Fish on Spin

Stanley Fish, in his blog behind the TimesSelect pay-wall at the New York Times, argues that “[l]anguage (or discourse), rather than either reflecting or distorting reality, produces it, at least in the arena of public debate,” and that thus, people are wrong to criticize Karl Rove for spinning economic figures. After all, he suggests, “spin – the pronouncing on things from an interested angle – is not a regrettable and avoidable form of suspect thinking and judging; it is the very content of thinking and judging”.

There’s something clearly right about this – anyone pronouncing on anything does have some particular opinions, and every observation does depend to some degree on unstated assumptions – but it seems to me that in a larger sense this is just wrong. He says “Forms of language … furnish our consciousness; they are what we think with, and we can’t think without them (in two senses of “without”).” There’s something interesting about this picture, but it seems to me that there are important empirical questions as well as conceptual ones that he skips in order to reach this conclusion.

The particular example he talks about is a statement by Karl Rove that “[r]eal disposable income has risen almost 14 percent since President Bush took office.” This figure has been criticized because “the 14-percent increase did not benefit everyone, but went largely “to those in the upper half of society”; the disposable income of the lower half had “fallen by 3.6 percent.”“ But Fish argues that this is just an argument about beliefs about what makes a healthy economy, between “trickle down” and “spread the wealth”, and that any evidence can only be interpreted in the lights of which of these beliefs one holds. “Those beliefs … tell you what the relevant evidence is and what it is evidence of. But they are not judged by the evidence; they generate it.” He says that “the reality of the economic situation will emerge when one of the competing accounts … proves so persuasive that reality is identified with its descriptions.”

Some have called economics “the dismal science”, because economists have discovered relatively little about the world. But if Fish is right, then there couldn’t even be such a thing as economic knowledge. There could be no evidence for or against trickle down economics – we just have to persuade people of its merits or demerits.

There may be something to his points about the purely normative claims of economics, that one situation is better or worse than another. But I think that most of these political arguments aren’t of this sort – I think Republicans and Democrats and just about everyone else thinks the world would be better if more people had access to more material goods, other things being equal. The dispute is really about the empirical question of whether rising incomes at the top of the income distribution bring about more of this sort of effect than rising incomes at the very bottom of the income distribution. Fish seems to be denying that any sorts of discoveries of this sort could be relevant as anything other than persuasive material in an argument.

I think he’s broadly right that there’s no conceptual possibility of something like a purely neutral or disinterested way to couch all of the evidence in these social disputes. But this doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as evidence that can be shared across the lines, or that “[o]pen-mindedness, far from being a virtue, is a condition which, if it could be achieved, would result in a mind that was spectacularly empty.”

2 Replies to “Fish on Spin”

  1. Some have called economics “the dismal science”, because economists have discovered relatively little about the world.

    This isn’t the origin of the phrase; it was coined by Thomas Carlyle, who objected to economics’ focus on material conditions:

    ““the Social Science … which finds the secret of this Universe in supply and demand and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone … is a dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing one; what we might call … the dismal science.”

    Apparently Carlyle was arguing for slavery and complaining that the economists’ view disrupted the natural relation between white and black people. Charming. (My respectable scholarly source.)

    Anyway, I tend to agree with you that economics hasn’t been as successful at producing knowledge as the sciences it likes to model itself on, so that’s a nitpick.

    Still, when you say this:
    But if Fish is right, then there couldn’t even be such a thing as economic knowledge. There could be no evidence for or against trickle down economics – we just have to persuade people of its merits or demerits.
    I suspect Fish would think that’s true of all fields of inquiry.

  2. I hate the way this prettification software makes the quotation marks turn into random character strings when you copy and paste them in.

    Anyway, that’s interesting to hear that the meaning of “the dismal science” isn’t what I thought, or what most people thought, but rather something else entirely!

    Actually, I wasn’t really committing myself to claims one way or another about whether or not economics is as successful as other sciences – I was just saying that it does in fact have the possibility of success, and presumably has achieved at least some minor degree of it.

    But you’re probably right – Fish would think there is nothing real here, in economics or elsewhere. But he was careful in his post to limit his claims to “the arena of public debate”, so that’s where I wanted to point out just how drastic his claims are.

    And I see that Mark Liberman of Language Log agrees.

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