Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday, 24 October 2016

Helping the broadcast media be informative on politicised issues

The broadcast media in the UK, and particularly the BBC, can do an excellent job at providing information in an accessible way. However, the moment a subject gets politicised, this ability seems to collapse. This is because the moment a subject becomes politicised, the non-partisan media puts ‘balance’ above all else, which in turn allows politics rather than reality to define what is understood as true. I’ve called this the politicisation of truth, and have identified four ways this happens:

  1. Ignoring facts: ‘shape of the earth: views differ’ type reporting.
  2. Ignoring expert pluralities: for uncertain outcomes, failing to mention that one side is a minority view. The economics of Brexit is an example.
  3. Allowing politicians to create untruths. Labour profligacy caused austerity is an example.
  4. Repeating politically generated untruths. For example 'the 364 economists were wrong'.

Here is an interesting discussion of the first two of these in the context of Brexit. From the discussion you can see that shifting existing practice will not be easy, so in this post I want to be positive rather than just complain.

Before doing so, however, I want to say why this is so important. If the broadcast media do not correct politicians when they lie, they provide an incentive for them to lie. That will quickly become apparent, so even if one side ‘starts it’, the other side will follow. This creates an incentive to tell even bigger lies and so on. In the short term the lies are believed and this distorts democracy, and in the longer term trust in politicians deteriorates even further.

We saw this with Brexit, and we have seen this with Donald Trump. Trump’s stream of well documented lies are ‘balanced’ against seemingly baseless or minor insinuations about Clinton. It is easy for people like those who read this blog to think everyone knows that Trump is a serial liar, but they do not. In fact:
“Trump has his largest edge of the campaign as the more honest and trustworthy of the two major candidates (50% say he is more honest and trustworthy vs. just 35% choosing Clinton)”

If you are reading this in the UK and thinking this could only happen in the US, who do you think was trusted during the Brexit campaign?

There is no one else who can inform the majority of people what the truth is. There are countless media organisations, think tanks and websites designed to present a partisan view. It takes both time and knowledge for people to find sources that can be trusted, and that is time most people will not spend. As Stephen Cushion and Justin Lewis note, people actively want the broadcast media to separate facts from spin, but this popular demand is being ignored because it is drowned out by politicos shouting about bias. As they also note, this information has to come in prime time viewing: doing it only in specialist programming watched by those who are already well informed completely misses the point.

The obvious way to avoid facts being distorted is to correct them. As Jeremy Shapiro says in his discussion above, this has to be done in real time. It is just no good saying we corrected that on our fact checking website a few days later, not only because of the delay involved but also because hardly anyone looks at that website. So, for example, in a debate between two sides, if one side says X and X is not true, the moderator should say so. If in an interview the interviewee says something untrue, the interviewer should say so, even if they want to get on to another point.

This of course immediately gets you into questions of how does the interviewer know what is true and where do you draw the line. Here I have some sympathy with journalists, who are sometimes expected to have everything at their fingertips. What academics in particular need to do is to ensure that this information is easily available from trusted sources, and protest when that information is ignored.

I think those in the physical sciences understand this. For example a few years ago there was a period in which climate change was only discussed by broadcast media in a politicised format, where typically a climate scientist would debate the issue with someone from denial organisations. But with almost all climate scientists agreeing about the fundamental facts, this ‘balance’ gave a completely distorted view of reality. As a result of concerted pressure from scientific bodies (and with help from MPs), the BBC finally recognised this and issued revised guidelines. (Here and here (pdf) is the BBC Trust review.) Their coverage of climate change may still not be perfect (or more seriously may have simply diminished), but at least the BBC recognised there were cases where evidence is more important than balance.

Academic economists as a collective are not so well organised, and we need to become more so. This is not about improving individual economist’s media skills, or getting certain people regularly invited on discussion programmes. It is about having a trusted source that can present what the balance of views of academic economists are, and what the key facts and arguments are, and make sure this appears in the inbox of all the media’s key journalists. It should make letters to newspapers signed by a long list of academic economists a thing of the past, because economists themselves would find out what the plurality of opinion was and make that widely known. If Brexit does not compel academic economists to organise in this way, nothing will. Only in this way will we stop politicians defining the public's perception of what is true and false in economics. 

