Jacob Weisberg’s Possible Fallacies

Slate‘s Jacob Weisberg recently surveyed a range of sociopolitical issues from nuclear proliferation to the China Century where the expert consensus might be wrong.

Weisberg’s survey sample includes macroeconomic aggregates (home ownership, asset investment classes, international competition), geostrategic stability (China, nuclear proliferation), and longrun environmental issues (climate change, fossil fuels). In each, Weisberg contrasts a prevailing view, hypothesis or expert with a challenger.

Below are some thoughts on Weisberg’s analyses and observations on research methods in journalism
.

· Selection and Framing of Experts: Weisberg mentions the late realist Samuel P. Huntington‘s thesis on political order in changing societies, to raise concerns about China’s near-future macroeconomic growth. He also refers to neorealist Kenneth Waltz‘s views that nuclear proliferation is inevitable. Huntington and Waltz both represent dominant traditions within international relations theory, and neither are as new or radical as Weisberg seems to portray. The selection and framing of experts is crucial: it would be even more interesting to compare their views with other schools of thought, such as liberal democratic, critical or constructivist theories, which have different deductive premises and levels of analysis. After all, neoconservative fears about Iraq were not just that nuclear weapons acquisition was a defensive action, but also the security orientation of ‘Axis of Evil’ regimes and their potential connections to non-state actors. Perhaps Weisberg could have checked with a nuclear proliferation specialist such as Graham Allison or Jessica Stern. Equally, a China specialist might convincingly show that Hu Jintao’s Chinese government is aware of Huntington’s thesis and has plotted a different future trajectory

· Heretics & Mavericks: Weisberg cites Freeman Dyson as a heretic of climate change models, although Dyson’s scientific expertise is primarily as a physicist and cosmologist. Other mavericks such as the late Federal Bureau of Investigation counterterrorism expert John O’Neill and United Nations weapons inspector Scott Ritter were ostracised in organisational politics, whilst economist Nouriel Roubini strengthened his reputation by foreseeing the global financial crisis. Perhaps it’s also a matter of luck, timing, and having an effective image makeover.

· Incomplete Deductive Arguments: Weisberg observes that market analysts are re-evaluating house ownership, stock investments and the global competitiveness of car manufacturers. Yet the common assumptions that Weisberg mentions are really incomplete deductive arguments with hidden premises. First, home ownership does not necessarily lead to greater community involvement, and the negative factors mentioned (financial risk, labour market mobility, commute time) are weighted during the purchase decision or emerge later in decision regret. Second, evaluating and comparing the risk premia of bonds versus stocks requires further details on the time horizon, sampling frame, weightings and volatility. Shocks such as the 1973 OPEC oil crisis, the 1995-2000 dotcom bubble, the 1997 Asian currency crisis and the current global financial crisis may affect the comparison of bond and stock returns. Third, although the Detroit Three have cut costs and launched several international joint ventures, their debts and liabilities are partly the result of earlier decisions. Weisberg’s argument that these balance sheet issues are the Detroit Three’s main barrier is not really new: asset management and private equity firms have targeted them for over two decades in their acquisition, reengineering and turnaround attempts. Perhaps that’s why the Obama administration has hired media banker Stephen Rattner.

· Inferences from Small Samples: In his sections on long-run stocks, climate change and fossil fuels Weisberg quotes from a single academic study. Whilst this establishes a challenger hypothesis it also probably means that the sample is too small for inferences that would establish a definitive Kuhnian paradigm shift in a knowledge field. Weisberg would have a more robust argument if he referenced meta-analyses which evaluated a group of studies for their sample size and other effects.

Global Metal

York University anthropologist Sam Dunn has found a communication strategy to reach a broader audience than many academics and scholars.  Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (2005) combined Dunn’s fandom of heavy metal music, a taxonomy of subgenres, interviews with influential musicians and a field trip to the Wacken Open Air festival in Germany.  Dunn’s follow-up documentary Global Metal (2008) travels from Wacken to three BRIC members (Brazil, India and China), China, Israel, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates.  Global Metal has rich insights on the coevolution of nation-states in the world system, the challenges of market design, indigenous and hybrid responses to globalisation, and new voices on old debates in heavy metal subcultures.

Anthropologists need an entry point into a new culture.  Dunn achieves this by interviewing Max Cavalera the cofounder of Brazil’s Sepultura and frontman for Soulfly and Cavalera Conspiracy.  Cavalera explains that Sepultura emerged in the mid-1980s as Brazil evolved from a military dictatorship to a neoliberal market society.  For many heavy metal fans Sepultura’s album Roots (1996) was their first encounter with an indigenous worldview as the band included field recordings with the Xavante Indians and Brazilian percussion.  Dunn’s interview with Cavalera uses Roots to tacitly bring the anthropological models and theories of Clifford Geertz, David Horowitz, Stanley Tambiah and others to fans who are unfamiliar with these influential scholars.  In contrast to this immersive approach Global Metal ends with a more familiar event: Iron Maiden‘s concert on 1st February 2008 the first time that a major Western heavy metal band has played Mumbia, India.

A second entry point for fans is when Dunn revisits past controversies and debates in heavy metal media to include new voices and perspectives.  Does Slayer‘s song ‘Angel of Death’ about the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele promote Holocaust denial and racism?  Dunn turns to the Israeli band Orphaned Land who note that although the song was written for shock value it has been used by politicians to inform Israeli youth about the Holocaust.  Orphaned Land then talk about Jerusalem as a global city and the past religious conflicts between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Far scarier than Middle Ages imagery and occult demons is Orphaned Land’s reality of having to live daily with potential suicide bombers in crowded urban areas.

