Reporting on ideas

Here’s James Fallows, of The Atlantic, on his reporting style, specifically after moving to China:

The best way I know is just to have a big list of the things you’re genuinely curious about, ask people to answer what they view of them, and just sort of triangulate, and see the range of opinions you get — what people are agreeing on, what the outliers views on, and just keep trying those hypotheses… I would never call journalism science, because it’s craft… [but] there’s a quasi-scientific method of hypothesis testing. You say ‘OK this is what I’ve heard, does this sound right to you?’ … and you share that work with the reader.

Here’s economist Bryan Caplan on how he does interdisciplinary research when writing a book:

When I’m going through and reading papers, oftentimes I’ll find that there’s something I don’t understand very well or something that seems questionable. Usually, as long as the authors are living, I do try to actually reach out to them and get clarifications.

The next thing is when I’ve got what I think is a good, solid draft of a book. That’s where I enlist my RA and say, “Get me all the emails of all the living people I’ve cited in the book so far,” and then email all of them with two offers.

One of them is an offer to show them the entire manuscript. The other one …  is to say, “Or, if you’re busy, then I could just tell you the exact pages where I discuss your works, so at least you can tell me whether I’m accurately summarizing your work or not.”

For me, what I do is so interdisciplinary so I’m always worried about this autodidact’s curse, where you’ve read a ton of stuff but you still haven’t actually talked to anyone who knows what’s going on. This is one of the things that I try to do to deal with especially the wisdom of a field. Oftentimes there’s wisdom in a field, where it’s known to people who have thought about it for a long time, but they don’t write it down.

Of course, that’s very hard for the autodidact to find out. “What is the wisdom in your field that you don’t write down?” This is where I try to reach out to people. Generally, I would say I get about a 15 percent response rate for the people saying they’ll at least read something, so I feel like it does give me some good quality control.

This sort of “reporting” is the kind I get excited about and most enjoy doing, and I see it as quite in line with Fallows’ method. Opinions probably differ on whether this sort of process is “journalism”, and it probably depends on a bunch of different factors. But to me, this sort of reporting on ideas is where all the fun is. And when it’s done well, sometimes you can even get a bit beyond where a field of inquiry is, by drawing on lots of different disciplines, spelling out that wisdom that hasn’t been written down, and answering questions that experts know something about but haven’t yet answered definitively in their published studies.

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