Category Archives: Language

Morality Tales vs. Data Tales


I recently wrote that I think the Upshot (a data-driven, policy endeavor of the New York Times) is at least 5x better than most New York Times articles. I also think is better than most other left leaning publications. Neither are perfect, of course, but it seems like a positive step for journalism as a whole.

The general recipe for their best pieces is this:

  1. Strong data analysis of an issue.
  2. A (fairly) evenhanded description of the pros and cons of the relevant policy choices.
  3. A liberal leaning human story that supports the more liberal policy option.

Ideally, I’d love for the human story to be a little more neutral in which direction it pushes the reader; on the other hand, fair enough; these are liberal publications with generally thoughtful viewpoints, and it’s not crazy for them to use stories that bring these viewpoints alive.

Interestingly enough, I’m not aware of a conservative journalistic project (with a similar reach) that constructs its articles in this manner. This seems to be a pretty big oversight.


In contrast to data drive journalism, too much of regular journalism consists of morality tales dressed up as facts. To use Kling’s three axes model, conservative journalists tell morality tales where the threat of civilization going to hell dominates the narrative. Liberal journalists tell morality tales where threat of someone being oppressed dominates the narrative. And libertarian journalists tell morality tells where government is mucking everything up.

For me, this tendency was probability best seen in the various accounts of the banking crisis, where different journalists either blamed the finance industry (liberal narrative), blamed the homebuyer (conservative narrative), or blamed the government (libertarian / conservative narrative).

I’m not an expert here, but I found the dissenting report by three members of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission to be good writing in that it elucidated all the various causes that led to the crisis. The report details how bad actions from the finance industry, homebuyers, and the government, coupled with international capital surpluses and animal spirits – all led to the financial crisis.

Even if you disagree with their recommendations, they at least took a lot of effort to tease out all the various causes. Moreover, regardless of how you weight these causes, if you’re solution set fails to acknowledge and address all causal factors, your remedy will be incomplete, which will lead to more suffering.

Unfortunately, most morality tale journalism: (1) fails to surface all the root causes of the problem (2) fails to elucidate the potential policy options and (3) simply tells a human story that aligns with the tale the reporter wants to tell.


Here’s a potential solution: someone should create a Media Turing Test software program. The software could analyze the article and score it on the three axes. Editors could reject any pieces that scored too far along an individual axis.

Here’s a better solution: stop paying for biased media. If there’s no demand for it, media companies will not deliver it.

Unfortunately, I hold little hope that demand will dry up anytime soon.

Challengers vs. Bargainers

Arnold Kling comments on Daniel Klein’s language of libertarians.

Klein uses as an example of a topic the minimum wage. A challenger is someone who will say that the minimum wage should be abolished, while a bargainer is someone who sill say that the minimum wage should not be raised.

In terms of understanding an issue, I find that both challengers and bargainers help me work through an issue; each can offer useful perspectives, so long as they are done thoughtfully.

Kling worries that challengers lack intellectual humility. I guess my take is that this trait may be correlated with being a challenger, but challengers need not adopt this stance.

For example, a challenger could say: “I’m seventy percent certain abolishing the minimum wage would be a net benefit to the poor; given this, I’m a hundred percent certain that it would be good if ten to fifteen states abolished the minimum wage. If the data proved that I was right, then I’d forcefully argue for all states to do so.”

In short, you can combine a challenge stance (no compromise on policy) with humility (small pilots of  policy adoption).

Perhaps this is cheating – and you in fact become a bargainer once you don’t push for 100% adoption right away. But I’d like to think there is room for this type of stance within the challenger category.

This, of course, is my stance with charter districts. I very skeptical of district autonomy, and I’m generally not willing to compromise on the issue. However, I’m not pushing for 100% adoption of charter districts overnight.


Kling also writes:

I am mostly a bargainer. However, when I write posts using challenger language, I get a lot more praise and mention among libertarians. In fact, I have tried to keep myself from being influenced by such reinforcement … For example, I imagine that Paul Krugman evolved into the writer he is because he could not resist the positive reinforcement he received for expressing anger and certainty.

This is something I struggle with as well. My least nuanced posts often get the most retweets.

How to Criticize

Many of my blog posts criticize the arguments of others.

In writing critical posts, I take some effort to write in a non-combative manner, as well as highlight areas of agreement.

How do others approach the task of criticizing? 

Here’s Daniel Dennet’s suggestion:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Arnold Kling writes that the first step is really the only important step.

I agree that this step is very important and, on this blog, will try to do a better job on this step. 

One other thought: whenever possible, I think it’s important to try and put forth a positive vision about how you would solve the problem that is being addressed. 

Or, at the very least, admit that you don’t have a solution.