Johann Hari: art vs reality
It is a commonplace that so many economists and sociologists are bad writers. The trouble that Johann Hari has gotten into suggests that there might be a reason for this. Let’s be clear here. His crime is a minor (ish) one. Had he cited his lifted quotes along the lines of “as X said elsewhere”, there would be no scandal. As Tim points out, there are worse things he’s done.So, why didn’t he do this? He claims that he preferred “intellectual accuracy” to “reportorial accuracy.” I’m not sure this is the relevant distinction. Instead, the relevant distinction is between a tidy, slightly alternative reality that can be captured by fine writing on the one hand and the messy, ambiguous facts in front of us. Johann was, in effect, choosing the former; had he rightly attributed those quotes his pieces would have been more accurate but less elegant.In this context, I fear Johann was misled by a common cultural meme - the idea that “truth” can be captured by fine writing and by art. This is not wrong in all contexts. Great novels and films - works of fiction - can tell important truths. This meme, though, runs into a problem. Very often, “truth” is messy. People don’t just umm and ahh but say things that are ambiguous, or that don’t truly capture what they really think. And even “hard facts” are subject to multiple interpretations or are only suggestive of some conculsion or other. What do we do in such cases? Johann’s solution was to try to polish the turds of reality to create an elegant “intellectual accuracy“. The alternative was to acknowledge that people are often inarticulate and that their thoughts are scattered. This would have been inelegant, at best and useless at worst: what if he had written up his interview with Toni Negri along the lines: “I didn’t understand a word the guy said”? And this is why so many academics are bad writers. The crooked timber of reality doesn’t fit into the elegant box of fine writing. Something’s got to give. For academics, it’s the writing. For Johann, it was the crooked timber.But Johann’s choice was not an idiosyncratic one, but quite common in journalism.I don’t mean by this outright lies or the harmless removal of umms and aahs from quotes. I’m thinking of two other things.One is the over-confidence of columnists generally. It’s a rare columnist who admits that there is conflicting or ambiguous data.The other is a lack of awareness of statistical inference. How often do you read about confidence intervals or sampling errors even though these are central to any understanding of statistics? What you get in reporting of science and economics is, very often, a neat and tidy but - for that very reason - more or less misleading story.And nor could it be otherwise. A full and accurate story, even if it were possible to write in a few hundred words, would be ugly and inconclusive. Journalism is, by necessity, a simplified, cleansed map of reality. The problem is that we sometimes mistake the map for the terrain.