In a much-discussed post at one of my favorite blogs, Language Log, Mark Liberman christens a new game:

We might call this the Pundit’s Dilemma — a game, like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which the player’s best move always seems to be to take the low road, and in which the aggregate welfare of the community always seems fated to fall. And this isn’t just a game for pundits. Scientists face similar choices every day, in deciding whether to over-sell their results, or for that matter to manufacture results for optimal appeal.

(Aside on the game name game:  when I was a first-year PhD student at Berkeley, Matthew Rabin taught us game theory. As if to remove all illusion that what we were studying was connected to reality, every game we analyzed in class was given a name according to his system of “stochastic lexicography.”  Stochastic lexicography means randomly picking two words out of the dictionary and using them as the name of the game under study.  So, for example, instead of studying “job market signaling” we studied something like “rusty succotash.”  I wonder if any of our readers remember some of the game names from that class.)

(Stay tuned for my next Matthew Rabin story which will involve a hackey sack and a bodily fluid.)

There is indeed a strong incentive for pundits to distort what they say, and it has the flavor of contrarianism. Its based on an old paper by Prendergast and Stole (requires JSTOR sorry.  Support Open Access publishing.)  Suppose that what pundits want is to convince the world that they are smart.  (Perhaps they want to influence policy.  They will be influential later only if they can prove they are smart today.  So today the details of what they are saying matters less than whether what they are saying is perceived to be smart.)

The thing about being really smart is that it means you are talking to people who aren’t as smart as you. (Sandeep faces this problem all the time.)  So they can’t verify whether what you are saying is really true (especially when we are talking about climate change policies where if we ever do find out who was right, it will be well past the time that punditry is a profitable enterprise.)  But one thing the audience knows is that smart pundits can figure out things that lesser pundits cannot.  That means that the only way a smart pundit can demonstrate to his not-so-smart audience that he is smart is by saying things different than what his lesser colleagues are saying, i.e. to be a contrarian.