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February 22, 2007

Why Punditry Sucks in 96

This is nothing personal to Jonah, but why is he going on NPR today to talk about global warming? Does he actually, uh, know anything about global warming? Forget whether his opinion on it is accurate, given the universe of possible participants in a debate about climatological science, a generalist political journalist from The National Review doesn't sound like the most enlightening choice. Indeed, I shouldn't be on talking about global warming either. Not only haven't I read, but I can't even understand, most of the scientific literature on the issue. NPR's listeners deserve better.

This is, in fact, a pretty generalized problem. I was on CNBC recently talking about the President's health care proposals, and not only did the host have no clue what she was talking about, but the generic political consultant I was matched against was similarly out of his element. The difference between a standard deduction and a tax credit seemed totally misunderstood, and no one had any clue what reform plans were floating around Congress. It was embarrassing. There's no way the audience was elevated by that discussion. And yet, these shows can attract experts. And they can choose journalists, non-profiteers, and others who focus in the relevant issue area. But all too often, they just choose...anybody. Balance overwhelms expertise, media skills -- a function of being repeatedly broadcast on the media -- trump analytical ones. It's a shame.

February 22, 2007 | Permalink


Does he actually, uh, know anything about global warming?

From Jonah's own words at the beginning of most of his blog posts, he knows very little about whatever subject you choose to discuss.

Posted by: Stephen | Feb 22, 2007 12:02:52 PM

This seems to be too easy on Jonah and NPR's choice to interview him. It's not just that he is the run-of-the-mill uninformed pundit: he actively denies global warming, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. A guy who says Gore is inciting a "green scare about global warming intended to terrify Americans into submitting to his environmental policies" is beyond uninformed, and is worse than a ditzy CNBC anchor - he's a deliberate partisan hack.

Posted by: A | Feb 22, 2007 12:15:12 PM

Experts are boring. All those "facts." Who can keep up?

Posted by: Ankush | Feb 22, 2007 12:18:17 PM

Just shows how successful they've been at Working the Refs -- all the media now must have a right-wingnut presenting their "facts."

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 | Feb 22, 2007 12:18:28 PM

Props for the title.

As for the point, you're 100% right. If you go read NRO's Planet Gore, the content is downright embarrassing. For instance, in this post Iain Murray argues that offsetting gasoline taxes with lower taxes elsewhere will leave just as much money available to drive, so it's not going to have the desired effect. This is obviously dumb, in that if people can find a better way to accomplish their objectives than driving, that's what they'll do since they want to save money. How any NR free-market fetishist can miss this is beyond me.

I realize this is a non-scientific post I'm critiquing, but trust me, none of it's any better. These people don't know of which they speak, but they get to comment on it. Fair enough at NRO, I guess, but it's not helpful to use uninformed comment to educate the rest of the world.

Posted by: jhupp | Feb 22, 2007 12:19:11 PM

So true. I think science journalism in general is very vulnerable to this. I only say this because one day, I asked a journalist if I should use my physics degree to become a science writer. Her reply was, "Well, are you bad at physics or something?" In this vein, I've been getting the distinct impression that the people who write professionally about science are either totally uninformed journalists or one-time science majors who at some point in their careers couldn't quite cut it actually doing science. And so, the most qualified people interpreting science for the masses are people who discovered one day that they were unable to interpret it for themselves. On this topic, I give you Jennifer Oulette (who I actually love, despite all the things I just said): http://twistedphysics.typepad.com/cocktail_party_physics/2006/09/the_write_stuff.html .

Posted by: Katy Huff | Feb 22, 2007 12:21:22 PM

Ditto jhupp. "It's the money...."

Posted by: Jack Roy | Feb 22, 2007 12:36:16 PM

There are wrestlers -- college, Olympic, sumo -- who are better athletes that those you see wrestling on TV, but then, if they were the ones wrestling, it wouldn't be 'wrestling'.

Policy:talk shows::Wrestling:'wrestling'.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Feb 22, 2007 12:45:30 PM

This is just the latest example of NPRs quick slide to foxdom. At one time the idea that they would entertain someone such as doughbob on any subject, much less global warming would have been unthinkable. Now, with their hard right turn in full progress mr. loadpants is not only a "regular contributor" (read: paid hack) but he's weighing in on subjects he knows nothing about.

Heckuva job NPR!

Now when is that next pledge drive?

Posted by: ice weasel | Feb 22, 2007 1:05:39 PM

DJ Shadow!

Posted by: Kelly | Feb 22, 2007 1:29:10 PM

I'd sure like some Seymour Hersh-type investigative journalism on how the producers/schedulers for tv/radio/cable make their choices for guests. What are the influences and how do decisions get made?

When you see the Sunday blather line-up on cable, week after week, loaded with conservative/GOP wankers and almost no representation for effective spokespeople for the Dems/Liberals/Progressives, one wonders who is really calling the shots. Who are these faceless 'deciders' that determine what we see and hear?

It seems at times as if there really is a vast right-wing conspiracy wired together and taking orders from somewhere - although I doubt it is that simple. But it can't be accidental either.

Solving this riddle, and doing something to counter it, seems like a high priority progressive objective. After 30 years of this, we should not just lament the stupid one-sidedness, but have a plan to change it.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Feb 22, 2007 1:32:26 PM

My guess it's easier, both from a logistics standpoint and from a cost standpoint, to attract people like you, whether or not they know anything.

Posted by: Brian | Feb 22, 2007 1:32:51 PM

To be fair, Ezra, there are those of us who think the same thing about you... given the backgrounds and experience of true health care policy experts, exactly what would your qualifications be? Recent grad who studied health care and writes interesting blog posts? Any actual experience in the health care system (provider, payer, supplier)?

Posted by: Paulie | Feb 22, 2007 1:46:35 PM

A lot of silly comments here. It doesn't make much sense to criticize Jonah and NPR about his lack of expertise in climate science before you even know what he'll be talking about. It appears from the promos that it will be not about the science of climate change but the broad economics involved in the proposed ways of addressing it. Not the same thing.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 22, 2007 1:46:42 PM

it's called infotainment. and sanpete, actually exactly how does one discuss the economics without understanding the science so that one can know if the economics will solve the underlying problems presented by the science? that's a neat trick to say the least.

Posted by: akaison | Feb 22, 2007 2:06:11 PM

One could certainly say the same about me. And in the end, it's a judgment call. But just as Jonah really does know a lot about, say, Rawls and Hayek, even while he isn't a philosophy professor, I actually do spend my days reporting on health politics and reading through the academic literature. So there's some added value over, say, the median American. What neither of us do is study climate change in a dedicated or serious way.

Posted by: Ezra | Feb 22, 2007 2:09:06 PM

Hooray for the title! (I mentioned it recently too!)

Posted by: Ben | Feb 22, 2007 2:12:27 PM

A lot of silly comments here. It doesn't make much sense to criticize Jonah and NPR about his lack of expertise in climate science before you even know what he'll be talking about. It appears from the promos that it will be not about the science of climate change but the broad economics involved in the proposed ways of addressing it. Not the same thing.
Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 22, 2007 10:46:42 AM

I've just had this program on, in the car and now in the office, and I can say without doubt that Jonah has no fucking idea what the hell he is talking about.
The callers are letting him have it, and he isn't doing too well.

Posted by: sprocket | Feb 22, 2007 2:31:02 PM

Heckuva job NPR!

Now when is that next pledge drive?

When our local Nice Polite Republicans called me recently, I pledged a portion of their recommended annual family membership equivalent to the fraction of their broadcast day that is not spent on national news, chat, and commentary, and told the nice lady on the phone why I was reducing my total.

I doubt it did any actual good, but it made me feel better....

Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Feb 22, 2007 2:31:41 PM

My favorite quote from Jonah on the program so far is, "in MY mind there is no such thing as a 100 year problem."
This was how he responded to a comprehensive study that projects temperature changes on the planet for the next hundred years.

Posted by: sprocket | Feb 22, 2007 2:36:42 PM

Akaison, it would easy enough for you to just listen and find out. It's streamed online. Jonah argues that even if you accept the current scientific consensus, the costs of preventing global warming by the means currently contemplated will far, far exceed the benefits, especially when opportunity costs are considered. I think he has a strong point to consider there, whether he's ultimately right or wrong, and that he also raises some related points that bear examination.

Sprocket, you're not listening to same program I am.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 22, 2007 2:38:31 PM

So there's some added value over, say, the median American.

Agreed, you clearly do. However, I'd suggest that, in all honesty, the standard for topic expert in the news should be higher than that. The policy experts and academics you cover should be the ones playing that role, not the journalist covering them. In the world of 30-second sound-bites, the standard has deteriorated to the point that getting someone (such as yourself) that understands the issues is considered a success, rather than someone who also has the breadth/depth of knowledge and experience to provide the most informed perspective.

I just think you should acknowledge that the same lowering of standards you griped about have given you the opportunities you currently have-- in the past, you'd have to do a little more in your own career before being considered a health care expert.

Just my 2c.

Posted by: Paulie | Feb 22, 2007 2:45:06 PM


iceweasel, can I get those at Krispy Kreme?

Posted by: CParis | Feb 22, 2007 2:45:20 PM

My favorite quote from Jonah on the program so far is, "in MY mind there is no such thing as a 100 year problem."

And what did he mean by that, sprocket?

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 22, 2007 2:54:43 PM

Scientists bear some of the blame for being passed over by the likes of NPR, because of their general disdain to talk with an audience of ordinary people and, more importantly, their lack of verbal communication skills makes them unattractive as guests on talk shows. Frankly, I haven't got a problem with that because being a talking head isn't a scientist's calling anyway. I do have a problem with journalists who seem to think that only failed scientists can do science journalism. Chris Mooney is a good example of someone who is a writer/journalist who works hard to understand the basics of a variety of complex subjects and is able to communicate well to an audience about them. Of course there are bigger bucks being able to turn a catty phrase ala Maureen Dowd than there are in being able to make enlightening statements to laypersons about science, because more people are interested in catty phrases than they are in learning something.

Posted by: al-Anon | Feb 22, 2007 2:55:55 PM

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