Monday, September 18, 2017

Even by Stephens' standards, this is bad advice.

Sorry about not getting around to this piece earlier (so much stupid, so little time), but fortunately there's a timeless awfulness to Bret Stephens' “Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers.” It's a genre that brings out the pretentious, the banal and the clich├ęd in even the best writers. With a hack like Stephens, you're pretty much guaranteed material for your next what-not-to-do chapter. The man does not disappoint… No, that doesn't sound right. He leaves potential critics with an embarrassment of riches…  No, that's not right either. Let's just say he's consistent.

While there is much to mock here, one piece of advice is not just bad and hackneyed; it's out-and-out dangerous.
4) Authority matters. Readers will look to authors who have standing, either because they have expertise in their field or unique experience of a subject. If you can offer neither on a given topic you should not write about it, however passionate your views may be. Opinion editors are often keen on writers who can provide standing-with-surprise: the well-known environmentalist who supports nuclear power; the right-wing politician who favors transgender rights; the African-American scholar who opposes affirmative action.


Putting aside the potential pitfalls of arguing from authority and ignoring the fact that Stephens' entire career has been based on getting people to print his passionate views on topics where he has no appreciable expertise, relevant experience, or discernible understanding, let's focus on the second half of the paragraph. (We'll also skip the rather curious notion that a pro-nuclear environmentalist would be that difficult to find. Coal would have been the more appropriate choice.)

The standing-with-surprise standard is virtually guaranteed to mislead readers, often on matters of vital importance. There is no concept more essential to coverage of complex issues than context and particularly consensus. There are also few concepts that journalists screw up so frequently or so badly.

Invariably, the standing-with-surprise story distorts the perceived consensus. Even the most decisively settled scientific question can be depicted as a matter of ongoing debate. What's worse, by favoring the man-bites-dog stories, editors encourage journalists to further play up the counterintuitive aspects by stretching what qualifies as relevant expertise or by taking relatively noncommittal statements and framing them as challenges to the establishment view.

This technique is also particularly useful for getting he said/she said quotes to spice up an article. A typical example reads something like this: "Climate scientists tell us that we are approaching dangerous thresholds in global warming. Others, however, are not so certain. Physicist [just make up a name] of [prestigious university] says that models of complex systems based on observational data always have a potential for error."

Bret Stephens has, of course, gotten where he is today by misinforming readers along these very lines. We probably shouldn't be surprised that he considers the practice a rule of good journalism. That doesn't mean we should let him get away with it.

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