About reporting and water issues…

by David Zetland    David Zetland is a senior water economist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and maintains a blog on water issues at Aguanomics.

It’s not as simple as selling books

Many people ask me to comment on statements made by journalists covering the water sector. Most of the time, I am happy to see journalists covering water issues, since they tend to promote awareness of the need to change our ways, but there are two big exceptions. The first is when a lazy journalist fails to see that water shortages are not caused by a failure to rain as much as a failure (of managers) to keep demand below supply. In those cases, I often leave comments or send emails to correct them, hoping that they look a little deeper in the future.

The second problem is much more dangerous: a journalist posing as an expert.

But what does it take to be an “expert”? Well, it doesn’t mean you need a PhD or need to spend years studying the topic. You need a decent framework that explains causes and effects within local institutions that also matches the knowledge and intuition of those who have lived with the situation for many years.
Journalists can certainly explain the causes of a problem, how to resolve it, and why resolution may not be occurring. That’s why I admire the work of Fred Pearce and Cynthia Barnett, for example.

But then we run into journalists who turn a few shallow anecdotes into a problem that can be “solved” in ways that won’t work. Although some of these journalists are sloppy (see above), others intentionally over-reach because they are making money.

I’m going to name two here (with specific examples) because I want to call attention to their need to do a better job in their jobs as “experts” (I’m not saying anything about their work as journalists) and our need to bring an appropriately critical perspective to their opinions.

Why is this post important? People with limited attention rely on “prime time” outlets rather than study complex problems. That means that mistakes in those outlets can lead to an abundance of bad decisions.

So, that’s a preamble for why we need to care about journalists’ accuracy, but let me also also clarify why I — as an academic — feel a need to correct their contributions to public discourse. It turns out to be more complicated than “that’s what academics do.”

As you know, I’ve been giving my opinion on water policy for many years, writing on this blog, giving public talks, holding discussions with experts and stakeholders, and so on. In most circumstances, I combine my knowledge of economics, a familiarity with facts, and a sensitivity to other perspectives into an opinion on what I consider the “right” thing to do.

Economists say that I do “normative economics,” i.e., the economics of what should be, but most economists practice what’s called “positive economics,” i.e., the economics of what is. These positive economists may carry out research describing the connection between water service and child mortality, or measuring the efficiency of water markets or the impact of new water tariffs on consumption behavior. I go further, using these results to advocate for policy changes.

In that sense, I am not an academic concerned with the details of reality as much as a pundit* promising to deliver a future to those who follow my advice. I am not alone in that, and thus we arrive at the problem of identifying who’s right, a problem that is often ignored because people standing on high are more often believed than people standing on firm ground.

It’s well-known, for example, that there are two ways to become a famous blogger: be famous or work hard.
This definition will raise a warning signal to those interested in maximizing the quality of debate. There may be, for example, hundreds of people qualified to advise on improving urban water management, but these people may not get as much attention as a single tweet from Madonna (“OMG, I’m no virgin, but showering in recycled toilet water? Yuck. Gimme NATURAL water”).

That tweet will be heard by many. Most will ignore it, but others will change their opinion about recycled water. In the resulting debate over indirect potable reuse, experts are buried under an onslaught of collective ignorance, the motion to recycle water is denied, and the utility continues to overpump a river full of wastewater into the drinking water system — to the future regret of everyone.

The problem of short and clever vs 78 pages and precise is widespread. We see it in political debates, cocktail chatter, and the know-it-all friends with the same solution to every problem (some variation of education, regulation or markets).

These opinions may be 50, 70 or even 90 percent right, but they tend to leave out caveats, qualifications and limitations that can render the opinion irrelevant or counterproductive. The trouble comes when readers and listeners assume the opinion is 100 percent right — perhaps more right than even the author would admit, given his attempt to present the essence of a complex idea while still understanding its limitations.

That’s why academics can provide a useful service by recognizing the limits to what they know or can claim and explaining how complex systems are neither simple enough to understand nor manipulate. Academics, in short, are trained to be humble with their ideas.**

So what can we learn from academics?

