The Sciences

Slate publishes pieces my A.P. history teacher would laugh at

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanMay 1, 2009 8:48 AM


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Unlike many bloggers I'm not too invested in politics, nor do I have a deep knowledge of the topic (though I do have a strong interest in quantitative political science). But I read political pieces in the same way I read sports columns: entertaining analyses which serve as brain candy. Nevertheless, the candy needs to pass a minimal threshold of intellectual palatability. I'm a Celtics fan, and was excited to see their first championship of my adulthood last year, but any sports writer that throws up a column which asserts that the 2007-2008 team was the greatest of all time would be too transparently hackish. There needs to be the verisimilitude of intellectual effort and seriousness when it comes to writing analytic puff-pieces which are the norm in sports, financial and political journalism. A piece in Slate, Specter's Shadow: Why Arlen Specter's defection should terrify the GOP, doesn't meet that threshold. That's disappointing as Slate's modus is to hold forth on the trivial but true in an entertaining manner. The author notes:

Specter's decision fits into a larger pattern. It follows the exit from the GOP of Sens. Jim Jeffords in 2001 and Lincoln Chafee in 2007 (after losing his re-election bid), to say nothing of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg the same year. Noteworthy, too, have been the endorsements of both John Kerry and Barack Obama by surprising numbers of Republicans. And despite Specter's Lindsay-esque avowal of independence--"My change in party affiliation does not mean that I will be a party-line voter any more for the Democrats that I have been for the Republicans. ... I will continue my independent voting and follow my conscience on what I think is best for Pennsylvania and America"--his switch will more often than not give the Democrats their magic number of 60 Senate votes (once Minnesota's Al Franken is seated). For this reason, Specter's decision has, understandably, rocked the political world.

To add Michael Bloomberg to the list is just plain dumb; it's like a high school student trying to slip in a supporting fact for their thesis when that fact is either fabricated or tendentious, but they hope that the teacher is too stupid to know any better. Even someone with only a cursory interest in politics is aware of the fact that Michael Bloomberg was a lifelong Democrat before running as a Republican for mayor of New York, a classic case of political opportunism due to a crowded Democratic primary race and relatively thin institutional party backing. Mayor-for-Life Bloomberg's defection from the Republican party had nothing to do with being alienated, as he was always literally a R.I.N.O. There are other qualitative points I could quibble with, I don't think that the shoddiness ends at the one example I point to above. The author had a thesis, and in classic fashion was constructing an argument around a prior conclusion. I don't mind that, that's the nature of most opinion writing; you craft prose which is in line with your prior preferences and prejucides. But I am obviously a little irritated that someone would think Slate readers are really that dumb. The author, David Greenberg, is an academic who would no doubt mark up the shoddy factual supports for his thesis in this piece if any student submitted it to him.

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