Inside Outside (Where Have I Been?)

Paul Krugman channels Bill James at his best in explaining why “outside” knowledge sometimes trumps “inside” knowledge:

But Martin’s tweet also reveals a broader issue in reporting, which I’ve commented on before, I think (no time to search): the unhealthy cult of the inside scoop.

A lot of political journalism, and even reporting on policy issues, is dominated by the search for the “secret sauce”, as Martin puts it: the insider who knows What’s Really Going On. Background interviews with top officials are regarded as gold, and the desire to get those interviews often induces reporters to spin on demand.

But such inside scoops are rarely — I won’t say never, but rarely — worth a thing. My experience has been that careful analysis of publicly available information almost always trumps the insider approach.

It’s very good; read, as they say, the whole thing.

Bill James once talked about what it was like when he became established enough that he started having access to inside information. What he said — and I think this is exactly correct — was that the best way to think about inside information was in terms of a temporal lag. It’s not that insiders know stuff that outsiders will never learn; it’s that they sometimes hear things before they are made public.

Regulars will also remember that one of my all-time favorite things about this is the old McLaughlin Group self-description; the show would give us “inside opinions and forecasts” — not smart opinions or accurate forecasts, but inside ones.

Now, the thing is that it is valuable for outsiders to hear “inside opinions and forecasts.” And inside information, too. To take one of Krugman’s examples: knowing what Bush Administration officials thought about Iraq in 2002 was a much better indicator of what was going to happen than actually knowing about, say, Iraq’s various weapons programs. Good reporting would have told us both, making clear both what was accurate about the world in general and what the Bush Administration believed.

The trick is balancing the two; the trick is to reject the notion that there’s something special or inherently more accurate about what insiders know, even while it’s very useful for us to learn what those insiders are thinking. That’s not easy. But it’s essentially impossible if you mistakenly attribute mystical qualities to insiders, incorrectly treating their insider knowledge as inherently more accurate. I’ve always thought that the first step out of that mystification is to follow Bill James and realize that there’s really nothing special about insider knowledge at all.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.