Talented story-tellers and straw men

Malcolm Gladwell and Larry Lessig may have many things in common, but one quality I’m certain they both have is the ability to tell persuasive stories. They also, apparently, like to set up falsehoods in making their arguments. I wrote about Gladwell’s argument that sports, especially football, cause unnecessary physical harm but persist because, says Gladwell, spectators pay to watch. Yet in his own essay, he describes the effect of concussions on high school athletes; I will never be persuaded that teenagers play sports for commercial gain. The entire basis of the article is the false premise that athletes play sports because the market tells them to. Love of the game, not commercial gain, is what motivates the vast majority of amateur athletes.

Gladwell’s engaging story based on a false premise was on my mind when this morning I finally made my way through Lessig’s latest and greatest, “Against Transparency.” Others have noted that he sets up quite a straw man, and some have brilliantly summarized the argument he is trying to make. I don’t know that I disagree with what I believe his main point is: that transparency is not the best solution to corruption, publicly financed campaigns are. I don’t know that I agree, either, I just don’t have a strong opinion on the matter right now. But I do think he did himself a disservice by setting up the argument with a straw man.

The title of his article implies that transparency is not an effective means to any end, that it poses risks and therefore ought to be reigned in. The main thrust of the piece is also heavily ┬áladen with this tone, which is why commenters have asked what the main argument is and why the first Google hit for “lessig against transparency” is not the article itself, but the brilliant summary instead. He isn’t actually saying transparency is all bad. He’s really only targeting a particular kind of transparency, that which is intended to uncover corruption. But instead of focusing on his main argument, he set up the straw man that transparency will cause unintended side effects that must be prevented.

I don’t think the transparency movement was ever singly focused on this objective. Political sound-bites may have told that story, but the folks I know who work on transparency projects are interested in drawing intelligence out of massive amounts of data, not necessarily uncovering corruption. The theoretically publicly available information that is not practically publicly available because it is not easily accessible ought to, generally speaking, be made more accessible.

In this piece, I would have rather seen a positive argument titled “In favor of publicly funded campaigns,” rather than one based on tearing down a straw man. By picking such a vogue topic to attack, he may have drawn more attention to his piece. But the confusion that resulted, and the defensiveness on the part of transparency advocates, doesn’t seem to me to have been worth it.

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