Once You Get into the Habit of Riding the Elevator, Who Wants to Take the Stairs?

Drezner on Zakaria:

As one has more gobs of money tossed at them than they ever expected out of life approaches League [of Extraordinary Pundits] status, three factors dramatically increases the likelihood of this kind of thing happening. First, since the distribution of punditry assignments likely follows a power law distribution, superstars are asked to write a lot more, the pressure builds up. Second, to compensate, the pundit has to hire a staff—and most people who get into the writing/thinking business are lousy at managing subordinates and staff. Third, if small shortcuts aren’t caught the first time a writer uses them, they become crutches that pave the way for bigger shortcuts, which then become cheats.

I agree—especially the bit about the difficulty of managing subordinates and staff. And once you get in the habit of putting your name on things you didn’t write, all bets are off:

Should Harvard fire Laurence Tribe or should Yale fire Ian Ayres for plagiarism? I don’t know, but I feel that I recently got some insight into legal plagiarism after recently working as an expert witness in a court case (yup, I did it for the money). I did some work and wrote it up, then the people at the law firm rewrote it to be in the standard format for an expert witness report. The result was long, awkward, and repetitive—but it was what they were looking for, so that was fine with me. The point is: they wrote much of it but my name was on it. I asked the lawyers if this was OK, and they said Yes, my name on it means that I stand behind it, not that I wrote every word. I did read every word but if something had been copied without attribution from some other source, I might not have known.

Anyway, I assume that lawyers such as Tribe and Ayres have lots of experience putting their names on reports that they have not written, and this is standard practice. So then they get into the habit. And then, as Dan Kahan puts it (and I agree), laziness kicks in. Once you get into the habit of riding the elevator, who wants to take the stairs? Only weirdo exercise nuts.

Actually, though, I’m much less annoyed with Zakaria than with all these other copyists. Unlike the rest of them, he didn’t duck and weave, he just apologized.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.