Iain Murray, in favour of payola

Iain Murray, comes out with an article in the American Spectator in favour of pundit payola:

An opinion piece — whether an individual op-ed or a column — exists to promote a point of view by argument. It does not seek to establish a fact, but to win people over to a particular viewpoint or opinion. Therefore, the strength of the argument is the key factor in determining the effectiveness of the piece. A sloppily constructed, poorly thought-out argument will convince no one — while a tightly constructed, coherent, and well-written argument can sway minds. That is why opinion pieces are considered intellectual ammunition in the war of ideas.

The only valid response to a persuasive argument is an equally persuasive argument towards a different conclusion. Yet the witch hunters’ central argument has nothing to do with the virtues of the arguments presented by Bandow and others. Their argument is, essentially, that because the writer has not disclosed information about his income, he is essentially untrustworthy and his opinions should not be given the time of day. This argument is flawed enough to make it invalid. In logic, that’s called a fallacy.

Actually that is not their argument. The American Spectator, like most magazines is careful to distinguish advertisements from other content. And it’s not because that way readers won’t give the ads “the time of day”. If that were the case, no-one would buy ads there. No, the advertisers hope that you will read the arguments in their ads and be persuaded by them, even knowing that it is an ad.

We all know enough to treat something written by Monsanto about their products:

Monsanto has video footage comparing drought-resistant corn with a regular variety on a 100-degree day. Leaves of the regular variety began curling in the morning. Those of the drought-resistant corn remained open so the plants continued to grow. They also checked the drought-resistant crop’s temperature and found it remained cooler.

with more sceptism than something written by science journalist Michael Fumento

“Drought-tolerant corn has the potential to allow crops to be grown on land where it wasn’t thought possible,” said Adrian Lund, a Monsanto researcher in Wichita, Kansas. “That ability to make a positive impact on farmers’ livelihoods is what gets me excited about my job.”

We are working on drought tolerance in corn, soybeans and cotton. After demonstrating drought tolerance in corn in greenhouses in 2003, we advanced to field trials in which rows of corn containing the drought-tolerant trait were grown next to rows without the trait.

Oops, sorry. Got them mixed up. The first one was by Fumento and the second one was from Monsanto.

Murray argues that the argument is a fallacy because:

First, it has nothing to do with the views expressed in the articles. Instead, it dwells on characteristics of the author. In logic, this is called the ad hominem (or ad hom.) fallacy. It should have no effect on the evaluation of the views expressed in the article. So, if someone writes in favor of drug legalization but it is then revealed that he has been paid to write the article by George Soros or another proponent of drug legalization, his argument cannot be validly dismissed on that ground alone.

The argument that full disclosure of any financial interests would solve the problem should be seen in this light. The ad hominem argument cares nothing for transparency. 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.

But ad hominem is is only a fallacy if it dwells on an irrelevant personal characteristic. If someone writes that a particular product from Monsanto is wonderful, it is quite relevant to inquire whether he has been paid by Monsanto; since that could well affect his judgement of that product. Transparency means that you distinguish ads from other content. It looks like Murray is against this.

Furthermore, looking at the funding source of an author is often a useful heuristic when you don’t have time to look at an argument and fact-check all the premises. For example, Murray has argued that we should not be concerned about the health risks from second-hand smoke because the relative risk is less than two and “epidemiologists generally agree” that you can’t ascribe causation in such cases. Now you can spend quite a lot of time checking the epidemiological literature and eventually find out that Murray is not being truthful about what epidemiologists believe, or you can consider the fact that he works for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which is heavily funded by tobacco companies and get to the same place much faster.

This comment by Kathy Hutchins about Murray’s article is interesting:

Iain modestly refrains from recounting many of the accusations I’m sure he himself has had to endure; I know when I worked at CEI the greater part of any joint panel appearance with a leftie would consist of listening to a litany of all the filthy corporate pigs that had bought my soul with their ill-gotten lucre. What was so infurating is that I’d get back to the office and get an earful from a donor because I’d written something pro-market that he didn’t like. It takes a rare talent to piss off all of the people all of the time.

Markets are pretty good at providing things that consumers want. So if there is, as Hutchins writes, demand for think tanks that write stuff that donors want rather than “pro-market” stuff, then the market will have provided them. It only remains to identify them, and the reaction of think tanks to pundit payola will help us here. Bandow and Milloy are no longer at Cato, while Ferrara is still at IPI and Fumento is still at Hudson. Draw your own conclusions.

Comments

  1. #1 Bradley
    February 4, 2006

    You’re better off treating something openly written by Monsanto or another company with *less* skepticism than something written by Fumento, Murray, or other think tanks. This is from my own experience covering biotech.

    With company-generated material, I can easily spot what kind of potential bias to look out for. Then I evaluate the substance. By quoting the company, readers are also alerted en passant to potential bias. In addition, publicly traded corporations face severe penalties for releasing materially misleading information.

    With Fumento and his kind, I must first deconstruct which particular interest he’s trying to flatter, and why. For those think tankers I haven’t heard of, I must check out their own record, as well as that of the think tank. It’s usually not worth the trouble, unless I already know the think tank is ethical.

    To put it another way, I’d rather learn what a company thinks by going straight to the source, rather than turn to a shady middleman who’s angling for his cut.

  2. #2 Paul
    February 4, 2006

    Before going to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Murray was doing heavy lifting for ExxonMobil over at STATS, a “media watchdog” group that just happens to be funded by, uh, large corporations.

    http://www.cei.org/dyn/view_expert.cfm?expert=227

    STATS is much the same as the junkscience website run by Milloy, but much less prone to hyperbole. STATS’s criticism of how the media covers science can even appear authoritative, at times, unless you’ve taken a few science courses in college.

    http://www.stats.org/

  3. #3 Platypus
    February 4, 2006

    My counter to Murray’s ad hominem accusation is not that it’s a useful heuristic but that it’s a completely valid response to ad verecundiam (appeal to authority) and/or ad populum (appeal to popularity). When someone’s argument is based on non-existent authority or popularity, as is usually the case for Murray and the rest of the Astroturf Central Station crowd, it’s proper to point that out. If people like him think we should stick to the facts at hand, they should do so themselves instead of trying to snowball readers with non-fact-based arguments.

  4. #4 raj
    February 5, 2006

    Murray: First, it has nothing to do with the views expressed in the articles. Instead, it dwells on characteristics of the author. In logic, this is called the ad hominem

    Evidence that the author of a piece–even an opinion piece–has a financial relationship (directly or indirectly) with a party that he is touting, is not ad hominem. It is evidence of bias or potential bias. Lawyers elicit such evidence all the time, particularly in connection with “expert” witnesses when they testify at trial.

  5. #5 Seth Finkelstein
    February 7, 2006

    This is really about deduction vs. induction in logic.

    _Ad hominem_ is a *deductive* fallacy, but can be a very useful *inductive* inference.

    That is, in a deductive sense, that an argument is being put forth by a paid shill, does not formally bear upon the validity. But in an inductive sense, the financial incentive of the shill indicates it is highly likely to be serving the finances of the shill at the expense of truth – not absolutely, but to a high probability.

    This takes a paragraph to explain, and even so, is wordy. Screaming AD HOMINEM!!! is very pithy, and can drown out the concept.

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