Monday, March 7, 2011

One Step Beyond

I'm supposed to be writing a piece about political scientists and how they can get their research findings into the political conversation (yes, Ray, I'm working on it), and I came across a wonderful example of why (alas) many experts, including political scientists don't even try. The culprit? Howard Kurtz (via Kaus).

Kurtz actually had a good idea: he realized that the press has a heavy bias towards visible conflict, and what that means is that there was likely to be plenty of hype about a budget shutdown whether or not such an event was likely. If he had said that, he might have written an excellent column. Instead, however, he went over the top:
Not a chance. There was never going to be a shutdown. This was a classic media-generated story, based more on political posturing and a thirst for melodrama than any real evidence that federal agencies would be forced to close their doors.
Now, how does Kurtz know that a shutdown wasn't -- and isn't -- a real possibility? Well, that's where things get peculiar. Because Kurtz..well, he just knows it. But that's not all. He consults two experts, the political scientists Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein. Who both tell him that, actually, a shutdown is very likely. In Ornstein's words, "I think there will be a shutdown before we're done with this."

But since Kurtz knows that it's just a "media-generated story," he shrugs off his two experts and goes back to quoting various reporters unreasonably hyping the coming shutdown. No, there are no competing experts, or even participants, cited in the story. About the best he has is that John Boehner has said he doesn't want a shutdown...but as Ornstein says, again in the very same story, there's good reason to expect Boehner to say that even if he's on a collision course.

Political scientists, in my experience, are frustrated when reporters call them up and try to get them to say something that the reporter wants them to say, instead of listening to what they actually know. I suspect that this is true of experts in general; reporters often don't try to learn from them, but just to use them to give their ideas a little more heft.

This takes it one step beyond: Kurtz just ignores what actual experts are telling him. It's as if he's decided that his opinion must be supported by two experts in order for it to be valid...but it's just having two experts quoted, regardless of whether they agree with him or not. Just breathtaking, really.

Fortunately, things are improving, as a Monkey Cage post earlier today makes clear. Certainly, my experience is that newfangled bloggers, from Ezra Klein to Matt Yglesias to Andrew Sullivan and on and on, are a whole lot more likely to use experts to learn from -- and that when they disagree, they're more likely to argue back than to ignore (after all, credentialed experts can be wrong!). But I certainly can understand why a lot of political scientists are used to assuming that the press has no use for what they know.

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