Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Scientists and media training

Suppose a scientist finds that a product being used by some industry to help enhance their products is in fact dangerous. Their research is peer reviewed by other scientists, who find no fault. Imagine there are no regulatory bodies that the scientist can pass this information to. She contacts politicians and civil servants, but the government is too close to the industry and the opposition are too busy on other things.

She contacts the media. Most journalists do not have time to understand what she has done, check that other scientists agree with the results and write it up, while others know that because the industry advertises with their paper any story will be spiked. She gets invited on to one TV programme, where she finds herself pitted against an industry representative practiced at PR who dismisses what she has done. Nothing happens as a result.

How do we stop this kind of thing happening? Do we suggest that the scientist gets some media training so she can debate better on TV, or hires a PR company so that more journalists take notice of what she has done? Or do we lambaste journalists for not doing their job properly, imagining we are still in a bygone era where journalists had time to investigate?

In this particular example most countries have chosen a better model, where they set up regulatory bodies staffed with other scientists that have the job of assessing research of this kind, bodies which governments find it difficult to ignore. But what happens if, for whatever reason, these institutions do not exist?

In the space of two years the UK has had three referendums/elections in which economic issues have been key. In the Scottish independence referendum and Brexit the view of the overwhelming majority of economists have been clear [1], but in the media this view was/is typically ‘balanced’ by an opposing view. In the UK election the views of macroeconomists on austerity were more diffuse, but a clear majority did not think austerity had a positive effect on the economy. The media largely ignored this view.

I naturally think there is something wrong here, and I also doubt that the answer is to give macroeconomists more media training. We need a debate about what the right answer is. [2]

[1] In the Scottish referendum the clear view was that there would be large short term fiscal costs arising from independence.

[2] My thanks to the organisers of this event for starting this debate, and in particular to members of the audience whose questions this post is a better answer to!  


  1. One of the problems with testing this hypothesis (that the electorate are being duped by media bias against economic consensus) is that there are other factors in play.

    So yes, on Scotland there was a clear consensus that there were serious downside costs with only SNP patsies like Stiglitz on the other side. But that was not the only issue in play. If you are a Scot and very strongly feel part of a completely separate polity from the rest of the UK, it is perfectly rational to vote for independence regardless of the economic downsides. As it happens, I think the argument on the currency did cut through, and probably tipped the balance.

    On the austerity argument, what tipped the balance here was a combination of (i) recovery and (ii) commentators who had said no recovery would ever come whilst Osborne's policies were persisted in. Prominent commentators, such as Blanchflower, hopelessly over-egged their denunciation of Osborne so that when recovery did come Osborne could say 'I told you so.' There is no point pretending that credibility was not lost through pushing the rhetoric too far.

    As for whether economics is an area where it is peculiarly difficult to inform the public because of how the media operate, I very much doubt it. In the area of climate change, for example, the consensus is crystal clear but the media are often guilty of seeking to create a 'balanced' argument where none exists. Many examples of this from many different fields of human endeavor could be given (human rights, grammar schools, vaccinations etc etc)

    Again, as so often, your argument is really one against democracy. it is very old indeed. Most people have neither the time nor the inclination to become properly informed, and expecting the media to fill the gap is crying for the moon. Plato argued that democracy was the worst form of government because those who attained power were those best placed to tickle the prejudices of the mob, rather than those who were wisest. As Donald Trump is currently in the business of demonstrating to us, there is more than a grain of truth in this argument.

    This isn't a new 'debate'. It is an ancient one.

    1. Exactly. See also MMR. This 'better model' doesn't exist, even in the sciences.

      Bleating about bias will get you nowhere, however many regulatory bodies you create. The answer is to have a credible opposition, taking the fight to the government, managing the media, setting the agenda, winning the argument.

      Instead we have Jeremy Corbyn, scowling at the cameras outside his house and releasing crucial press releases at 8pm on a Friday.

