Pundits As Moles

In the spy business a "mole" pretends to work for A, but really works for B.  The mole may usually do very little for B, and B may avoid acting visibly on any info the mole passes on.  The idea is to move the mole up the A hierarchy, and to wait for rare high leverage situations.

Unfortunately something similar seems to hold for pundits, columnists, etc.  Before becoming a pundit someone may spend a long career as a trustworthy academic or journalist, giving careful measured evaluations of the small issues before them.  As a pundit they may even usually give thoughtful reasoned commentary on issues of moderate importance. 

But every four years, when a major election is at stake, or when a big crisis appears, styles change.  In their world folks mutter, "pull out all the stops, this is really important."  They may retain the outward appearance of keeping to their previous standards, but in fact they start to say whatever it takes to push "their side." 

Just as moles mean we can rely on our spies least when we need them most, pushy election pundits also imply we can rely on our pundits least when we need them most.  (This key mole insight came from a talk by Robert Axelrod.)

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  • wtf

    Link to Alexrod talk, pls?

  • josh

    I made a note that Robin had a talk today and that there would be video. Where was that?

  • burger flipper

    But do the pundit/moles really have any more influence with their strident calls every four years, which would seem easier to dismiss by those who disagree, than they would with their more subtle agenda pushing the rest of the time?

    I know that yesterday George Will’s “kneecapping” of McCain got a lot of play, but I suspect it will be dismissed by most who support McCain (perhaps mainly because of his party affiliation and personal narrative). But anyone who semi-regularly reads or listens to Will should not be surprised as he’s often been at odds with McCain over policy issues for a long time (primarily campaign finance). I wonder if the drip, drip of those columns and TV appearances doesn’t have more effect, or maybe they were just the body shots setting up for the haymaker.

  • eric falkenstein

    I can empathize with their logic. Isn’t it wise to see the bigger picture? Say you believed in abortion up to the third trimester were just and good, but found late term abortions abhorrent. Wouldn’t you be more effective by building bona fides as an abortion supporter, before denouncing late term abortions, because otherwise skeptics were thinking you were a right-wing fanatic whose end-game is eliminating all abortions? You need to keep your head down and do conventional stuff well, to rise to a level where you can be really effective.

    Of course, there’s a question of reasonableness. To the extent you continually say things you do not believe in, the hypocrisy you display can only go so far before you are seen as a sheer opportunist. But hypocrisy is not the greatest vice in the world, aiding and abetting policies that do harm is often far worse (many evil people are consistent and sincere).

  • Robin, you’d observe exactly the same behavior on the part of “trustworthy academics or journalists,” if the choice every four years really were obvious by their lights, as well as extremely important and in danger of being decided wrongly. So how do you propose to distinguish the two hypotheses?

    An analogy: Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian wasn’t written to the same academic standard as Principia Mathematica, but the questions he was trying to adjudicate were also easier ones. Does that make Russell a mole?

  • Axelrod, the “evolution of cooperation” guy?

  • If you’re not being a pundit to convince people of your positions, what *are* you doing it for? To support yourself? There are plenty of easier ways — but if you are in it for money, the strategy is the same as someone who wants to change the world: establish a solid base, then try to convince people who already agree with you on most things of a few particular issues. You have more leverage with those people.

  • Punditry Isn’t About Policy

  • Eric and Caledonian, I’m not faulting pundit behavior, I’m warning readers to beware of it.

    Scott, it is completely implausible to posit that in general topics where pundits most want to influence opinion are in fact much easier topics to judge which opinion is right. If pundits are under this impression, they are quite mistaken.

    Kragen, thanks, fixed the typo.

    Josh, no such talk.

    wtf, no link available.

  • michael vassar

    Robin: Isn’t it highly likely that the topics where considerations are most one-sided are those where judgment is easiest and pundits are most sure of their opinions? If so, it’s completely plausible that in general they most want to influence opinion where judgment is easiest.

    Maybe they also want, even more, to influence opinion on some topics which are highly technical but they know that they won’t be able to do this because the public won’t follow their arguments. I’m inclined to be more strident about Democrats vs. Republicans than about existential risks because even thinking about the latter effectively requires massive background.

  • komponisto


    An analogy: Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian wasn’t written to the same academic standard as Principia Mathematica, but the questions he was trying to adjudicate were also easier ones.

    Really? Principia Mathematica is concerned with proving propositions like 1+1=2. Is this more difficult than whether Christianity is true/good?

    I would argue it just the other way, and laud Russell and Whitehead for writing out careful proofs of statements that others would sneer at as “obvious”. Perhaps today’s politically-charged academics could learn something from this…

  • @vassar

    As a person at Princeton once said to me, pundits are courtiers. Unlike Versailles, the king just isn’t always in residence. But now that we are said to live in the era of the permanent campaign, perhaps his insight becomes more noticeable?

  • Robin, I differ from you in finding it plausible that pundits might want to influence opinion more on easier topics. Here’s how I personally think about it: there are complicated internecine disputes within academia, and then there’s the defense of the sort of society in which something like the academic enterprise is even possible in the long term. The former is much more interesting and nontrivial—certainly to me!—but the latter takes moral precedence.

    komponisto, I was thinking about the philosophical part of Principia (the part Russell was more responsible for), which justified ideas like the theory of types. These are things philosophers argue about to this day.

  • Scott, I’m saying that pundits are on average mistaken to think that it is easy to know which side is right in the big crises and political battles where they set aside their usual rigor and fight hard for their side. Readers should be warned that pundits have lowered their usual intellectual standards in such cases.

  • Ian C.

    In the case of influencing elections, what if some of the pundits are not simply liberal/conservative moles, but actual spy moles. It is possible foreign powers try to influence US elections.

  • Norman Noman

    pundits are full of shit 365 days of the year! what planet do you LIVE on?

  • I suppose this goes without mentioning, but one is reminded of Tetlock’s work on media experts, though I don’t recall if he delved into deliberate conflicts of interest within punditry rather than pseudoexistence of actual expertise.