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June 5, 2009

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Time to Write a Few Prob-Eds

Julian Sanchez, “The Perils of Pop Philosophy”:

The function of the ordinary pop-science/social science/philosophy piece is to give the reader a sort of thumbnail-sketch of the findings or results of a particular sphere of study, while op-eds and radio talkers make the thumbnail case for a policy position. The latter are routinely criticised for their shrill content, but the really toxic message of contemporary opinion writing and radio is the meta-message, the implicit message contained in the form, more than any particular substantive claim. In an ordinary op-ed, the formal message is that 800 or 1000 words is adequate to establish the correct position on any question of interest…

What might be more helpful, at least in some instances, is an article that spends the same amount of space setting up the problem, and getting across exactly why it’s so difficult for brilliant and highly educated people to agree on an answer—especially when many people outside the field tend to have an opinion one way or another, and believe that they’re justified in holding it with some confidence. Not just a clash between two confident but opposed views—we get plenty of that all the time, and it’s part of the problem—but an examination (assuming good faith) of what’s keeping these smart jousters from reaching consensus. Not “the case for policy A” vs “the case for policy B” but “the epistemic problems that make it hard to choose between A and B,” as though (I know, it’s crazy) the search for truth were more than a punch-up between mutually exclusive, preestablished conclusions. The message is not (to coin a phrase) “we report, you decide” but “we report on why you’re not actually competent to decide, unless you’re prepared to devote a hell of a lot more time, energy, and thought to it.”

Sanchez adds that “these would, of course, tend to be incredibly frustrating articles, and given that journalism’s already on the skids, perhaps this isn’t the time to be proposing that publications deliberately frustrate their audiences.” Maybe. But referencing Sanchez’s earlier essay on the problem of one-way hashes, articles that clearly map out a problem and give you the vocabulary and background you need to understand it definitely serve a purpose; sometimes readers are shopping for opinions, but equally often they’re rummaging for language itself - definitions, analogies, anecdotes. Maybe this could be a way to solve our problem of the arcane economist?

Also, do you know who’s really good at doing this already? Doctors. Medical advertising and some reporting often peddle newfangled and overhyped solutions, but I think doctors and medical researchers are actually very good at “state-of-the-field” reporting.

This touches on an idea I’ve been kicking around for a while — doing a Radio Lab-style podcast or report on current research in the humanities and social sciences. Basically you’d read a bunch of journals, newspapers, and blogs, interview people, and put together a 45-minute program. I would LOVE for a Jad Abumrad-esque figure to take a half an hour to explain what’s important about, I don’t know — disability studies, or new digital archives, or theories of affect, or Giorgio Agamben.

Yes, I know a sociologist would come up with a completely different list of things to care about. But science, medicine, and technology are getting all the love, and we’ve got to start SOMEwhere. So think about it — what kind of brainy cultural movements or ideas have you encountered kicking around lately that you might want to take for a quick foundation course?

Posted June 5, 2009 at 7:54 | Comments (4) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Journalism, Learnin', Radio


"This touches on an idea I've been kicking around for a while -- doing a Radio Lab-style podcast or report on current research in the humanities and social sciences."

Do it!

(Except... don't make it 45 mins. Or, at least make it "chunky" so I can listen to parts of it at a time.)

I know - but what to do it ON? Where does my knowledge (and urge to know more) overlap with the public's need to know?

Ha ha, where DOESN'T it?

I wouldn't apply too strong a filter to start. Probably more important to just take some kernel of curiosity and run with it -- produce something short, maybe in the 5 minute range. Easy to scale up (and focus in) from there. You need to do an alpha version!

You should go for it. The beauty of a program like Radio Lab is its breadth. If one episode doesn't grab you, I bet the next one will. For the listener, its all about becoming a generally better informed person. People already know where to go for specialized knowledge in their fields.

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