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Quick Hits: Expertise, Academic Politics, Media, and Sports
A bunch of short-ish responses to recent items
To my very great surprise, all three of The Pip’s baseball games scheduled for this past weekend happened, despite the generally dismal weather. This is a minor problem, because I was figuring on having a couple of extra hours on Saturday and Sunday to get stuff done, and now I’m behind. So this is going to be another hectic week at work, with my writing time being kind of disrupted and disjointed.
That sort of lends itself to the “Quick Hits” format, though, where I touch on a few different items that maybe can’t sustain a full post. This may end up being written in bits around my class and meeting schedule, but that’s OK because that’s the format…
— The first thing I wanted to pick up on was a bit from Timothy Burke’s Substack where he’s reflecting on a TV interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci, where Fauci attributed some of the communications failures of the peak pandemic error to a lack of expertise. Burke spins this out into a lengthy recommendation regarding governance:
It is not that we should demand that technocrats in charge of public policy be multidisciplinary prodigies, it is that they should always be working in teams that are broadly composed across a spectrum of expertise and that everybody in the teams should work towards the level of generalist literacy that lets them understand and appreciate what each member of the team is bringing to the policy-making.
[…]You have an epidemic on your hands? You form an advisory council that has real power to instruct and coordinate all executive agencies and work with legislatures. Who do you put on that council? A minister or priest. An epidemiologist. An anthropologist. A couple of retired politicians from different parts of the country. An economist. A specialist in the particular pathogen that’s involved. Someone from the pharmaceutical industry. A novelist or film-maker. A sociologist who studies networks and behavior transmission. A historian of medicine. A marketing specialist. A moral philosopher. You don’t just make all the rest consultative to the public health specialist, you make them equals at the table. You pick a few people who’ve never dealt with an epidemic and a few who’ve done this before, several times. You pick people from different parts of the country and you pick people who are insiders to power. You balance gender, race, class background.
This is all very much the kind of thing you would expect from an academic historian, and my own status as an academic scientist very strongly colors my response. Which is generally positive, but tempered by, well, by twenty-odd years in academia, dealing with academic politics. That experience makes me a little wary of this sort of plan, as nice as it seems in principle.
My reaction comes in two closely related points, the first of which is that broad consultation with experts is very much a Good Thing, provided that you remember that eventually a decision needs to be made. There is absolutely a tendency in politics for decision-making power to be held too narrowly and exercised too quickly, but at the same time, academic politics has a strong tendency toward the opposite problem, where every problem requiring a policy decision is an opportunity to have a conversation. Or, perhaps, to discuss the possibility of having a conversation about forming a committee to facilitate a dialogue about the deeper questions to be asked regarding the issue at hand. And so on.
When the stakes are low, as they generally are regarding academic politics, this doesn’t really matter, and you can noodle along for years making sure to hear from every conceivable voice. (Only to find, when the time comes for an actual vote, that some person who skipped all the previous meetings and forums and email threads, has Thoughts and is aggrieved that they have not been taken into account. But that’s a different rant…) But there are a lot of situations in which that kind of endlessly discursive process simply can’t work, because some kind of decision is urgently required. So, yes, by all means, consult as wide a range of expertise as you can reasonably bring to bear, but “reasonably” here may come with a time limit.
The other point that comes to mind reading that list of experts (and the equally long list in the paragraph I elided to keep the blockquote short) is that while this is an admirable idea, it also needs to be entered into with the understanding that not everybody will get what they want. The bigger you make your team of experts, the less likely it is that you can achieve any kind of perfect consensus, where everybody is unanimously behind whatever decision is made. Particularly not in finite time. There are too many different interest groups with too many different priorities at work here, and somebody’s going to need to compromise on their primary goal.
I agree that it’s good and admirable to consult the widest possible range of experts, to collect the widest possible range of advice about what to do, so as to make the best decision possible. All too often, though, particularly in academic contexts, the not-so-hidden motive of calls for more and wider consultation is “I want you to keep consulting more people until you are convinced to enact my preferred policy, and then stop.” Decisions that are regarded as unfavorable are the result of insufficient community involvement, but those regarded as favorable are not to be questioned lest the very foundations of shared governance crumble.
I’m not saying that Burke specifically is being disingenuous, here— to the contrary, I’m broadly in agreement with his ideas about how decisions about potential future pandemics and the like ought to be structured. The specific discussion here is hypothetical enough to stick to generalities. But I have seen this kind of thing deployed in bad faith often enough that I am reflexively wary of it as a general matter.