  2. Good question at the end of the above article. Unfortunately I just don’t see a solution other what the anti-austerity lot have been doing for the last ten years: pointing out the flaws in the “got to get the debt down” philosophy.

  3. It might be added, that the inherent problem with democracy that you are here identifying is the primary reason why modern societies opt for representative rather than direct democracy, in the hope that the representatives will be a bit better informed than the lumpen mass. the wisdom of this is being demonstrated over and over with the UK's new found enthusiasm for referenda.

  4. If you are willing to subject Economics to some rigorous testing (i.e. by predicting measurable outcomes BEFORE they occur) then, if Economics proves to be reliable, we can think about treating it like a science.

  5. It seems like the job of communicating science responsibly has now fell to comedians. John Oliver has done two excellent segments on science reporting on his show Last Week Tonight.

    The first is on climate change where he pointed out that to moderate the debate responsibly you should have an army of climate scientists to debate against each individual denier:

    Climate change link

    And for general science reporting he thinks that journalists should cite their sources and explain where their funding comes from:

    Science reporting link

    Not that I watch it anymore, but it seems that for economics reporting the news only feels that it needs to talk to one expert (who is usually from the banking sector or similar) rather than the usual two as for climate change discussions.

    Presumably they want it to appear that there are no fundamental disagreements between economists and bankers on financial matters, which is odd because manufacturing entertaining but ultimately pointless arguments between guests seems to be exactly the kind of thing that news producers like to do.

    Maybe it would be worth selling the idea to them in that context; not so much 'do this because it's the democratic and ethically proper thing to do', and more 'do this because it'll get you higher ratings'.

    (Apologies if there are any problems with the links above by the way.)

  6. "In the Scottish independence referendum and Brexit the view of the overwhelming majority of economists have been clear"

    Perhaps so. But many part of the club of economists pushing the neo-keynesian model that blew up in 2008 and has therefore been shown to be false.

    Those exporting to the UK have the choice of saving the necessary Sterling (which stops the 'fall' in Sterling - not that there would be one), or cutting their prices in Sterling terms to maintain market share. Something they would have to do *or lose sales* because there is nowhere else in the world that can absorb the level of output the UK economy can.

    Furthermore anybody suggesting an economic loss from Brexit is assuming that the government is powerless to counter any impact. When actually we would have the power to counter completely and the hog-tied governments remaining in the EU can't do anything.

    The entire structure is self-referential. So I'm afraid your 'authority' is based entirely upon foundations of sands and lies.

    It's a very cleverly crafted corporate 'noble lie' for sure. But it is still a lie.

    It is similar to the EU immigration studies that get the null hypothesis (!) wrong. Few if any of them separate out "those who would get a visa" from "those who would not get a visa". Need to go back to doing S2 maths (!)

    Similarly the Working Time directive, like the late payment directive, is ignored everywhere. Because there is no law without enforcement. In the UK it is routinely opted out by default and is useless. And so on. So many deceptions.

    1. The assumption that a government could counter completely any loss from Brexit is naïve. The British economy faced constraints before it joined the EU and it would face constraints if it left. Brexit would exchange one set of relationships for another. It would not open a world of boundless possibilities.

      What exactly do you expect from a government dominated by Johnson and Gove and cheered on by Farage?

    2. Which can then be reversed *completely* by an incoming government in 2020 - just four years away.

      That's the beauty of democracy. Which is why we should vote to recover it.

  7. "1] In the Scottish referendum the clear view was that there would be large short term fiscal costs arising from independence."

    The problem was really due to not having their own currency.

    "Even under the most favourable assumption of a new Scottish currency, Scotland could easily have to pay around 1% more to borrow than rUK. In their original analysis the IFS look at the implications of that (p35), and the numbers are large.

