are not even noticed let alone questioned.

Posted by: Jim Milles | Sep 1, 2011 9:06:35 AM

Perhaps with DBLS's concerns with this:

"This usually plays out in the questions that aren't asked and the assumptions that are not even noticed let alone questioned."

he might provide the questions that aren't asked, the assumptions that are not even noticed let alone questioned. I can hear, speak and see but perhaps it is DBLS who is deaf, dumb and blind, as well as vacuous.

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | Sep 1, 2011 9:06:42 AM

@Jim Milles: If you are as left-wing as, say, Brian Leiter, of course the media is "conservative" relative to you, which is why left-wing groups can properly, from their perspective, complain about what they perceive as conservative media bias. But if the question is whether the median perspective one gets from the media is to the "left" of the median voter's or median American's political views, then the answer is obvious. To put it another way, the media is left, but not far-left.

I could say that Fox News exhibits "liberal" media bias on economic issues because it's not as libertarian as I am. But I recognize that my views are far to the "right" of the average person, so I wouldn't.

Posted by: David Bernstein | Sep 1, 2011 5:31:57 PM

Paul: I haven't followed the Groseclose posts, but what does it mean to be accused of peddling pseudo-science by someone who defends Freudian psychiatry?

Posted by: David Bernstein | Sep 1, 2011 5:38:55 PM

Some of my criticisms are in Leiter, at least one of which I have found wrong. But I have also discovered far more serious problems with the study.

The idea of a study is good, because people, such as the posters here, assert that there is a liberal bias or not, which really reflects only their own bias. Interestingly, the Groseclose/Milyo results, when adjusted for one source, and a subsequent study by Gasper show the media is remarkably unbiased. Despite Groseclose's effort to play to a conservative audience and sell books, this research is actually pretty good evidence that the media is unbiased.

Posted by: frankcross | Sep 1, 2011 9:00:51 PM

This from frankcross:

" ... Groseclose's effort to play to a conservative audience and sell books, ..."

suggests a similar model employed at VC by a regular poster.

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | Sep 1, 2011 9:34:29 PM

David,

That's a rather shameless circumstantial ad hominem assertion. In any case, I'd like to know more about Freudian psychiatry, which I'm not familiar with although I know a thing or two about Freudian psychology and was wondering what's wrong with defending it? Some rather brilliant minds have helped us to understand and appreciate the fact that there is much of enduring value (philosophically, psychologically, even ethically, especially with regard to moral psychology) in psychoanalytic theory and praxis: Marcia Cavell, John Deigh, Ilham Dilman, Sebastian Gardner, Jonathan Lear, Donald Levy, Ernest Wallwork, and Richard Wolheim, for example.

See too: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2008/11/directed-reading-freudian-and-post.html

And readers may be interested in the sources posted by Kevin Jon Heller at Opinio Juris critical of the book in question: http://opiniojuris.org/2011/08/30/did-you-hear-the-one-about-fox-news-being-less-biased-than-the-liberal-media/

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Sep 1, 2011 9:58:17 PM

erratum: Richard Wollheim

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Sep 1, 2011 10:03:32 PM

@Patrick: The question is not whether there is "much of enduring value (philosophically, psychologically, even ethically, especially with regard to moral psychology) in psychoanalytic theory and praxis". The same could be said of great literature.

The question is whether a field (or sub-field) that has from the get-go eschewed testing, replication, and other indicia of scientific inquiry, yet claimed the mantle of science, should be embraced as such, or recognized as a pseudo-science.

And it's not like it's inherently harmless, as generations of homosexual men, and schizophrenic men, subject to quack theories about their mothers (among other things) by Freudian psychoanalysts instead of getting actual, science-based assistance, could attest.

Posted by: David Bernstein | Sep 2, 2011 12:17:57 AM

(And just to be clear, I use schizophrenia and homosexuality as examples not because I think they are analogous maladies, or the latter a malady at all, but because individuals who meet these descriptions were among those subject to Freudian quackery when they sought assistance from "psychoanalysts," whose dogma, in turn, retarded the growth of more scientific understandings of human behavior.)

Posted by: David Bernstein | Sep 2, 2011 12:24:08 AM

David,
Can you point us to some places where Leiter endorsed Freud's account of homosexuality and/or schizophrenia, or similar cases? I'm pretty sure that Leiter's claims about Freud's lasting value are much more narrow than you're suggesting here, but if you could show otherwise, that would be interesting. If you can't show otherwise, then I'd think that your reply here isn't very well grounded.