8 comments:

  1. I'd be careful what you wish for. At the moment not many educated people outside the economics profession pay attention to how the subject is done. If they do a lot of its foundational philosophy and methodology will be become exposed. Economists have been far more interested in preserving a questionable standardised methodology , and defining the subject by that methodology than really trying to understand how the world actually works. In terms of adding to real knowledge about how an economy works, you would be very hard up to find any breakthrough in over half a century.

    This in the end will only play to the hands of the demagogues.

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  2. As a scientist, I have some sympathy with your argument about climate change but its not that simple.

    The perception that climate change its a swindle has taken hold and now has become associated with political view (I am a Tory I know its a swindle; I am Labour so I know its true). Science's credibility suffers when this happens, (I am Tory, GM is good; I am Labour GM is bad). Paul Krugman labels this affinity fraud, you like one thing and you get sold a lot of rubbish alongside it.

    Back to climate change, the biggest success in my view in the UK was not the BBC guidelines, it was Cameron and Osborne (and many in the Tory party) accepting it as a reality. This was years of work by the Royal Society and others (notably the late but absolutely fantastic David MacKay and Nicholas Stern), calmly making the case to everyone and with a 'more rejoicing in heaven' approach to people.

    We may dislike Cameron / Osborne actions, but they stood against their 'tribal' loyalty because they were unable to lie to themselves its a hoax. In effect, they knew too much. They were berated weekly by the Sun, Telegraph and Daily Mail, but to their credit they held on. Paul Nurse met James Delingpole and other anti-science people, always with a warm smile and never a sneer. The Tory party is not yet 'Trump' .

    Of course, I believe that they should have carbon taxed, shut coal plants and electrified the railways but they did agree to Paris and we do have binding targets. UKIP and some on Tory right want to rip up all that progress. I think the jury (post-Brexit) is out on whether the current Tory party will go climate change denier, this is something that MUST be avoided for the planet's well-being the future is not yet secure and the most important audience (at the moment) is the Tory party.
    Coloring green policies red is not sensible if you really care about green policies (as opposed to seeing hem a vehicle for a different agenda). If we color green red, you make it all but impossible for Tories to support them (and in opinion polls they are 47 %)

    I am a paid up member of the Liberals (since 91), but I have had conversations with elected and party members who refuse (and I mean say 'I don't want to hear') about safety of GM products. Some because they buy the narrative of evil companies others who know the majority in the party oppose GM crops. By keeping ignorant they can deceive themselves. (Scientists in Labour have the same complaints). As a scientist I know the easy case to make is this bit of science is anti-globalisation big business, they love those bits. They are people who I otherwise admire, but who have less intellectual honesty and curiosity than Osborne about hard science.

    So as a scientist let me offer Simon and his fellow economists some advice, accept the constraints that politicians work under (they want votes, they have ideologues in the media ready to denounce them and inflame their partisans). Try to engage the truly intellectually curious without erecting barriers. Science has issues with all parties and there is more rejoicing in heaven if you can actually persuade people to make their own minds up.

    Why not see if any of you can write a book about economics as carefully and warmly as David MacKay wrote about climate change. Would any of your leading lights be as prepared as Paul Nurse to engage with a splenetic know nothings? It will take years but if you really believe that economic reason needs a much bigger place in society, then its worth the effort and it means talking to people whom you disagree with / dislike.

    The biggest danger I think we face is the Gove line about experts, if this takes hold all bets are off since being expert would be synonymous with left wing. My own view is that our best defense is to follow the data even where it disagrees with our politics, the trouble (viz me at LD meetings) is that you have no friends.

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  3. I have little hope for British media, as long as outlets like the Daily Telegraph still publish articles about Brexit with sentences like these:

    "France, some argue, is not a full democracy even now...
    This means we have to be a little tolerant towards Europe. By accident of history, our near neighbours simply do not have our legacy of experience of democracy. This matters."


    Link to the article here:
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/10/24/if-the-eu-thinks-it-can-stop-brexit-by-making-threats-it-really/

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  4. It seems to me that you fail to see the contradiction in your own position.

    You say that "This is because the moment a subject becomes politicised, the non-partisan media puts ‘balance’ above all else". Now you must know more than the vast majority that economics is viewed by many as politics in another form and the Austrian School is openly built upon individual behavior ( as are they all in some form). How can any discussion about substantive issues be "impartial" in the light of this? It can't.It seems to me that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve what you want with any degree of success.

