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The Public and Its Pundits

Antonio Lambino's picture

The public needs its pundits.  Those with expertise on various topics, ranging from financial derivates to pop psychology, serve as “opinion leaders” on the important and not-so-important issues of the day.  From personal experience -- talking to family, friends, and colleagues -- I notice that we tend to repeat what we hear from them on various topics, whether consciously or not. 

We know from applied communication research that, over time, people tend to retain bits and pieces of information while forgetting their sources.  How many times have we made authoritative statements and when asked where we got the information, say something like “I don’t remember from where exactly but I’m pretty sure that… “  This is normal because we can’t be expected to keep track of each and every information source.  And we can’t be expected to come up with our own erudite analysis of each and every public issue either.  Hence, we need pundits.  But we should also keep in mind that not all of these experts on all things public are created equal.  We could very well be mouthing off as hard fact something a pundit shared as her or his own misinformed opinion. 

For meaningful public debate and deliberation to diffuse, from pundit to public, these experts must be supported strategically.   They need access to sources of evidenced-based policy relevant research on issues of public concern.  As Prof. Graham Allison (2006), former dean of the Harvard Kennedy School argues, there is a need for “centers of competence in public policy research and analysis… (or) ‘problem-solving research centers.’”  While some of these centers are housed in schools of public policy and public affairs, others take the form of stand-alone “think tanks”, which are commonplace in the rich countries of the West.
 

It is heartening to note that this kind of work is being supported in developing countries.  The Think Tank Initiative, supported by the Hewlett and Gates Foundations and the International Development Research Center, is “dedicated to strengthening independent policy research institutions… in developing countries, enabling them to better provide sound research that both informs and influences policy.”   According to their website, the initiative supports 24 think tanks in 11 African countries and, only last July, issued a call to expand support to Latin America and South Asia. 

Thinking about the Think Tank Initiative reminded me of an op-ed piece I had previously come across entitled “Learning How to Think” by Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times pundit.  In the article, he relates a somewhat startling finding: “… a president who goes on television to make a case moves public opinion only negligibly, by less than a percentage point.  But experts who are trotted out on television can move public opinion by more than 3 percentage points, because they seem to be reliable or impartial authorities.”  Of course, the president, speaking from the “bully pulpit,” has the power to set the agenda.  These pundits or experts often react to what the president and other political elites say.  However, while the latter have the authority to say, the former have the power to sway.  So what’s the overall record of these influential experts?  Citing research done by Philip Tetlock, Professor of Leadership at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, Kristof reports that

“… based on two decades of tracking some 82,000 predictions by 284 experts…  experts’ forecasts were tracked both in the subjects of their specialties and on subjects that they knew little about.  The result?  The predictions of experts were, on average, only a tiny bit better than random guesses… ‘It made virtually no difference whether participants had doctorates, whether they were economists, political scientists, journalists or historians, whether they had policy experience or access to classified information, or whether they had logged many or a few years of experience.’”

What spells the difference?  F-a-m-e!  Why?  Because journalists in U.S.-style media environments , perhaps driven by a certain set of “news values,”  repeatedly feature experts who present issues in black or white.  In contrast, less famous pundits tend to be “more cautious, more centrist, more pragmatic, more prone to self doubt, more inclined to see complexity and nuance.”  The bottom line: the more circumspect get it right more often in both their own areas of expertise and on subjects they know less about.

“The marketplace of ideas”, continues Kristof, “doesn’t clear out bad pundits and bad ideas partly because there’s no accountability.”  Therefore, the solution offered in the article is the creation of a monitoring and evaluation system for punditry, in order to instill accountability.  I think this might help, but is only part of the solution.  For meaningful public debate and deliberation to be sustainable, the more circumspect among the experts must be supported strategically.  Since the public needs its pundits, I hope that centers of competence, such as the think tanks mentioned above, make sure to share their findings with those who are called on to opine on the public’s behalf.

Photo credit: Flickr user petesimon