Undercover Economist

Qualifications that still count

The Guardian’s highly respected “Bad Science” columnist, Ben Goldacre, is a doctor and a medical researcher. But The Guardian’s highly respected economics editor, Larry Elliott, has a degree in history. What does this tell us about the state of economics journalism – or about the state of economics?

Elliott is not alone in writing about economics without the obvious academic qualification. The Guardian’s economics leader writer, Aditya Chakrabortty, also has a degree in history. James Surowiecki of The New Yorker has a degree in history too, and studied for some time for a PhD. David Leonhardt, economics columnist at The New York Times, breaks the pattern: his degree is in mathematics. (His Nobel-garlanded colleague Paul Krugman has a greater claim to academic excellence in economics.)

Some financial journalists do have obviously relevant qualifications. Greg Ip of The Economist has a degree in economics and journalism; Neil Irwin of the Washington Post has an MBA. Stephanie Flanders and Evan Davis of the BBC both worked for the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The Financial Times practically has an economics faculty (I have a master’s degree in the dismal science).

Perhaps such educations are a disadvantage. When I had the temerity to raise the subject on Twitter, many replies claimed that formal training in economics was simply brainwashing us into docility. According to this view, the perfect economics commentator should have been carefully protected from academic economics until old enough to see through the nonsense. One celebrated economics columnist told me, off the record, that he sympathised with this view. Larry Elliott was kind enough to dismiss it out of hand. “It would be stretching the point a bit to say an economics degree is an impediment to writing about economics,” he said.

That seems like good sense, but the fact that anyone thinks otherwise should make economists nervous about the sudden diminution in status of their subject. Science journalism provides an interesting contrast: while there are some respected science journalists who lack science degrees, few people would regard that lack as a badge of honour.

Perhaps good journalism has nothing to do with formal academic achievement. “The thing that divides people is not background knowledge, it’s motivation,” says Ben Goldacre. Academic experience can be helpful in reporting a subject, he argues, but if reporters can be bothered to think and do their homework, they’ll do a good job. If not, they won’t.

The challenge for economics journalism, then, is not to send the top journalists back to school for reprogramming; it is to raise the basic economic literacy of generalist reporters who don’t ask the right follow-up question of a politician who spouts some absurdity, or who swallow and regurgitate a dubious press release without carefully chewing over the contents.

“The level of ignorance in the press corps about economics is just enormous,” says Gabriel Kahn, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California and former Wall Street Journal bureau chief. David Leonhardt goes further: “We need more numerate journalists,” he told me, in an e-mail, “people who aren’t afraid of numbers but who understand their factual power.”

As for the reputation of academic economics, the pendulum swings back and forth. At the height of the Freakonomics boom, merely being an economist conveyed an air of genius, and newspapers were hungry for new tales of economic derring-do. Today, the working assumption is that economics is in crisis and its theories are absurd. Perhaps if academic economists simply wait, they will find themselves fashionable again in due course.

Also published at ft.com.