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21.9.03

Scientists turned pundits

I'm writing a personal statement for an application for an NSF grant, in which I talk about my commentaries and blogging as an important adjunct to my academic pursuits (communicating with the public and so forth). I took a break to surf the web, and I happened to run across an apropos post by Brian Leiter. He's complaining about how nearly all pundits are former journalists:

Why not former scientists? sociologists? psychologists? philosophers? even political scientists? Who--other than journalists, that is--would think years of being a journalist qualifies you to have substantial opinions about the affairs of the world?


This phenomenon is part of what made me hesitant to pursue journalism. What I really want to do is punditry (and layout), but I wasn't sure I was prepared to pay my dues as a reporter for years before I could get the promotion (if I even did get it, since I'm not that great a reporter). I can understand the requirement if you see it as a choice between reporters-turned-pundits and rookies-turned-pundits. Longtime reporters presumably have more experience in the worlds they're writing about, which they can draw on as a sort of expertise in commenting. As bad as Tom Friedman is, I imagine the opinions he would have written before spending years as a Middle East correspondent would be worse. So in this respect, it's just an issue of narrow horizons.

The other thing that reporting experience gets you, which other sources of expertise don't, is writing skills -- specifically, "writing so that normal people can read it" skills. The badness of academic writing can certainly be overestimated, especially when academics write outside the confines of academic formats (see, for example, the guys at Crooked Timber), but I've edited enough faculty opinion columns to know some of them should stick to Journal of Climate. Between the myth and the reality of poor academic writing, editors probably figure that their best bet is people whose ability to write a pithy 700 words is proven.

Nevertheless, Brian is right that the public debate would benefit from more people with other relevant experience (not necessarily limited to academic expertise) being given a forum for punditry. Perhaps we can hope that the success of scholar-blogs will lead to more people following in Matthew Yglesias's footsteps from blogosphere to dead-trees-sphere. Academia would benefit as well. This is perhaps less true for, say, theoretical physics, but in disciplines such as risk/hazards, the days of top-down expert management are over. And the days of communicating to the public and gaining their consent are hopefully ending. It's necessary today for researchers to be engaged with non-specialists as a leader among equals, learning as much from lay people as they learn from the scientist. This kind of participatory research has been implemented widely in the data-gathering stage. But it ought to go further, with public engagement a constant responsibility of a good researcher. And one way to do that is to be a pundit.

So my final response to Leiter would be: what do you mean former scientists? We need current scientists in the ranks of the pundits.

UPDATE: A further factor is the question of how many scientists want to be pundits. Unfortunately, non-academic writing does little for you professionally if you're an academic, so there's motivation not to get involved in inefficient commitments. If I was a better journalist or scientist, I'd probably call up some editors and find out how they go about searching for and selecting new pundits, so that I'd have actual data.

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