When I read history books, I tend to focus on the major themes, and not so much on the smaller stuff. When historians get bogged down with details, reading their books becomes tiresome. Things just don’t click. All I see are a bunch of names, dates, and academic terms. There isn’t a coherent story. After reading through some of these turgid books, I realized that it’s no coincidence that many of the best historians are also fantastic writers. Ron Chernow, Richard J. Evans, David Herbert Donald, and many others are great writers. They understand how to tell a story that conveys the facts and narrative they want to present. They don’t use jargon. They don’t just list a bunch of names and dates. It makes reading their 800-1000 page tomes a little easier and their arguments much clearer.
Here comes Noah Smith skewering Deirdre McCloskey. First, let me say that I’m a provisional fan of McCloskey. I haven’t read any of her major works, but I have read several of her essays, which are fun and informative reads. Contrary to the grumblings of her critics, she’s a very entertaining writer and I find that her style doesn’t distract from her arguments. She appreciates the art of writing and thinks that our use of language is important. See this excerpt from her essay, Keynes was a Sophist, and a Good Thing, Too:
“Sophistry” in Plato’s sense means “mere verbal trickery,” as against Really Knowing, the sort of ting a true philosopher Knows. True, how one would really know that one Really Knows is a detail the philosophers have not quite worked out in 2400 years of trying, but they are agreed that mere opinion created by exchange of words is to be loftily sneered at.
The contrary view, that of the sophists themselves (including arguably Socrates himself, Plato’s teacher), is that we humans must get along on exchanges of words, and had better learn to use them well. Democracies and courts of law depend on an art of persuasion exercised in the here and now, not on a doctrine of Really Knowing established by an aristocracy with time on its hands. The sophists were, so to speak, professors of law. In later classical times the great Roman sophist Quintilian defined the ideal law student as “vir bounus dicendi pertius,” the good man skilled at speaking. You don’t have to believe this characterizes many law students, or economics students, to recognize it as an ideal, which recommends honest rather than dogmatic Truth.
When I read McCloskey (and many historians for that matter), I read her as a sophist. I don’t take everything she says too literally, especially her rhetorical flourishes (1). They certainly add to the narrative, but you can ignore them. It rarely takes away from the central argument being made. It’s what makes reading people like McCloskey enjoyable.
So when people critique someone’s work by obsessing over rhetoric, it usually turns out bad. This is essentially what Noah Smith did. He tried to pick apart every statement McCloskey wrote, and it made for a unconvincing post. Some of his points are wrong. Others are nitpicks that have little to do with McCloskey’s review. He simply couldn’t get past her style. I wonder if he applies that same standard to journalists or historians who frequently use rhetoric. The War Nerd, whom I know he reads, makes statements like McCloskey’s all the time. It’s what makes him so damn interesting! Unfortunately, economists like Noah Smith don’t appreciate that style of writing and it’s why, I think, many social scientists simply don’t understand the art of good writing. They don’t understand the art of rhetoric.
1. For example, when McCloskey is talking about economist theorists and “existence theorems”, I pretty sure she’s exaggerating:
With such and such general (or not so general, but anyway non-quantitative) assumptions A there exists a state of the imagined world C. A typical statement in economic “theory” is, “if information is symmetric, an equilibrium of the game exists” or, “if people are rational in their expectations in the following sense, buzz, buzz, buzz, then there exists an equilibrium of the economy in which government policy is useless.”
The Trouble with Mathematics and Statistics in Economics by Deirdre McCloskey
Keynes was a Sophist, and a Good Thing, Too by Deirdre McCloskey
Deirdre McCloskey Says Things by Noah Smith