A few more thoughts on yesterday's post:
I will confess to having a slightly reverential attitude toward academia. I'm the son of an academic. Much of my writing involves taking academic research and trying to translate it for a more general audience. And I've always believed that if you set out to write about the work of academic specialists, you have a responsibility to treat that work with respect-- to acknowledge your own ignorance and, where appropriate, defer to the greater expertise of others.
I don't always live up to this. And on other occasions, I"m sure, some would say that I take this reverence too far. But that's a criticism I'm more than happy to live with. In the case of the Ireland case study in The Risk Pool, I probably read a dozen studies or so in the literature on demographics and development,and talked to a fairly wide sample of researchers. I don't pretend that I completely understood all of it, or could follow the theoretical parts. I'm not a trained economist. But I did reach several conclusions:
1. That the scholarship in the area was deep and impressive, and I was won over by it.
2 More importantly, that it was really, really interesting--and that it had the effect of making me think about economic development (and pensions) in a way that I had never thought about them before.
In writing about this field, my intention is not--as it never is--to convert readers to my way of thinking, or have them abandon their own worldview for mine. It is simply to invite readers to share in the same wonderful experience that I had when I read through the literature--that is, to step inside a new way of thinking for a moment, and be challenged by it. What taking that step requires, though, is that you the grant the specialists involved some of this same deference--particularly if, like me, you are not an expert on demography. Canning and Bloom are not lightweights. They are scholars, who know more about this field than 99.9 percent of us, and it seems to me reasonable to listen to what they have to say.
The frustration I expressed in yesterdays post has to do with the fact that I don't think that some critics are always willing to offer this respect. One of the people I read regularly, for example, is the cultural critics of the The New Republic's, Lee Siegel. I find him really interesting. Sadly, he's not a fan of mine, and often attacks my writing. I have no problem with that, however. He and I are on the same level. We're critics and journalists, and give and take on that level is what journalism is all about. A few weeks ago, though, Siegel wrote a very nasty piece about a New York Times op-ed written by the psychologist Dan Gilbert--and that piece infuriated me.
Gilbert is a really important figure in contemporary social psychology. He has published widely. He has had enormous influence on the way we understand human behavior and emotion. And as far as I can tell, Siegel launched an attack on him without making any honest attempt to read or understand or appreciate Gilbert's larger perspective and work. That's just wrong. If you want to tackle a giant, you've got to do your homework. Don't call yourself an intellectual journalist, if you are not prepared to take intellectuals seriously.
This was my frustration with some of the reactions of readers to the ideas of Canning and Bloom. It seems to me that when you are confronted with an argument made by two respected economists, you ought to measure your own response. If my trunctated description of their Celtic Tiger paper rings false to you, then read the Celtic Tiger paper for yourself. If you don't see the importance of dependency ratios, then spend a little time on the web, reading the many, many thoughtful papers that have been written on this subject in recent years. It's simply not fair to dismiss Canning and Bloom, purely on the basis of what I wrote about Canning and Bloom. And in point of fact some of the criticisms leveled at their work would have evaporated had the critics even read so much of the first few pages of the Celtic Tiger paper.
I didn't mean to pick on Jane Galt, by the way. She has now written a very gracious and thoughtful response . I just wish that she had written that the first time around.