Dunn returns to this debate throughout Global Metal to show how different individuals and groups reinterpret a meme or symbol and how this can have unforseeable outcomes.  Orphaned Land recount how after playing ‘Angel of Death’ live for Israeli audiences they were sent a mail bomb by Varg Vikernes a notorious Norwegian black metal musician and Holocaust denier.  Iranian fans who are photographed next to Slayer graffiti face possible arrest and torture by religious police – which provokes Slayer’s frontman Tom Araya to comment that the fans seek a death sentence.

More disturbingly, Dunn interviews the Indonesian band Tengkorak whose song ‘Jihad Soldiers’ embraces a militant Islamist worldview.  When Tengorak’s lead singer quotes conspiracy theories from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Dunn observes his jacket has a crossed out Nazi swastika.  “We’re not against Jews,” the singer explains, “just the Jewish system.”  Dunn then visits a Muslim mosque with another Indonesian musician.  Tengorak’s context is the 1997 Asian currency crisis which sparked a wave of conspiracy theories within Indonesia due to macroeconomic destabilisation.

Many of the interviewees give examples of how heavy metal music is reinterpreted differently to Western narratives.  Japanese fans reject Western alienation as an existential motivation and instead create a more emotional and direct identity that is an alternative to their conformist work identity.  KISS had an immediate impact in Japan as the band’s makeup is comparable to Kabuki theatre.  The live improvisation which closed Deep Purple‘s first concert at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan in 1972 has sparked a subculture of ageing salarymen who reform their teenage bands to play ‘Highway Star’.  Former Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman explains how X-Japan and Death Panda have fused heavy metal with Japanese game shows like Rock Fujiyama and pop music to create rifts within and between subcultures.  In China heavy metal music is used as part of a Confucian state policy to give youth an outlet for aggression, even though the music is officially frowned upon.  Whilst visiting Mumbai, Dunn intercuts scenes of Indian bands playing a local bar with the Hindu wedding playing Bollywood music next door: two alternative cultures coexist.

The heavy metal subcultures that Dunn visits serve as barometers for nation-state development; freedom for religious and political views; and in a nod to Ulrich Beck, P.R. Sarkar and Amy Chua, the relationship of subcultural groups to mainstream society and sociopolitical power.  Japan has a Janus-faced subculture which has Western and indigenous elements.  India and the United Arab Emirates’ subcultures are at an infancy stage which Dunn links explicitly to democratic political institutions and modernisation: UAE hosts a festival with bands and fans who cannot perform in their home countries due to restrictions.  China, Iran and Turkey have subcultures that are underground due to religious authorities who perceive them as antinomian youth subcultures.  Beck’s concept of subpolitics from below and Sarkar’s Law of the Social Cycle provide theoretical insights here: if the fans are shudra (workers) they have coopted insights from vaeshya (entrepreneurs, merchants) and vipra (intellectuals) to create soft power which counteracts the influence of ksatriya (military).

Brazil and Indonesia are two test cases of this hypothesis.  Cavalera’s narrative of Brazil’s transition to democracy st
ands in contrast to Samuel P. Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies (1968) which warned of the gap between rapid sociopolitical change and lagging political institutions.  Instead, Cavalera argues that Sepultura’s music signified a subpolitics response by the shudra underclass to poverty and the lack of macroeconomic and sociopolitical reforms by social elites.  The flashpoint is Metallica’s concert on 11th April 1993 at Lebak Bulus Stadiam in Jakarta, Indonesia.  Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich explains that in order to protect a middle class area Indonesian police prevent fans from entering the stadium.  Fans retaliate by setting fire to the surrounding buildings; the smoke is visible on a bootleg concert tape.  Indonesian authorites then banned all heavy metal bands and live tours until the Suharto regime ended in 1998.  Indonesia’s heavy metal subculture have since gained greater visibility although Tengorak gives voice to subcultural fears of Western geoeconomic, cultural and religious domination.

The consensus of most fans in Global Metal is that heavy metal’s ‘identity politics’ is evolving into a transnational network with a cosmopolitan worldview.  Almost everyone in the documentary wars an Iron Maiden t-shirt – the power of Chinese sweatshops, marketing and passionbrands.  The major facilitator is the heavy metal entrepreneur, such as the cofounder of China’s Tang Dynasty who imported Western heavy metal in the late 1980s and then evolved into an indigenous worldview.  The major barrier to this cosmopolitan ideal and diffusion process is when subcultural identities are caught in Muzafer Sherif‘s assimilation-contrast effect of social judgment: Japanese purist fans who decry the fusion of pop-metal or Indian fans who are caught in a power struggle with authority figures and family traditions.

Failures in market design are one source of these infra-subcultural battles.  In order to change their financial account reporting Western conglomerates dumped their excess back catalogue such as Extreme‘s 1989 debut album as cheap CDs into India and other countries.  Third World countries were the beneficiaries of bootlegs, MP3s and illegal downloads.  Dunn coaxs an admission from Ulrich that this is a positive trend, a reversal of Metallica’s lawsuit against Napster in 2000.  Black markets emerge where demand exists yet there are no official agents and major price differentials exist.  Ironically,  Global Metal is a victim of this trend: the documentary and a soundtrack of featured bands now circulates on illegal BitTorrent networks.  Turn up the distortion to 11.