So maybe this is a proposal for a new genre of article. 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. Slightly more beguiling is the debate format, where representatives of contrasting positions do battle, and leave it to the reader to decide—with the implicaiton that the reader is now somehow in a position to do so.Quoting Julian's piece almost seems against its spirit, so go read the whole thing.
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.”
06 June, 2009
posted by spencer at 10:44 PM