Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday, 4 November 2017

The journalist as amateur scientist

Paul Romer has talked about two types of discourse, one political and one scientific. He uses that distinction to critique aspects of current practice among economists. I want to do the same for journalism.

Political discourse involves taking sides, and promoting things that your side favours. It is like a school debate: you consider only evidence that favours the point of view you want to promote. Scientific discourse involves considering each piece of evidence on its merits. You do not aim to promote, but assess and come to a conclusion based on the evidence. That does not prevent the scientist arguing a case, but their argument is based on considering all the relevant evidence. There are no sides that are always right or invariably wrong.

Of course, any scientist makes choices about what evidence is relevant, and this will be influenced by existing theories. Ideally the theory you prefer can be changed by new evidence, but scientists being only humans can sometimes be reluctant to accept evidence that contradicts long held theories. But there are always younger scientists looking for new ideas to make their name. The scientific method works in time, which is why we are where we are today.

My argument is that journalists should be like amateur scientists. Amateur because part of their work will involve seeking out expertise rather than starting from scratch, and they do not have the time or resources to investigate each story as a scientist might. A term frequently used is ‘investigative journalist’, but that normally means someone who has weeks to work on one story. Instead I’m talking about journalists who only have a day. The key point is that they should not search for evidence that fits the story they wanted to write before doing any research, but allow the evidence to shape the story.

For example, suppose the story is about EU immigrants and benefits. What a journalist should note is that unemployment among EU immigrants is lower than natives. What a journalist who wants to write a story that makes immigrants look bad might do is say that the number of EU immigrants without a job make up a city the size of Bristol. This combines selection of evidence (where is the equivalent figure for natives is not reported) with simple deception: most people conflate ‘without a job’ with ‘unemployed’, rather than being people happy looking after children, for example.

If this all strikes you as obvious, at least to journalists working in broadsheet newspapers, the example above is taken from the Telegraph, and the post in which I discuss it contains a tweet from a Times economics editor saying that all journalists (and yours truly) take a stance and select facts that supports this stance.

There is actually a third type of journalism, which you could call acrobatic discourse, because it is always looking for balance. It is sometimes called ‘shape of the earth: sides differ’ journalism. Its merit is that it appears not to take sides, but as this extended name is meant to demonstrate, it is certainly not scientific. It is the kind of journalism that says the claim that £350 million a week goes to Brussels and could be spent on the NHS is ‘contested’, rather than simply untrue. In that sense, it can be uninformative and misleading, whereas scientific reporting is informative and is not misleading. Here is a twitter thread from Eric Umansky on a particularly bad example from the New York Times. Of course acrobatic journalism is easier and keeps the journalist out of trouble.

One of the side effects of acrobatic journalism is that it typically defines the two sides it wishes to balance. It therefore tends to be consensus journalism, where the consensus is defined by the politicians on either side. To see why this is problematic you just need to look at how Brexit is discussed and reported by the BBC since the referendum.

I began writing this post during the debate surrounding Nick Robinson’s Steve Hewlett Memorial Lecture. It is certainly strange for that debate to focus on outfits like The Canary, rather than the elephants in the room that produce political journalism to millions every day, who also tend to criticise the BBC whenever they get the opportunity. Yet the copy from these newspapers, and not The Canary, is regularly discussed by the broadcast media. The emergence of left social media journalism is a result of the consensus defining by-product of acrobatic journalism, which for a year or more defined the other side as the PLP rather than the Labour leadership.

I suspect many journalists would say that my idea of them being an amateur scientist is just impractical in this day and age, when they have so little time and resources. But what I have in mind (journalism as amateur scientists) is not very different from what journalists on the Financial Times do day in and day out. Chris Cook is an example of a journalist working in the broadcast media who does the same. But it is wrong to blame individual journalists for being more acrobatic than scientific, because the institutions they work for often demand it.

Nick Robinson’s lecture is much more nuanced and interesting that the subsequent media discussion would suggest. For example he identifies the problem with the way Facebook selects news that is discussed in more detail by Zeynep Tufekci in this TED talk. But there are two elephants in the room that he fails to discuss: the role of the increasingly politicised right wing press I have already mentioned, and the conflict between scientific and acrobatic journalism, both of which he praises without addressing the conflicts between them. [1]

[1] There is a clear example of this in the comments he recalls making on the Brexit debate just before the vote. He proudly says he called the £350 million claim untrue, but he then adds

“I did, incidentally, also say that the Remain claim that every household in Britain would be £4,300 a year better off was misleading and impossible to verify.”

This is acrobatic journalism at its worse. Yes, the BBC did think the £4,300 figure was ‘misleading’, but only because they did not talk to an economist who would have told you it was not. It shows a failure to be a good amateur scientist. But worse that that, this clumsy attempt at balance puts the central claim of the Remain campaign in the same bracket as £350 million a week lie, which it certainly is not.


  1. Your argument may have merits but it does not sit at all well with your excoriation of the right wing press, or left wing for that matter. To imagine crusader journalists working in the way you imagine for the proprietors of a right wing paper is fantasy.