    So what would this mean? Could Scotland just borrow more? I am all for borrowing to cover temporary reductions in income, due to recessions for example, which is why I have been so critical of current austerity. However, as the IFS show, North Sea oil income is falling long term, so this is not a temporary problem. Now it could be that the gap will be covered in the longer term by the kind of increases in productivity and labour supply that the Scottish government assume. Governments that try to borrow today in the hope of a more optimistic future are not behaving very responsibly. However it seems unlikely that Scotland would be able to behave irresponsibly, whatever the currency regime. They would either be stopped by fiscal rules imposed by the remaining UK, or markets that did not share the SNP’s optimism about longer term growth. "

    The IFS are talking total bollocks. The New Scottish government would have total control as it would be the issuer of the New Scottish currency. It wouldn't have to even issue debt at all.

  8. For an example of what I was saying in a previous comment, Jonathan Ported links to this study on Twitter:

    (Sorry I don't have a direct link it downloads straight away)

    It compares UK born and EU immigrants. No comparison of EU immigration after a Visa policy introduced compared to now.

    1. For example Simon have a look at figure 8 in the paper. Particularly the scales and what they mean.

      Then do the calculation of a town growing in population, but without any of the existing unemployed already there getting a job.

      If that doesn't give you a 'aha' moment, then there is no hope.

  9. The is a saying in science that no one is ever convinced by new theories, older theories are not replaced until their proponent die off.

  10. And what happens if TTIP has been enacted, and the businesses in the industry in question can blackmail the government: ignore the new knowledge, or be sued for damages in a foreign court where industry representatives are judge and jury, and there is no appeal?

  11. You say
    "In this particular example most countries have chosen a better model, where they set up regulatory bodies staffed with other scientists that have the job of assessing research of this kind, bodies which governments find it difficult to ignore. But what happens if, for whatever reason, these institutions do not exist?"

    Please allow me to ask a far more troubling question:
    What if these institutions have become part and parcel of the industries that they were supposed to assess?
    Indeed that is what has happened with regulation of pesticides in USA. From Monsanto's beginning it was backed strongly and uncritically by Al Gore and Bill Clinton, and today the pesticide industry controls the regulatory agencies, the politicians, and the media, and not only in USA.

  12. In some ways, jn regards to the consequences of rapid liberalisation of trade, capital and labour flows and a generally loose monetary policy accompanied by lax financial regulation that occurred during the Great moderation, a sceptical public, rather than economic "scientists", have been the ones that have been right.

    What side were you on Simon? Did you argue in terms of comparative advantage and 'efficient markets with sticky prices and frictions', or did you say that such policies may lead to inequality, marginalisation, financialisation, deindustrialisation and very little benefit for a large section of the population?


  13. Αs a former academic economist (in a past life) making his living today in business communications and public affairs in Brussels, I have to categorically say that yes, economists need media training.

    Unfortunate but true and otherwise the risk is that policy entrepreneurs (as Krugman called all those talking heads usually at the employment of vested interests) citing zombie economics mixed with random data and zero substance but with strong media experience always win.

    This is something I have consistently told my friends from my academic past life who are furious at how bad economics find their way and become mainstream ideas.

    An excellent example of that is the current state of the Eurozone (and of the Greek crisis) and how distortedly it is presented in economic terms and solutions by people who are media savvy. And yes, this does not only include politicians but also people who work in IMF or EU institutions

  14. It's fallacious to suggest there's two sides to that debate. And there's an awful lot of words tossed into that paragraph, many of which are not comparable. Do people really think tighter monetary policy would have done anything other than entrenched economic inequality? Does your measure of 'globalisation increases inequality' look exclusively at workers in developed countries and totally ignore growth in China and India and other such places? Do people actually think deindustrialisation is bad in the context of global environmental crises?

    And which skeptical public do you mean? The ones that voted for the giant tax cuts of G W Bush? The ones that delivered a majority government to David Cameron? The ones that are gonna vote for Mr 'Repeal Dodd Frank' Trump?


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