The media use City economists [rather than academics] because they are used to telling stories. Stories that will impress clients with lots of money to invest. As I’m sure Chris Dillow has written, people are swayed by confidence, even if that confidence is completely unfounded. Put a climate scientist, who being a scientist knows about all their doubts and uncertainties and is honest about them, in a debate with a media savvy climate change denier, and you will see that many will find the climate denier more convincing.So the fact that the media gets City economists to tell their stories day in and day out tells us something interesting about the media. They seem quite happy to allow people to tell stories as fact, because it appears that they are asking an expert who ‘knows’. Now I’m sure the response would be by both the media and the City economist that of course everyone really understands that these are stories and not knowledge, and they are worth repeating because they are plausible stories. They could be true, but everyone really knows they are just conjectures based on little solid evidence.But does everyone really know this? I’m sure the City economist knows this. I’m less sure about the audience, and even sometimes about the person interviewing the economist. This is a game of pretend that has been going on for so long that what is pretend has become real. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to insist on these City economists prefacing everything they say by ‘Of course we do not know, but my hunch is that …’ Isn’t it better to properly inform viewers of what is going on here, even if it does become a little repetitive? Or is informing the viewer not what this is about? And does this constant repetition of false certainty not have something to do with how City economists can be regarded by some policymakers as high priests to the fickle god of the market.It was interesting that some of the reaction I got to Saturday’s post was ‘why don’t forecasters tell people about these uncertainties’. Why are they not more modest? But the better ones are, and any academic who knows about macro forecasting will tell you how uncertain unconditional forecasting is. The fact that this knowledge is not reflected in how the media (or politicians) talk about them has everything to do with the media (and politicians). It suits most of the media (not all) to exaggerate the certainty, and then to express shock/horror when forecasts are wrong. And in a way it is a perfect example about the dangers of treating the media as just a harmless purveyor of news: you end up blaming the forecasters for something which is not their doing.
An interesting observation about a side effect of an apparently innocuous media habit.