TCS Daily

Instapundits and Instascholars

By Arnold Kling - January 26, 2007 12:00 AM

"I hope to persuade you that the decline of a print-based epistemology and the accompanying rise of a television-based epistemology has had grave consequences for public life, that we are getting sillier by the minute."
-- Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Neil Postman argued persuasively that the content of our discourse depends on the means of communication. For example, he pointed out, smoke signals cannot be used to send complicated messages. Postman, a deep thinker and talented writer, believed that the written word as a communications medium permits careful, rational thought. Television, in contrast, only has room for thinking that is shallow and superficial.

For me, this thesis raises a number of interesting questions. First, how would history have been different had television been available in the 18th century but not in the 21st century, rather than vice-versa? Second, where does the Internet fit in? (Postman himself, who died in 2003, believed that the Internet was no better than television.)

The Constitution Will Not Be Televised

In the eighteenth century, the newly-independent United States held a Convention in order to bring its Articles of Confederation up to date. This contentious, deliberative process resulted in one of the most significant documents in human history -- our Constitution.

In our century, we have seen attempts at historic Constitutions in the European Union and Iraq that so far have failed. The EU produced a bloated document filled with politically correct phrases embodying an unworkable vision, mercifully not yet ratified due to an outbreak of rebellion by voters in the Netherlands and France. The Iraqi Constitution failed to pacify key interest groups, and as a result it has been shattered by insurgents and armed militias.

What if the Constitutional Convention of the 18th century had been held in the media environment of today? My guess is that the outcome would have been somewhere in between what we have seen in Europe and what we saw in Iraq.

By the same token, had the European Constitution been written in a media environment dominated by the written word, perhaps it would have been a humbler, simpler, more pragmatic document. Perhaps if Iraq were not under the glare of television, the suicide bombers and terrorists would not have nearly as much impact on the public mind, there or in the United States, and the forces of peace could prevail.

The Quick and the Dead

I would argue that the most significant feature of the age of the Internet is how rapidly ideas are spread. We see this in the commercial sector. New goods and services rise into the public consciousness almost out of nowhere (iPod, YouTube, Facebook). Some of them fall just as quickly (AltaVista, AngelFire).

The first economist to notice the impact that this rapid adoption cycle has on products was Hal Varian. In Economic Incentives in Software Design, he pointed out that a phrase like "user-friendly" could have two meanings. Varian calls one meaning "ease of learning," which reflects the effort required to get results out of a product the first time that you try it. The other definition is "ease of use," which means that the consumer or worker can get results quickly when using the product repeatedly. Varian shows how in the contemporary environment, the highly-accessible "easy to learn" products tend to drive the potentially more efficient "easy to use" products out of the market.

Today, in order to sell a product, you have to make an outstanding first impression on the consumer. If the consumer does not "get" your offering right away, there will be no viral spread. When the Internet is driving mindshare, there are only two types of marketing outcomes: the quick and the dead.

Viral Politics

With the speed of the Internet, politics has become viral. Porkbusters whipped up a whirlwind over earmarks with remarkable speed. At the same time, however, the more significant Budget issues remain deadlocked. Mobocracy gets results when there are clearly-identifiable villains and relatively simple solutions. When the issues are subtle and complex, and the proposed policies affect great masses of people, things do not seem to go so well.

Many in the military complain about the public's lack of patience on Iraq. Patience is one virtue that is probably going to be in scarce supply among the Internet generation.

Scholars and Reaction Time

Both the Web and the traditional academy reward citations. When you write an academic paper, it is important to cite others' work, and it is important that your work in turn gets cited. On the Web, readers want you to link to interesting related material, and your readership comes from the links of others.

However, the traditional academic setting favors the careful scholarly researcher. The Internet is more about reaction time. I will be the first to say that this works to my comparative advantage. I attempted to measure this by gathering data. I compared my hits on Google Scholar with my hits on "regular Google," and then I compared this with results for several other economists. This is hard to do correctly, so the table below should be taken only as an approximation. Still the results seem to make sense.

Hits for name, in thousands, Google Scholar vs. Google*


Scholar Hits

Google hits


Hal Varian




Greg Mankiw




Paul Krugman




Brad DeLong




Tyler Cowen




Arnold Kling




The last column in the table reflects the Internet's "amplification factor." That is, it measures the economist's salience on the Internet relative to his salience in the academic community. The Net boosts my salience the most. In an environment where what counts is reaction time, I do well. Hal Varian does the "worst" by this measure. His scholarly production is high relative to his Internet salience. Note that in absolute terms, Paul Krugman is the highest in both. Greg Mankiw does better than Brad DeLong on scholarly recognition but not on Internet recognition.

If you believe that the right measure of scholarship is the academic one, then the results in the table may seem horrifying. Intelligent laymen who get their economic information from the Internet may start to diverge from those who get it in college. I actually think that could be a good thing, but, as you can tell, I am not in a position to offer an unbiased view.

(*On January 25, for "regular Google," I tried entering full names as phrases: "Greg Mankiw," "Paul Krugman," etc., to get the total hit count. In scholarly citations, a full name may not necessarily be used (Mankiw is often referred to as "N Mankiw" or "N. G. Mankiw"). So for Google scholar, I used last name, with a limitation to "business, finance, economics." Except in my own case, since there are other scholarly economists named Kling, I used my full name. So my scholarly hits may be biased downward, but not by much. Also, the total hit counts for Kling and Cowen are biased upward, in that Cowen has an ethnic dining guide and I used to own a web site called However, running a search for "Tyler Cowen" that excludes the word "ethnic" or a search for me that excludes the word "homefair" does not qualitatively alter the results. Overall, the figures in the table are not suitable for any scholarly publication, other than the Journal of Irreproducible Results.)