— Speaking of political rituals that I am reflexively wary of, I was listening to the latest episode of the Press Box podcast while walking the dog, and Bryan and David spent a while talking about Joe Biden’s “cheat sheet” at a press conference, where his staff had identified a reporter to call on and a general question topic. They went on for a bit about whether this kind of thing is okay, or undermining the critical media function of holding the powerful to account.
As you might guess given our respective backgrounds, they were much more on the media side of this than I am, seeing the reporters as in pursuit of the truth and interested in getting real, non-scripted answers from the President. They want to see Biden doing more press availability, and taking more questions.
As a non-journalist, I am much more cynical about this whole process. I tend to regard these press events as just another form of the dingbat kabuki that abounds in Washington. Reporters want more press conferences because those are events designed to enhance the prestige and profile of reporters, and holding power to account is a secondary effect at best.
To my mind, there’s no better illustration of this than a regular phenomenon from the Trump years, where a reporter would ask a legitimate question and then be berated by Trump or the asshole-of-the-moment Press Secretary. After which all the reporters would take to Twitter to back up their colleague’s question as perfectly legitimate and important and something that really ought to be asked and answered. But somehow, none of those questions were ever important enough to anybody in the room to ask them again, and actually insist on an answer, instead of asking whatever different question they had scripted for themselves. Which, to my mind, suggests that the primary reason for these events is not to produce actual policy answers from actual politicians, but rather clips of individual reporters asking their own questions and then taking whatever (non-)response they can get.
— On the topic of Washington press conferences, this reminded me of one of my favorite Bill Phillips stories. Bill was my Ph.D. advisor, and I was working in his lab when he shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics. As one of a handful of American laureates that year, and a Federal employee, he was invited down to Capitol Hill to testify before a hearing of some Congressional committee or another.
Since the people in Congress are generally not scientists, the invitation came with a request for folks at NIST to draft a bunch of questions that the committee members could ask so they would seem smart. Bill and various other folks in the lab office spent a while crafting these, which were sent off a day or so ahead of the hearing.
After the hearing— I forget whether it was that afternoon or the next day— Bill came back to the office, and everybody asked him how it went. “It was great!” he said. “They were really engaged, and asked great questions. Including some that I hadn’t written for them!”
Sadly, his bubble was burst when one of the senior staff told him that after he had left to go downtown, they got a panicked call from a committee staffer saying that more members were planning to show up than had been anticipated, and asking for another batch of potential questions. So the good questions that Bill hadn’t scripted had, in fact, been written by somebody else at NIST…
— Speaking of press conferences, The Pip’s favorite NBA player is Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, who were upset by the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs (The Pip was not a happy Little Dude). Afterwards, Antetokounmpo was asked a press-conference question that has proven an endless source of grist for the #content mill:
This was also discussed in the Press Box episode listed above, and written about at some length by Dan Drezner and Ethan Strauss, and yapped about on every sports-radio morning show and NBA podcast. For my money, though, the best response was from Bomani Jones on Twitter:
A lot of the #discourse here was driven by Mavericks owner Mark Cuban calling it a “gotcha” question, but like Jones and everybody else with sense, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the question. Opinion is a little more split on the answer, but I’m very much in the camp that thinks it was great: a good and thoughtful response at an exceedingly difficult time. Were I asked to go on stage immediately after a high-stakes professional disappointment and asked this kind of question, I would struggle to respond with a fraction of the poise and dignity Giannis demonstrated.
That said, there is a very limited sense in which the “gotcha” side has a point. Not about the specific question, but about the entire context of the situation. I think the kerfuffle about this mostly serves to illustrate that these losing-team press conferences are a stupid ritual that serves mostly to burnish the careers of reporters and talk-radio hosts.
Giannis had a nearly impossible needle to thread here. I thought the answer he gave was great and thoughtful, but he’s getting berated by idiots for not making a big show of being more upset about the failure. But it’s not hard to imagine a case where some other player in the same situation came out and said “Hell, yes, it’s a failure, and this is absolutely unacceptable,” only to be the Main Character of several days of arguments over whether he’s throwing his coach or his teammates under the metaphorical bus, and how the whole thing reflects the profoundly toxic competitive culture of sports.
The real lesson here is that the ritual of making players hold press conferences immediately after a season-ending loss has essentially zero upside for the players. There’s just not a lot of room to fit comments in between “too soft” and “too mad,” even if you had time to write it in advance; doing it extemporaneously, in a language that isn’t your native tongue, is incredibly difficult. And any deviation from the incredibly narrow needle-threading path will see every podcast and talk show leading with segments about how you’re reflecting everything wrong with the modern athlete.
The whole thing is stupid and pointless. The only possible winner here is the #content industry.
So, yeah, those are some things. If you like any of this, here’s a button:
If you want to argue with any of my takes, the comments will be open: