Du Fresne on media

Karl du Fresne writes:

I recently had what might be termed a clash of professional opinion with some of my fellow journalists. It was touched off by a newspaper editorial that took a whack at “enthusiastic amateurs” sounding off on such issues as climate change, vaccinations and fluoridation.

Everyone was entitled to their opinion, the editorial writer loftily pronounced, but not all views should be accorded equal weight. The views of people with years of study and experience behind them were worth more than those of non-experts.

A member of an internet journalism discussion group to which I belong applauded the editorial, saying she couldn’t agree more. “These amateur know-it-alls are a menace,” she declared.

I thought this a peculiar position for a journalist to take. I mean, aren’t we supposed to believe in freedom of speech?

Another member chimed in that the Sensible Sentencing Trust’s Garth McVicar should be added to the “list of nutters”. Then someone else suggested a couple of other names for what was shaping up as a blacklist: David Round and Lindsay Mitchell.

I am on the mailing list where this discussion occurred and I thought it interesting that the only names of people who should be ignored, are those associated with a centre-right view on controversial issues.

Mr Round is a University of Canterbury law lecturer who has written extensively over many years about Treaty of Waitangi issues. He dismisses the Treaty settlement process as a rort and a gravy train.

Ms Mitchell is a Wellington researcher who, in her own words, sets out to debunk the myths surrounding the welfare state, which she describes as economically, socially and morally unsustainable. Her voice is a courageous and lonely one, challenging the vast body of agencies, bureaucrats and academics with a common interest in propping up an unwieldy and seriously flawed welfare system.

What was immediately noticeable was the individuals dismissed by some of my fellow journalists as not deserving any publicity were, loosely speaking, all Right of centre.

I don’t agree with Lindsay Mitchell on all the welfare issues, but she is very well reserached. She has gathered a huge amount of data under the OIA.

In any case, let’s examine this question of “expert” versus “non-expert” a little more closely.

It was clear from the discussion that the word “expert” is generally equated with a university degree. In the climate change debate, you’re not considered credible unless you have a relevant academic qualification.

But in more than 40 years in journalism, I’ve come across any number of highly qualified “experts” whose opinions seemed to owe more to ideology than to academic credibility. Many academics are moralists by nature, always ready to lecture us on what they see as the world’s failings.

Whatever the subject – whether climate change or alcohol law reform, to choose two topical examples – they are inclined to cherry-pick the theories that suit their political leanings.

Exactly. Not one alcohol expert ever mentioned the fact that the prevalence rate of youth drinking had dropped 40% in the last five years.

I’m not arguing all opinions are equally valid. Absolutely not. But they should be judged on the quality of their research and argument – not on their degree status.

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