Three Kinds of Wrong

Krugman distinguishes three kinds of (factually) wrong, and says something disconcerting about the press along the way.

Basically they are: legitimate opinions that aren’t right, opinions that are wrong, and opinions that are negligently wrong.

My problem is that he lets the press off too easy:

Second, and much less legitimate, is the kind of wrongness that involves making assertions that are logically or empirically indefensible. I’d put the Cochrane/Fama claims that government spending can’t increase demand as a matter of accounting in this category; this is a basic conceptual error, which goes beyond mere difference of opinion. And economists who are wrong in this sense should pay a professional price.

That said, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect the news media to be very effective at policing this kind of wrongness. If professors with impressive-sounding credentials spout nonsense, it’s asking too much of a newspaper or magazine serving the broader public to make the judgment that they actually have no idea what they’re talking about.

Matters are quite different when it comes to the third kind of wrongness: making or insinuating false claims about readily checkable facts. The case in point, of course, is Ferguson’s attempt to mislead readers into believing that the CBO had concluded that Obamacare increases the deficit. This was unethical on his part – but Newsweek is also at fault, because this is the sort of thing it could and should have refused to publish.

Now, I don’t expect a publication that responds to daily or weekly news to do New Yorker-style fact checking. But it should demand that anyone who writes for it document all of his or her factual assertions – and an editor should check that documentation to see that it actually matches what the writer says.

This brings me back to what I take to be our core problem, and I would think it is a problem for Krugman’s worldview too: how to deal with the presence of non-obvious-to-a-layperson unmitigated nonsense in places where taking the nonsense seriously could have disastrous real world consequences on a large scale.

But Krugman’s point is that the press can’t even get the class three stuff, the trivially obvious nonsense, properly flagged anymore. Our problems get harder and longer-term while our abilities get weaker and shorter term. Something has to change.


  1. Perhaps there is an application of the "broken windows" strategy here.

    Factual mistakes (type 3) have proliferated at the same time as fake "experts" (or real but heavily partisan experts) have become common.

    If we could somehow recover our zero tolerance policy for simple errors of fact in the media, perhaps the tolerance for fake experts would decline.

    On the other hand, maybe I'm being dumb. So much of this is driven by closed-loop ideological thinking. Bringing the fact-checkers back to the fore won't change that.

  2. I can't help but agree that upping the game on the "little" things would have a salubrious effect farther up the chart of magnitude.

    I don't think your pessimism about fact-check futility is entirely warranted. Plainly stated and implemented policies of Rolodex purges of lying flacks, surrogates and mouthpieces would surely yield an improvement.

  3. Pingback: Another Week of GW News, August 26, 2012 – A Few Things Ill Considered

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