Thursday, 20 October 2011

Economics gets misunderstood by journalists ... and everybody else

At the Stumbling and Mumbling blog Chris Dillow writes on why economics is misunderstood by journalists. He says, with regard to a radio interview involving economist Patrick Minford,
That interview with Minford highlights three (of many?) reasons for this:
1. Time pressure. Interviewees typically have only a few seconds to state their position. But it takes longer to explain statistical results. The typical item on More or Less, a programme that does explain statistics, lasts longer (I suspect) than interviews or news items in lesser programmes.
2. The adversarial mode encourages binary yes/no thinking. Minford’s views are juxtaposed against those of John Gieve. This encourages the impression that either one or the other is right, or that economists don‘t really know what they‘re talking about. But I suspect if Gieve and Minford were to talk away from the mic, they would exchange empirical evidence about the scale of the competing costs.
3. Incentives. Even in a radio studio, no-one has an incentive to proportion their beliefs to the evidence; it makes for bad (that is, dull but truthful) radio. And this is - of course - still more true in politics; those campaigning for, say, easier planning laws have incentives to overstate their case.
In these ways, even apparently “neutral” media serve a pernicious function. They perpetuate bad thinking and (what might or might not be the same thing) a misunderstanding of economics.
Another reason, which I would argue is relevant for New Zealand at least, is that journalists simply don't understand economics well enough themselves to be able to explain it to the general public. Journalists spread misunderstandings simply because they don't realise they are misunderstandings.

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