A Conversation

by Henry Farrell on January 3, 2013 · 3 comments

in Political Science and Journalism

This, between Brendan Nyhan and Politico reporter Alex Burns is worth reading as another chapter in the vexed relationship between political science and horserace journalism. The underlying disagreement here is over which kinds of knowledge count. On the one hand, Burns suggests that the collective wisdom among well-connected DC politicians is strong evidence of what is actually true in national politics. On the other, Nyhan wants polling data or similar. What’s interesting is that this conversation wouldn’t have been likely to have happened a few years ago. Someone in Burns’ position would not have felt obliged to defend their form of specialized knowledge a few years ago, because it would have seemed self-evidently unassailable. The rise of an alternative set of norms about which knowledge is appropriate to settling this kind of dispute, appealing to very different kinds of evidence is an important sociological change in journalism (which has perhaps been pushed on a little by blogs like ours, but which is probably more directly driven by an increased willingness of prominent journalists to engage directly with data, efforts to figure out which causal relationships are plausible, which implausible and so on).

[updated to bring the underlying argument out better]

{ 3 comments }

RobC January 3, 2013 at 2:16 pm

At one point Burns tweets, “In my experience, you make up your mind before you start asking questions.” Rarely have I seen a more concise description of how journalists operate.

Kevin Hill January 4, 2013 at 12:33 pm

Horse/Buggy…. meet car.

Paul G. January 4, 2013 at 2:11 pm

I think the exchange reveals more about the limitations of Twitter as a venue to carry on a meaningful conversation. In my view they are arguing past one another.

I don’t know Burns but I do know Nyhan, and I don’t think Henry’s description is fully accurate.

Brendan argues that no one (outside Nebraska) will remember a particularly messy process. Burns allows this but says that process does matter because Washington observers remember, and then run campaigns and write stories focusing on messy process.

Nyhan counters that bills always are messy. Wants polls after a messy process to see if the mess impacted voter perceptions.

Burns doesn’t say polls would be meaningless. Nyhan doesn’t say that Washington observers are meaningless (only that he wants more than anecdotes).

The lesson learned is that this kind of discussion isn’t going to be productively carried out in 140 character pieces.

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