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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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Location: Washington, D.C.

greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

10 February 2008

First, say what’s on your mind

A friend was sitting at the school cafeteria, looking aimlessly at her iMac, waiting for inspiration to come. She wrote a few words, took a sip of coffee, and then erased them. By the time I sat next to her, her coffee cup was half empty, and the screen was fully so. It was writer’s block at its worst: an email that needs to be sent quickly or not at all (and an email where the writer puts too much thought into details that the reader won’t notice or care about anyway).

“What are you trying to say?” I asked. “Well, I met this man yesterday. We had a good chat but I didn’t have my business card on me. I want to email him and tell him it was nice to meet him and to give him my contact info.” Why not write that, I asked. She paused. She was skeptical. I explained, “Just write: ‘It was nice to meet you yesterday. I didn’t have my business cards on me, so I am writing to send you my contact info’.” She thought for a second. It made sense. She was relieved.

This wasn’t the first time I had offered such advice. In fact, most times I volunteer to help friends with their writer’s block, it is the same story: I ask them what they want to say, and then all I do is write it down while they dictate. It is surprising how grateful they are for such service. It is probably because there is something about writing that scares people into inaction – they freeze at the daunting task of putting their thoughts, simple as they may be, onto paper. The supposition is that writing must be formal and so the usual rules (“just say what you want to say”) shouldn’t apply – or at least that is how most people approach writing.

II

There are three kinds of writing: there is bad writing, made up of convoluted sentences and unintelligible ideas; there is good writing, which conveys a point pithily and clearly; and there is great writing, which moves, excites, entertains or even inspires. Bad writing is value-subtracting, as economists would say – the sentence adds to less than its parts. Good writing is value-neutral. Great writing is value adding – the sentence is more than the sum of its parts as words come together to create new images or emotions or a rhythm that adds to the story or argument.

Bad writing is often the result of people aiming for great writing instead of good writing. Hence the hesitation when starting to write - it has to “sound good.” In reality, bad writing is good writing trying to be great and failing. The rules for good writing are best summarized by George Orwell: write simply, succinctly, and get your point across (he had six rules, but in his spirit, I distilled them into three). My own advice would be “say what’s on your mind; then go back and edit ruthlessly.”

Not all bad writing has such noble roots, of course. A more common reason for bad writing is laziness, the unwillingness to re-read and edit one’s work. This is bad writing as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The logic is simple: I am a bad writer so there is no reason to spend much time trying to improve my writing which will be bad anyway – and indeed unedited or careless writing is inevitably bad writing. This “writing defeatism” feeds on the illusion that good writing comes to good writers effortlessly, a literary deus ex machina, if you will – which is far from the truth, as any self-respecting writer will admit.

An even bigger source of bad writing is bad thinking. Although the author blames writer’s block, it is really the ideas that are poor, not the writing aptitude. Many people make up their minds or refine arguments as they write (I do much of that myself), but it is rare for good writing to save a bad or uninteresting idea. The challenge is how to create a logical and coherent argument, link propositions with facts, and establish hypotheses that can be tested against evidence. The problem of writing is very often the problem of thinking.

III

Aristotle tells us that rhetoric should combine ethos, pathos and logos. Ethos means consistency. If you are a crook campaigning against corruption, your rhetoric is hollow and your speech unpersuasive. Logicians will say that ad hominem arguments are bad – the rebuttal should not be addressed to the speaker’s credibility but to the argument’s logic and evidence. They are right, but as any lawyer will attest, this rarely happens – we care about whether the politician who preaches freedom is autocratic, whether the broker of peace is a murderer, the self-professed philanthropist miserly. Who speaks matters as much as what is said – or at least the character of the speaker makes a difference for the argument.

Pathos is emotion, the ability to excite or energize a crowd. Listen to Neville Chamberlain declare war on Germany in 1939 and you will see what the absence of pathos means: “This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o'clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.”

Contrast that with Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech: “Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger. With confidence in our armed forces -- with the unbounded determination of our people -- we will gain the inevitable triumph -- so help us God. I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December seventh, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.” Granted, Chamberlain and Roosevelt were declaring very different wars and Churchill’s more memorable phrases came at times more threatening to Britain than the fall of 1939. But a country yawning its way into a war will never win.