Citizens and moderate, undecided, swing voters who occupy that rarefied 2% who elect Presidents are probably more easily reached by the pundit than by the scholar. Therefore, it is very important that our favorite pundit, here, is indeed a fine, thoughtful and responsible, world class scholar. Thank you for working so hard, Dr. Kling.

Perhaps part of the difference...
is the result of writing to be understood and to provoke thought, rather than to impress.

Many who learned to read and understand "scholarly" writing in college have lost the patience to "slog" through it now that they have real lives. Dr. Kling writes clearly and concisely, is generally easily understood, and is certainly "provocative" (frequently of thought, rather than reaction).

Postman is righter by the minute
I first picked up Amusing Ourselves to Death as a lark and read it on the beach in Cape May in 1987. I've been a Postman junkie ever since.

Prior to YouTube, the Net relied on the written word and the still image (kind of like Postman's view of the telegraph and photograph as the parents of television). The sound/video bite has moved from being the predominant communication unit to becoming the exclusive unit.

One can only rebel and enlist others in the rebellion against trviality. And if anyone has a quick idea on how to do that, I'm all ears.

The T1 Internet
When everybody in the United States is on a T1 line like it already is in Japan, the U.S. will need a censorship committee to filter content that doesn't promote the integrity of the United States around the world. With text and some video in the status quo, the amount of profanity and obscenity that emanates from the United States is an unsatisfactory social condition.

Instanpundits not equal to instascholars
What I have found most useful about TCS and the internet is the ability to read articles which pique my interest and then have the ability to discuss and research over the web.

What I find challenging is finding sources on the web that can be trusted.

Which is where the scholar part comes into play. I don't believe they should be instant scholars, though.

Research should be deliberate and thorough, which takes time.

As the chicken little doomsday media continue to beat the drum about trans-fats, global warming and other imminent disasters, one would hope most people will begin to see through the hype and wait for objective scholarship before jumping off a cliff.

I so many understood the media they would jump ship. I watch TV so seldom now it is a joke to have one. I keep it mainly for movies I like. I do 95% of my news research on the web. It is easy to see may points of view vs the MS which only presents panic and doom. HOwever, most Americans still get the MSM drumbeat loudly. WHy else would we be falling prey to clogged artieries while Iraq collapses under a burning sky? The MSM has become so much of a shill it is sickening. Yet they seem to sway opinion very well. As Hilter said "How fortunate for leaders that men do not think".

When was MSM news ever objective?
After all, with 'free' TV, they have to sell something to stay in business.

Advertising is revenue. Bias and Agenda are exactly that.

Postman really understands TCS !
If you seek a splendid illustration of Neil Postman's argument "that the decline of a print-based epistemology... has had grave consequences for public life, that we are getting sillier by the minute." look around you.

How much do you see on the site that challenges the received wisdom of AEI ?

How often do you see AEI have an outlet in the MSM?

The internet has certainly created more echo chambers but it has also created more opportunities for a wide variety of ideas to be easily expressed.

And, like the free markets, it keeps people honest.

Before the internet, how many stories were fabricated by the MSM for political purposes as Dan Rather tried to do in 2004?

And if you disagree with AEI, let's hear some rational, logical, provable arguments which refute their claims.

"rebellion against trviality"
A nanny state can create a safe and secure environment which many don't want to leave and take any risk. There seems to be quite a few 20-30 year olds still living at home with their parents.

The human brain appears to need extensive stimulation. If the envirnoment does not create challenges for survival or explorations or other postive challenges, the brain resorts to less constructive stimulation.

Eliminate the nanny state, protect and promote free markets with fewer taxes and government restrictions and people will be pulled (or pushed) by the opportunities.

When was the "MSM"...
anywhere near mainstream, rather than mid-flow in the left tributary?

Perception is reality
They think they are mainstream.

In the absence of objective standards, all is relative.

Speed of communication is enemy of wisdom.
Speed is really killing thinking capacity. All thinking on internet T.V.and in newspaper are worse. People have no time for thinking. or discussion, everbody is eager to give nonmsense reaction, you can see this on T C S DAILY also, all commentators are childish and use this plateform only for killing time and entertaintment. All are retired fellow. How you can expect from these fellow wisdom?

Is that your excuse?
Or were you this stupid before the advent of the internet?

Evereybody here is retired? Man, you love to embarass yourself, don't you.

Gresham's Law
Bad information drives out good. It isn't between printed or televised information. It's between Sophistry and the search for truth. The former is concerned with rhetoric, the skill in presentation and persuasion, while the latter is concerned with the quality of information and the reasoning applied to it.

Some time ago I read an article titled "Victoriosa Loquacitas: the rise of rhetoric and the decline of everything else" by Hugh W. Nibley, a classics professor at BYU. His thesis was that the development of rhetoric or the art of persuasion had helped destroy Classic Greek and Roman civilization and was doing the same to ours. Nothing illustrates his point better than the state of popular media, political campaign management, litigation and most of all, advertising. We're a nation which has learned what meager critical reasoning skill it has from advertisements.

That's scary.

The essence of the internet and blogging in particular is debate, and while there's a lot of nonsense being spread, the quality of facts presented and the reasoning is probably our last best hope to avoid the fate of Greece and Rome. It's too late for Europe, I'm afraid. And from the state of our politics, America seems to be walking a tightrope.

No use pining for what once was ...
... what is needed is an intelligent response to the situation as it exists. In a war of scholarly debate, one needs to write better scholarly papers; but, in a war of sound bites and video clips, one needs to produce superior sound bite and video clips. There's no point in moaning about the fact that Michael Moore and Alexandra Pelosi make leftist documentaries that reach wide audiences; what we need are conservative and libertarian documentary producers addressing serious subjects in an entertaining way.

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