Posted by: Matt | Sep 2, 2011 7:58:55 AM

A surprising turn in the conversation, in my view. David, in fairness, Brian is the one calling Groseclose's work "pseudo-science," not me. I just called a particular passage vacuous and said it wasn't any better in the longer version; I'm pretty comfortable with that judgment. As far as Freud goes, again it's Brian's concern and not mine; I don't know whether Brian views Freudianism as a "science" or not, and I can say that I don't, although I think Freud remains a valuable and insightful writer and a profoundly influential figure, albeit he has become more of a literary than a scientific figure. For what it's worth, I encourage you to read the threads. Just to reiterate my central point, which after all was a defense of the VC, whether Groseclose should have been invited or not, I thought the discussion was quite interesting and that, besides Orin, many of the commenters (on both "sides," although clearly I have my views about which "side" was right) acquitted themselves quite well here.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Sep 2, 2011 8:09:41 AM

By the way, David, sorry I was unable to reply to your comments last week regarding absolutism etc.; it was just a busy weekend and for the most part I thought the conversation was doing just fine without me.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Sep 2, 2011 8:10:42 AM

So as not to detract from the main thrust of the thread I'll address David's reply to me sometime later this weekend at ReligiousLeftLaw and/or the Ratio Juris blog.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Sep 2, 2011 9:32:06 AM

Paul, my comment wasn't direct at you, sorry for the confusion.

BTW, the one thing I would say about your comment is that there's no need to attack or defend the VC for having a particular guest-blogger. Eugene invites guest-bloggers on his own initiative, and I take it he does so because he thinks the guest in question has something interesting to say that readers would be interested in reading. I don't know of any reason to think that Eugene (or "the VC") actually endorses the general or specific statements of any of the guests. Heck, Eugene doesn't represent himself as necessarily agreeing even with his permanent co-bloggers.

Posted by: David Bernstein | Sep 2, 2011 12:03:10 PM

David, no problem on either account. I suppose I could have just said in response to Brian's post that the VC needn't be attacked or defended for having a particular guest -- although I suspect that most of us would say of particular guests that, even if their presence on the blog is not an endorsement, it is counter-productive to have invited that person on as a guest. Someone who wears a tinfoil hat or denies the Holocaust might elicit an interesting conversation, but that might not be reason enough to invite her on and let her have her say. In any event, my aim was less to defend the VC on that basis than to point out that, in fact, Orin and many of your commenters were providing a very interesting critical discussion.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Sep 2, 2011 12:15:24 PM

You write "color me unconvinced by Groseclose's own account," but fail exhibit even the most cursory understanding of what that "account" or argument is, beyond citing a couple comments which I'm sure you'll admit are not part of that argument. So how can you be "unconvinced" by an argument with which you are unfamiliar?

It would have been more honest to write: I disagree with Groseclose's conclusion, therefore I don't see the need to read his book or otherwise familiarize myself with his argument.

Posted by: Brian | Sep 4, 2011 5:57:51 PM

Got here via Bainbridge, via Insty.

I did read Groseclose's book (and thoroughly enjoyed it --- like the Freakonomics books it reminds me of). His main thesis, to me, is not so much that the US media have a liberal bias (in other news, water is wet), but that it, some well-publicized exceptions aside, results not from outright dishonesty but rather from (self-)selection bias and journalists living in intellectual echo chambers.

As somebody with a natural sciences background who crunches data and writes models for a living, I find it very difficult to grade any social scientist or economist's quantitative model more than an "A for effort". This said, Groseclose's models are, on the main thrust, as persuasive as any I have seen so far in the ESS fields (although, coming from a physicist, this sounds a bit like damning with faint praise). I felt less persuaded by some of the finer details analysis --- at times it felt like he was trying to read too many micro-phenomena in his data.

Some of his data are amusingly counterintuitive: pretty much every conservative would be surprised to learn that their favorite betes noires, the NYT and NPR, are actually somewhat less slanted than some of their competitors. (Mind you: this is based on news pages only, and excludes opinion and editorial pieces.) And of course there is the flying pig moment when the WSJ news pages are actually found to be even more left-wing than other media --- the popular image of the WSJ is based on its outspokenly conservative opinion pages.

Having lived in several parts of the US (+Europe, +ME), I'm not sure that his analysis of what would happens to elections without the MSM is all that far off the mark. (Remember the boast by Evan Thomas, Newsweak editor at the time, about how many percentage points the support of the MSM was worth for the Dem candidate?) Note that his analysis of THAT focuses on the undecided middle, and more on the semi-apathetic subgroup of that than on the independent but politically aware. The former are easy to sway by biased, noisy coverage: the latter may be as hard to sway as the "yellow dog" D or R voter.

One thing the Groseclose book does not really address (nor can it, given the time frames over which data were collected) is what the effect will be of people tuning out the MSM altogether and turning to online alternative media instead. There is more discussion of what would happen if journalists were open about their ideological leanings: a comparison with European media (where, in many countries, newspapers not only have clear alignments but historically often had party affiliations on their mastheads) could have been interesting there, but might have required a collaborator fluent in several of the relevant languages.

Posted by: New Class Traitor | Sep 4, 2011 7:17:22 PM

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