There’s a really interesting post up by Peter Frase entitled, “The Perils of Wonkery”. He argues that we are relying, perhaps, too much on policy wonks. This comes, of course, from the news about Reinhart and Rogoff’s “errors”. Frase writes:
As we now know, that graph was based on erroneous data marshaled in support of a logically flimsy premise. But while the data errors wouldn’t be revealed for months, not everyone was fooled. Matt Yglesias—a writer often lumped in with wonks like Klein— dismissed the Reinhart-Rogoff paper as “confused correlation-mongering”, on the grounds that the reverse causal story about debt ratios and growth was far more plausible. (Incidentally, the way Yglesias approached Reinhart and Rogoff’s claims demonstrates how poorly he fits the mode of the Ezra Klein-style wonk-journalist. In contrast to the wonky preoccupation with empirical studies and pretty graphs, Yglesias has argued that “evidence is overrated”, and he often offers positions based on his own ideological predilections and reasoning from first principles.)
I felt my hackles rising. I think that arguing from principles and ignoring evidence is sometimes a bad idea. But I read further, and I’m glad I did:
The function of the wonk is to translate the empirical findings of experts for the general public. And he is supposed to be distinguished by an immersion in the details of studies and policy papers. But if the wonk wants to cover a wide range of subjects, they will necessarily have far less expertise than the people whose findings are being conveyed. Hence it becomes necessary to make a concealed argument from authority. When Wonkblog presents the findings of Reinhart and Rogoff without comment, they are implicitly telling us, “trust these people—they’re famous academic economists”. This is because they don’t have the ability to do what people like Paul Krugman did, and actually assess the correctness of the famous economists’ claims.
Performing this con on the public is dangerous enough. But insofar as the wonk gets high on his own supply, and starts to trust the findings of congenial academics without verifying, the temptation to take shortcuts can be overpowering. It’s easy to read the abstract and the conclusion of a paper and trumpet its findings, without looking too closely at whatever equations or models lie in between. This isn’t actually any more hardheaded than relying on one’s feelings, but it’s an appealing way to give one’s prejudices a fact-like veneer.
People often ask me why our blog is so narrowly focused. I could, after all, offer my opinion on so many issues. But I recognize that I have a specific skill set as a pediatrician and health services researcher. I understand medical and health policy research. I get the methods, I know how this works, and I can read and discuss studies in the area about as well as anyone. That’s where my expertise ends, though
When I read news in other areas, be it housing regulations, tax policy, or even non-health-related economic issues, I have to rely on others to translate for me. The original studies are sometimes above my understanding. There are a number I people I trust to give me the take-home points. But when it comes to translating medical and health literature, I don’t need (or necessarily trust) journalists. I can read the source material myself. I do, and I try to offer you my best opinion on it here.
I am sometimes frustrated by what I see on cable news. Hosts will often turn to the same pundits to talk about all aspects of policy, regardless of its focus. I should never be booked to talk about the military, or about education reform, or about the space program. But if you’re going to talk about Medicaid, Medicare, or the ACA? Then I could very well be your guy. That’s not how the punditocracy works. You can just pick one and have him or her talk about anything. That’s problematic:
As the policy wonk has risen in prestige, we seem to have reached the point where this entire class of commentators is highly susceptible to what I’ll call “Charlie Rose disease”. It’s a malady named for the host of the eponymous TV show, who has always impressed me with his ability to convey an impression of knowledge and gravitas to his viewer. If you watch his show and actually listen to him talk, you’ll quickly notice that Rose is a shallow thinker even by television standards, and generally quite ignorant about the things he interviews people about. But everything about him—from his face to his cadence to his posture to his austere black-background set to having his show on public television—works together to produce the image of intellectual seriousness, even more than for most TV news hosts.
And so it is with the wonk—he needs to appear to be deeply knowledgeable about a wide range of obscure and technical subjects. But this entails concealing both one’s ideological biases and one’s substantive lack of knowledge, and relying on the borrowed prestige of academics and experts. In doing so, the wonk becomes the conduit for the experts, or more exactly a crucial means by which their authority is reproduced. The wonk takes the expert’s pronouncements at face value because they are serious, mainstream figures, and the fact that journalists do this reinforces their seriousness and mainstream-ness.
Like Austin, my primary goal is not to become famous or become a pundit. It’s to deliver you the best, evidence based information on health and health policy that I can. I’m comfortable in that area. I don’t claim to be infallible, but I think I’m pretty qualified, and I have an enormous track record on this blog by which you can judge my credibility.
This is where TIE chooses to play. It’s where we shine. And I think that we all might be better served if more wonks chose to narrow their focus towards the areas in which they are specifically knowledgeable.