Logos is logic, the ability to take the reader from the common and acceptable to the unfamiliar and provocative through steps that even the skeptic can follow. I learned the most about logos from two teachers. The first was a historian I did not particularly like and whose class I eventually dropped. Yet he taught me a valuable lesson. He was challenging the conventional wisdom that Napoleon spearheaded nationalism in Europe. I remember him listing his various counter-points (whose details, needless to say, I no longer recall). But then, with a characteristic scorn that befitted a man of his age, education and intellect (and I say this with affection), he concluded: “All you need for good analysis is a solid grasp of fact and a great deal of common sense.” What a thought! Good analysis, apparently, is for everyone – who will admit that common sense and understanding facts are beyond them?

The second teacher was an economist. He pushed us to think about robustness in a way only an economist could – “what if you change this assumption, or this number, what happens to the result?” He would always ask us to examine the weakest link in our thought; what was essential and what not for our argument. Did it all depend on one fact which, if proven wrong, would destroy the whole point? More fundamentally, however, he liked to deflate false authority: “How does he know?” he would say when confronted with a simple and confident answer to a very complex question. Or, more amusingly: “if he’s so smart, why isn’t he rich?” If anything, he taught me that tension, ambiguity, and uncertainty are the basis for logical thought. Honest minds are conflicted minds.

IV

My academic training is in international relations and economics, yet it is my study of statistics which guides my thinking on logic and argument. What distinguishes statisticians from other logical creatures is that they quantify questions such as, “how much evidence do we need to reach a conclusion” or “how sure are we of the conclusion we just reached.” There is a five-step process I learned in an introductory statistics class that I apply: state the hypothesis; articulate the methodology in testing the hypothesis; specify a threshold that your evidence will need to reach in order for you to accept the hypothesis; check the data; reach a conclusion.

I often puzzle friends by telling them I think of a problem as a multivariate regression. A multivariate regression has six elements (pardon the bullet-point exposition again, but that what mathematical thinking is about): the first is the dependent variable, or more simply, the observations which vary from subject to subject (salary, for example). Then come the independent variables which might explain the variation (intelligence, education, experience, etc.). Then, we look at four questions: is the relationship between variables significant (does your salary in fact depend on whether you are more intelligent, educated or experienced); is the relationship positive or negative (do you make more or less with each level of education, more experience, etc.); is it weak or strong (how much more, how much less); and how much of the variation in salary can you explain through changes in the other variables?

True, I do not spell out each problem as a multivariate regression, but I still wonder whether the variation I observe can be explained by the causes I have identified in my hypothesis: what I can explain and what not; what evidence supports and what contradicts my hypothesis; what should my conclusion be in light of the data I have uncovered. Obvious questions, but fundamental too.

V

The ancient Persians had a custom which is relayed to us by Herodotus; “If an important decision is to be made, they [Persians] discuss the question when they are drunk, and the following day the master of the house where the discussion was held submits their decision for reconsideration when they are sober. If they still approve it, it is adopted; if not, it is abandoned. Conversely, any decision they make when they are sober, is reconsidered afterwards when they are drunk.”

Deflating an idea through drunkenness can be a cleansing exercise. A good idea should withstand the perspective and ridicule that comes with alcohol. As JM Keynes put it, “It is astonishing what foolish things one can temporarily believe if one thinks too long alone.” (Those who have seen A Beautiful Mind or Pi will recognize how perspective can lead to breakthroughs.) Logos is about thinking while sober; pathos is looking at an idea while drunk (ethos, by contrast, is avoiding public speaking when too drunk, jeopardizing credibility once and forever). This is not exactly Aristotle’s trio, but he would recognize the duality of argument in soberness and drunkenness, reason and emotion.

I want to end with some advice I got from another professor, who led me to think about how to balance impulse with reason and to have the courage to pursue new ideas. It was a graduate-level class on public finance which, as an eager second-year student, I was taking. We had read a paper arguing that the Magna Carta could be understood by using economic theory. Its method and approach had intrigued me. I wanted to do something similar for my term paper, using economics to analyze the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia. My teacher was obviously uneasy about the choice. He thought it too risky. But then, he wrote this in an email: “Hey, this is only a term paper. One can be a little adventurous.”

It was quite a radical thought, especially for a college sophomore with an ambivalent attitude towards term papers. (I followed his advice but the research yielded nothing.) He was the first teacher to ever tell me to have the courage to “go for it” and see what happens. And that’s the advice that comes to mind whenever I stare at a blank computer screen - just write.