    Also you are fully aware that much of public economic discussion revolves around prediction about the future and, in this respect, it is lacking in authority ( I don't need to give examples). Most people are aware that economists can't even predict the next three months with any degree of accuracy let alone the next thirty years ( I do not criticize them for this; to me it is plainly understandable) and how will your scheme make this better? When it comes to prediction then applying the True/False dichotomy means you are on a loser because the chances of it being "true" in the sense of being accurate is minimal.

    To achieve what you want appears to me difficult if not impossible.

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  5. In the case of Clinton I would argue the perception is correct, but good points regardless. Take a look at her 'private views' vs 'public views.'

    For example to any sane person "The Russians hacked us" is an acknowledgement of guilt. Otherwise Dems would deny the charges, not the source.

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  6. I wonder if there is anyone left at the BBC who could cope with robust exchange with politicians for anything other than right-wing Andrew Neil, John Humphreys, Jeremy Paxman reasons?

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  7. I have a lot of sympathy with your views about media coverage of macro and false balance. But using media coverage of climate change issues as a desirable model worries me. Indeed the coverage in some respects is quite similar to that of macro. By that I mean that a consensus is assumed which doesn't really exist. There is certainly a wide consensus that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, that the world has been getting warmer over the last 150 years or so and that the rise in temperatures is in part at least caused by humans. But there is plenty of discussion about how much of the rise is caused by humans, how much temperatures will rise in the future if emissions continue on current trends, what effects the rise in temperatures will actually have especially on economies which are getting less weather dependent and whether those effects are disastrous. Attempts to discuss these issues are often shouted down rather than rationally discussed. And there are issues within the science. Let me take two.

    First there is the infamous hockeystick controversy about whether current temperatures are unprecedented in the last 600/1000/2000 years, and which was the background to the so-called Climategate email controversy. I defy anybody fairminded to read the two papers by Michael Mann and his co-authors and the criticism (in the peer reviewed literature) by McIntyre and McKitrick and reach any other conclusion than that the Mann work fails to establish that 1998 was the hottest year of the Millenium as he claimed. The whole affair closely parallels that Reinhart/Rogoff piece on debt/GDP ratios. The work just falls apart on closer inspection. The difference in the professional community's reaction to the two cases is striking. Whereas economists generally accepted the critique of Rogoff and Reinhart, the paleotemperature (?) people just came up with more and more bizarre defences of an obviously flawed piece of work, which continues to be used to this day. And shouting replaced rational discussion.
    The second issue relates to the climate models themselves. Their methodology is remarkably similar to the RBC/DSGE models. When I read Paul Romer's remarks about DSGE models reproduced below I was struck by the similarity to climate models.

    "The identification problem means that to get results, an econometrician has to feed in something other than data on the variables in the simultaneous system. I will refer to things that get fed in as facts with unknown truth value (FWUTV)
    to emphasize that although the estimation process treats the FWUTV’s as if they were facts known to be true, the process of estimating the model reveals nothing about the actual truth value. The current practice in DSGE econometrics is to feed
    in some FWUTV’s by "calibrating" the values of some parameters and to feed in others tight Bayesian priors. As Olivier Blanchard (2016) observes with his typical understatement, "in many cases, the justification for the tight prior is weak at best,and what is estimated reflects more the prior of the researcher than the likelihood function.""

    The (again peer-reviewed) work of Nic Lewis on the estimates of climate sensitivity is a clear example of how the "standard" answers depend crucially on the choice of priors. The models don't do well at prediction either, but are the basis for the quantitative assessment of the human contribution to climate change.

    I could add the psychological studies of climate by Lewandowsky et al purporting to show that climate sceptics hold logically inconsistent positions, whose methodology is clearly flawed, as has been pointed out, again in the peer reviewed literature, by Professor Jones of Brasenose. The studies look to me like ad hominem arguments dressed up in the language of science.

    Both media-macro and standard climate catastrophism seem to me to be examples of Galbraith's conventional wisdom. And challenging conventional wisdom is hard.

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  8. In all of history, what news media can you point to that live up to this ideal? Better having a clear bias like Fox or the Mail than pretending your are the arbiter of truthlike the balanced BBC or NYT.

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