Mike the Mad Biologist

Bono, Op-Eds, and Analysis



I had to laugh when, by way of ScienceBlogling Joseph, I read Daniel Drezner’s snarky description of Bono’s first outing as a NY Times op-editorialist. But leaving high-quality snark aside, I think Bono’s inclusion highlights a problem with most regular op-ed columnists: the dearth of analysts.

I’ll get to Bono in a moment, but op-ed pages are usually populated by journalists–that is, ex-reporters–and not people with analytical training (I realize that the last few years of lying in the financial sector has given ‘analyst’ a bad name, but I’m simply referring to people who are training to rigorously analyze data). In the NY Times (which is exceptional in this regard), economist Paul Krugman is the only analyst, although biologist Olivia Judson and Barbara Ehrenrich (Ph.D. in biochemistry) have been short-term guest columnists.

Most newspaper columnists, since they are selected from within, are, not surprisingly, journalists (go figure). I actually have great respect for good, even average journalists: to write accurate and compelling stories of a proscribed length on deadline is really difficult, particularly if the subject matter is unfamiliar to the journalist (or just not that interesting). Think about all of the times when bloggers decide that we’re going to write about a particular topic on a certain day, and how many fail to do so. It’s not easy.

The problem is that most op-ed writers who have graduated from the reporter ranks really don’t know how to analyze data–and I mean analysis more as a process, not as a collection of statistical techniques (although too many are also mathematically illiterate–and proud of it). Think about Nicholas Kristof and Bob Herbert. When they write columns that involve actual reporting–or, if you prefer, relating stories (non-fictional ones) to us–their columns are quite effective. When they attempt to analyze think tank studies, not so much.

So onto (or back to) Bono. He’s not a journalist, but an artist (regardless of what thinks of his art). How he approaches issues and events is going to be very different from either the journalist or the analyst. It’s going to be very personal and impressionistic–that’s what good artists do, and why they’re not policy wonks. If there is anyone else at the Times who is similar to Bono, it would be Vervyn Klinkberg (??). There’s something to be said for the impressionistic form: when done well, the reader can relate to it, as well as be entertained by it.

In fairness to Bono, his debut was entertaining. It was very well-written, if viewed as a form of non-fiction literature. I can’t draw any policy conclusions from it, however. That’s what’s frustrates me about Bono’s new gig: he has some very valuable real estate, and, in a political discourse that desperately needs more critical analysis (which is one reason blogs have gained so many readers), to use that space for literature is a shame.