One point of contention in a debate about religion between Sam Harris, a prominent atheist, and Chris Hedges, the former New York Times Middle East Bureau Chief, was the issue of how common among Muslims worldwide is the support for suicide bombings. Harris had argued that a very sizable portion of Muslims in Europe and the Middle East support suicide bombings (as well as other “extreme” practices such as the death penalty for apostasy), and Hedges disputed this claim by describing his experience living in the Middle East for 7 years. He explained that he had gotten to know many Muslim families who viewed suicide bombings with disgust, and reported confidently that this view was representative of Muslims in general. Harris replied by saying “happily we do not assess public opinion by having New York Times journalists go out and live in the Muslim world and make friends and get a vibe” and then relaying the results of a Pew or Gallup poll that contradicted Hedges’ assertion.
Unfortunately, the amount of reporting that is based on the vibe gotten by a New York Times journalist is much greater than Harris might like (certainly more than I would like).
Consider a recent New York Times article explaining that the Republican party is “on the defensive” because their recent push for spending cuts is unwise in the opinion of “some well-known economists, financial analysts and corporate leaders, including some Republicans.” 19 of the article’s 30 paragraphs serve primarily to support the notion that a wide variety of economists and other experts do not agree with Republican policies. Among those quoted are co-head of global economics research at Bank of America, the chief United States economist for High Frequency Economics, and the chief economist of OppenheimerFunds. These all sound like smart and qualified people, but the obvious reason this article is not nearly as useful to the reader as it could be is that the reader still has no idea how representative these people’s views are of macroeconomists in general. Nor do we have any idea why the New York Times reporter chose to talk to the co-head of global economics research at Bank of America rather than the analogous person at Citibank, or JPMorgan, or anywhere else. Was the Bank of America guy more friendly? Was he the only one who listed his phone number on LinkedIn? Were his views more consistent with the theme the New York Times was trying to push?
Happily, as Sam Harris would say, we have a device that allows us to render all of these issues and questions irrelevant: a poll. Unhappily, the New York Times chose not to use that device.
Wouldn’t the reader have gained far more knowledge by simply reading the results of 2 or 3 poll questions posed to, for example, 200 randomly selected tenured macroeconomists at accredited U.S. universities?
The obvious reason why the New York Times chose to publish an article rather than a poll is that it is a newspaper, not a polling outfit (also maybe the article is more fun to read). But when deciding whether a New York Times journalist or Pew is better suited to answer the question “how commonly held is the view, among economists, that the Republican economic policies are bad?”, the answer is just as obvious, and the same, as it is when the question is in regards to Muslim public opinion.
*Hedges left the Times after being formally reprimanded for “public remarks that could undermine public trust in the paper’s impartiality.” One naturally wonders whether his greater offense might actually have been undermining the paper’s impartiality.