    It is a rhetorical question as to whether you can get the "truth" within what are, effectively, oligopolistic structures; in my view you are far likelier to get what you want from a proliferation of sources and an encouragement of discussion through the Internet than you are by the means you suggest.

  2. The economist as amateur journalist
    Comment on Simon Wren-Lewis on ‘The journalist as amateur scientist’

    The one question in science is about the truth of a theory, i.e. its material and formal consistency: “In order to tell the politicians and practitioners something about causes and best means, the economist needs the true theory or else he has not much more to offer than educated common sense or his personal opinion.” (Stigum)

    Economists do not have the true theory. They have many opinions but nothing in the way of scientific knowledge. Since the founding fathers, there is political economics and theoretical economics. The main differences are: (i) The goal of political economics is to successfully push an agenda, the goal of theoretical economics is to successfully explain how the actual economy works. (ii) In political economics anything goes; in theoretical economics the scientific standards of material and formal consistency are observed.

    Fact is that the agenda pushers of political economics have captured theoretical economics (= science) from the very beginning with the result that economics has produced nothing of scientific value in the past 200+ years.The four main approaches ― Walrasianism, Keynesianism, Marxianism, Austrianism ― are mutually contradictory, axiomatically false, materially/formally inconsistent, and all got the foundational concept of the subject matter ― profit ― wrong.#1, #2

    Since the founding fathers, economists violate the principle of the separation of science and politics which has been clearly stated by J. S. Mill: “A scientific observer or reasoner, merely as such, is not an adviser for practice. His part is only to show that certain consequences follow from certain causes, and that to obtain certain ends, certain means are the most effectual. Whether the ends themselves are such as ought to be pursued, and if so, in what cases and to how great a length, it is no part of his business as a cultivator of science to decide, and science alone will never qualify him for the decision.”

    Economics is what Feynman famously called a cargo cult science and neither right-wing nor left-wing economic policy guidance ever had sound scientific foundations since the soapbox economists Adam Smith and Karl Marx. At present, neither Krugman nor Wren-Lewis nor Keen nor Varoufakis nor the rest of political loudspeakers, amateur journalists, bloggers, and blatherers can back up their political agenda pushing with a scientifically acceptable economic theory.

    Scientific ethics forbids economists to dabble in politics. This is the one thing. The other thing is that economists have NOTHING of scientific value to add to the discussion and the political process.

    Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

    #1 See cross-references Failed/Fake scientists

    #2 See cross-references Political economics

  3. Projectfearmark1 is in the bin including its estimates. Projectfearmark2 will go the same way: disproved by the history of data. I don't know if you and your fellow economists ever wrote the press to withdraw your letter associated with projectfearmark1. Didn't think so.

    1. Show me which part of the letter is inconsistent with the data. Had you not noticed the current downturn, or falls in real wages?

    2. There has been no recession on vote leave.

    3. You're obviously not reading "amateur scientist" journalism. From your comments I'll wager that you are a reader of the Daily Mail or similar right wing press. Get out of your echo chamber - there is no such thing as "project fear" and the country is clearly taking a downward trend in real wages, income equality, and losing jobs to other parts of the EU.

  4. I think it may be better to follow the money.
    Ask not why a journalist reports the things with the slant they do, but how much copy can they shift?
    Science Boyles down to repeatable observation. And measurements which hold true, in variable conditions. P=IR, for example.
    Economics. hmmm. from a scientific point of view, we still seem to argue about the units of value. Dollars? Bitcoin? Stones of Yap?
    Would a physicist only restrict the parameters? Unlikely.
    Talk to the likes of Steve Keen, quantify and qualify those variables.
    Journalists? How irrelevant?

  5. I agree that journalists ought to involve experts in the public discussion. I would add that experts ought to pay close attention to "outside opinion". Paul Krugman calls this "listening to the Gentiles".

    The philosopher Hilary Putnam observes that facts, values and linguistic conventions are entangled, and so any expert that wants to influence public choice ought to keep an open mind to outside opinion, even if they seem wrong. Outsiders usually find it difficult to express their arguments in terms that are intelligible to experts.

    Once we reach a "rational conclusion" about a matter, it can be very difficult to look at that matter from other perspectives. Our parochialism is hard to overcome. So it is good to pay attention to outside opinion, even if it seems misconceived.

  6. I agree that the media should involve experts in public discussion. I would add that experts ought to pay close attention to "outside opinion", or what Paul Krugman calls "listening to the Gentiles".

    The philosopher Hilary Putnam observed that we typically have a triple entanglement of fact, value and linguistic convention. So any expert contribution to policy matters invariably involve judgements of value and conventionally held categories of thought. "Outside opinion" provides a type of objectivity analogous to the objectivity of empirical evidence.

    Further, psychology teaches us that it is hard to overcome our own parochialism. All the more reason then, to pay close attention to outside opinion. Outsiders (especially non-experts) often find it difficult to articulate their views and arguments in terms that are intelligible to experts. So experts out to be patient. Just saying.

  7. Jimmy Wales at WikiTribune is starting an evidence-based journalism outlet:


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