The Age of Niallism

Niall FergusonMatthew O’Brien wrote A Full Fact-Check of Niall Ferguson’s Very Bad Argument Against Obama earlier this week. It was in reference to Niall Ferguson’s disgusting counterfactual Newsweek article Obama’s Gotta Go. It seems everyone has written about this at some point during the week—even me. But Ferguson took the time to rebut his attackers in Correct This, Bloggers. The argument he makes is that his facts were technically rarely wrong and that we should all applaud him for writing such a deceptive article.

Today, Matthew O’Brien again takes on the issue, going point by point through Ferguson’s rebuttal, in The Age of Niallism: Ferguson and the Post-Fact World. It is detailed and angering; how can a man like Ferguson be taken seriously? I recommend reading the article.

What is most interesting is the end of the article, where O’Brien gets to the heart of his argument as indicated in his title:

Of course, it’s not just Ferguson. There is an epidemic of Niallism—which Seamus McKiernan of the Huffington Post defined as not believing in anything factual. It’s the idea that bluster can make untruths true through mere repetition. We expect this from our politicians, not our professors. Consider Mitt Romney’s attacks on Obama for supposedly eliminating the work requirement in welfare. That sounds damning, unless you know it’s a complete lie—as Alec MacGillis of The New Republic has tirelessly pointed out. Or consider the economic white paper Romney’s campaign put out. As Ezra Klein has pointed out, the papers Romney’s team cites do not say what they say they say. In other words, Romney’s team draws conclusions from these papers that the authors who wrote them do not agree with. Romney adviser and Stanford professor John Taylor defended their work on the grounds that they quoted their sources accurately. This was never in dispute. The question was whether they selectively quoted their sources, not whether they selectively quoted their sources accurately.

We live in a post-truth age. That’s the term David Roberts of Grist coined to describe the way lies get amplified in our media ecosystem. (If I were feeling cynical, I might say we live in a pre-truth age—maybe things have always been this deplorable.) It’s bad enough when politicians do it. It’s even worse when journalists do too. Now, everybody has biases and those biases unwittingly slant the way we frame facts—myself included. That’s why I try to follow best practices of writers like Felix Salmon. I try to show my work, and admit when I make mistakes. The irony is that there’s an academic who would probably agree with all of the above. His name is Niall Ferguson. His early academic work was as good as his punditry is bad. It’s a shame that Niall Ferguson wasn’t the Niall Ferguson who wrote the Newsweek story.

The Age of Niallism, indeed.