Rules for clear thinking

Inspired by a recent self-serving David Brooks column, Jon Chait comes up with a great set of rules for opinion columnists.  I’ve actually been trying to work up a set of principles I want my students to learn before they graduate (i.e., correlation is not causation; beware selection bias, etc.– I’ll share them with you soon), but when reading Chait’s suggestions for writing an Opinion column, this actually struck me as a really good start.  Here they are:

1. Be intellectually consistent. It’s fine — good, even — to change your mind. But you need to acknowledge it to yourself and publicly when you do so. Otherwise, you’ll end up tethering your ideological beliefs to questions that have nothing to do with them, and wind up, for instance, decrying recess appointments as the most vile abuse of presidential power since Mussolini until your own party controls the presidency, at which point you start calling for more recess appointments.

A simple mental exercise to help with this is to reverse your argument whenever possible. Are you angry that the Senate filibustered a bill you like? You have to ask whether you dislike the filibuster, or just like that particular bill. If it’s the filibuster you dislike, you need to imagine yourself defending its abolition even if it means passing a bill you hate. And then you need to really do that.

2. Don’t debate straw men. If you’re arguing against an idea, you need to accurately describe the people who hold them. If at all possible, link to them and quote their argument. This is a discipline that forces opinion writers to prove that they’re debating an idea somebody actually holds. And quoting the subject forces them to show that somebody influential holds it — if the best example of the opposing view is a random blog comment, then you’re exposing the fact that you’re arguing against an idea nobody of any stature shares. This ought to be an easy and universal guideline, but in reality, it’s mostly flouted.

3. Guard against more than one kind of bias. This is my general, omnibus intellectual advice for everybody on how to think about the world, and I’ve been preparing it to offer anybody who asks me, except that nobody has ever asked. Some questions are black and white. Others are shades of gray. The whole trick is to be able to recognize both. Reflexive black-and-white moralism is one kind of bias. Reflexive equivocation is another.

Pretty good rules for anybody trying to make persuasive intellectual arguments.  I actually went in and added the first two to my list (I’m not sure the third is quite as general, though definitely applies to opinion writers).

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to Rules for clear thinking

  1. Matt Schneider says:

    You and Binker told me that Brooks is a hack. It is known.

    • Matt Schneider says:

      Nevertheless, great stuff to teach the kids. Would you mind if I come in to a 100 level class one day next semester? I need to try out some material. Catch me at the Haha Hut on Long Island and Zanies in Vernon Hills, IL this summer.

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