A Cautionary Tale

May 16, 2011

It’s hard being a PhD student.

Having been one for quite a long time, I can speak quite passionately about it. Being a passionate person entails that I probably will at the drop of a hat.

Of course, lots of the difficulties with being a PhD student are simply a matter of life. I take a special interest because it was a defining condition of so much of much life and mentoring PhD students will is and will be such a condition for the rest of my life. So when I see a massive failure by a PhD student, I’m inclined to overreflect on it.

Kindred Winecoff posted quite a silly critique of Paul Krugman which was picked up by Henry Farrell. Now, Daniel Drezner has a similar, somewhat more nuanced view expressed with rather less vitrol and hyperbole. They share the same basic flaw: A hugely uncharitable misreading of Krugman as saying that the public bears absolutely no responsibility for since it had no influence on the massively disastrous Bush and Bush era policies. (I’m risking similar problems by not doing a very close exegesis of any of the articles. Furthermore, my generally pro-Krugman bent generates similar risks as Winecoff’s anti-Krugman bent.)

(The big error in this reading, AFAICT, is to miss the dialectic at several levels. The line Krugman is pushing back against is the one which justifies austerity measures with a massive negative effect on the poor and powerless along with irresponsible give aways to the rich and powerful. While there are piles of crap justifications, the key one here is that the public is irresponsible and the elites are relatively helpless in the face of massive public irresponsibility. (Think Santelli.) Whatever responsibility the public bears, I trust that it’s pretty obvious that this line is total nonsense and that’s Krugman’s core point. And, frankly, it’s the interesting point.)

Winecroff is now in a trap of their own making (yes, like Jane Austen, use the 3rd person plural as a neutral 3rd person singular). They gave a junky critique based on a junky reading and littered it with junky hyperbole, e.g.,

If Greenspan’s “with notably rare exceptions” deserves internet infamy, and it does, then surely Krugman’s less notable exceptions should too.

(Even if the junky reading were correct these are not remotely comparable. If the junky reading were correct, Krugman would be wrong (this is what Drezner tries, rather crappily afaict, to show). Greenspan is engaged in a kind of amazing and disgusting chuzpah in the service of some rather dangerous hackery.)

When appropriately (and gently!) chastized by Farrell, Winecroff fails to do the sensible thing that many commentators urged him to do: Take a moment, reflect, and back down. Instead, Winecroff doubles- and trebles-down on the silliness. The silliness is as every level including a classic “I’m leaving thread now” followed almost immediately by several more comments.

All this is relatively minor in the grand scheme of things: In the midst of an event like this, it’s really hard to turn oneself around. But given the systematic failures exhibited, I wonder if Winecroff is going to learn from it. If I were his supervisor (US: advisor), I would print all these out and go through them carefully. I’d probably focus more on the dialectic issues (e.g., problems with burden of proof, charity, self-awareness, tactics, and strategy, etc.). For example, it’s very unclear what Winecroff hopes to get out of the exchange. I’m afraid that bashing Krugman is core, which is really a worthless goal, esp. in this context. An easy win would have been to say, “Ok, let’s put my reading of Krugman aside (I’m not ready to give up on it, but maybe that’s because I really can’t stand him; I have to let that rest for awhile) and focus on the more interesting question of how to apportion responsibility for policy.”

This only wins if making the point is more important than making the bash. Which is why it’s a good move regardless of your goal if you are in hostile territory. It sidelines bashback for a while in favor of counterpoint. Given enough point and counterpoint, you might find your own goal moving from bashing to pointmaking. (This is not to say that bashing is worthless. Sometimes it’s very worthwhile indeed. But it needs to work, at the very least.)

As I said, Winecroff isn’t irrecoverable. I had a similar (more heated) exchange with a random PhD student on the web and they turned out just fine and we’re reasonble colleagues (I’m still a bit wary of them, though). Of course, I had a similar (even more heated) exchange which did not resolve favorably. If you find yourself in this circumstance, get as much reality checking as you can. Reflect. Talk to other (possibly critical) people. Don’t necessarily seek out supportive people, but people who will tell you when you’re off the rails. If you determine you have gone off the rails, apologize and retract and learn from the experience. In particular, learn something about your own strengths, weaknesses, and reactions.

Update: You don’t have to be a student to have major level fail as the Synthese scandal shows. The solution to such fails is the same.

However, the action Frances recommend (apologize first) works best in good faith circumstances. If there’s bad faith or bad blood admitting fault early can really, really screw you. Asking for time to think about it, or putting up similar disclaimers, can be useful. It really is the case that we fallible people sometimes can’t see the obvious. If you aren’t seeing it, then ask for some time to see it. “Hey folks, I’m seeing a lot of heat from people I generally respect but I’m not getting it. Can we hold things for a bit while I figure out for sure what’s going on?” is a reasonable move.

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