  1. Take the position of the other side, to understand and address their objections. This process means that you will need to either admit or correct your weaknesses.
  2. Contextualize your idea within the conditions where it is appropriate while acknowledging that those conditions are not universal.
  3. Think very carefully about how your idea will interact with existing policies, taking into account the ways that people have tried to deal with the problem — or not — in the past.

Now, after all that long introduction and context, let me get to the journalists whose opinions are not expert in a few recent pieces.

In my review of Charles Fishman’s Big Thirst, I said “his journalistic style was too breezy.” Indeed, his op/eds at National Geographic and the New York Times are oversimplified and misleading. In the former, he omits the facts that Ireland has charged residential users for water in the past and that non-residential users pay for metered water. Besides these omissions, which make his claims sound more significant than they are, he forgets (or does not know) that meters are not always cost-efficient to install and that customers always pay for meters, either up-front or in the long run.

In his NYT piece, Fishman’s “obvious” command and control “solutions” have been tried in many places. In some they work, in others they are inefficient from a cost or water perspective. He also omits the more fundamental discussion of why other, more effective actions are not taken (raising water prices in Las Vegas, for example) — an omission that makes me wonder if he’s looked any deeper than press releases and speeches by water managers and politicians. Journalists sometimes get a little over-used to dealing with the contents of the box they are given instead of looking outside the box — a job that academics (and activists) are accustomed to executing. His over-simplified perspective may sell books, but his solutions are more likely to be counterproductive than useful.

Frederick Kaufman expresses a fear of water markets in Nature and Wired magazines that is straight out of science fiction: global water markets in which derivatives allow traders to hedge shortage in Kazakstan with grain production in Australia by borrowing against wetlands in Canada. His working hypothesis is weak on many levels. I responded to his Nature piece and Wired interview with several comments, but these will do here:

  • Water is NOT EVEN CLOSE to fungible. Are you kidding about “icebergs and aquifers” as interchangeable? Go get $1 of tap water (about one cubic meter) and then move it to the other side of the room. Hard to do? Sure, since 1,000 liters weighs one ton. Water systems — let alone markets — will NEVER be integrated like oil, gold or computer ship markets because the costs of transactions are so high.
  • The greatest distortions in the efficient use of water are caused by political interference. In this sense, bad water management is the same as bad financial management, but don’t blame markets for bailing out “too big to fail” fools or failing to get water to efficient farmers or taps in poor countries. Blame politicians.
  • Water markets have been VERY useful in reducing water waste and directing water from the powerful and rich to the poor and powerless – because the rich are getting water at a lower price than the poor are willing to pay…

Go read these pieces and ask yourself: Do these guys know what they are talking about? Should politicians and citizens turn their views and ideas into policies for managing our water? More fundamentally, remember that some people put out uneven work (I know I do). These pieces may not represent the norm for these guys (I sure hope not), but they risk damaging reputations built on solid work that combines relevant facts into a plausible narrative to explain how a situation arose and how it might be improved.
No matter your answer, please leave comments here (or there) to tell me and them what we got right or wrong.

Bottom Line: Journalists can cause a lot of damage when they misdiagnose problems, offer the wrong solution and appeal to fear, uncertainty and dread. What they need to do — and what I try to do — is explain the facts and barriers to change before suggesting gradual reforms to improve our water management.

* “Pundit” comes from “pandit,” a Hindi word for a scholar or teacher who has mastered a topic (classically Sanskrit language, vedic scriptures, Hindu law, etc.) under a guru. This definition could be applied to any “doctor of philosophy,” since PhD programs are designed to impart mastery over a topic to a student under supervision. I wouldn’t be surprised if pandits were also supposed to possess wisdom, a characteristic not required of PhDs.
** I may be giving academics too much credit, as many of them disregard their training when it comes to arguing that their opinion is right “because I have a PhD.” Academics, OTOH, are routinely absent from debates in which they could make a useful contribution, due to a combination of shyness (PhDs are known for long hours of study not extroversion), professional incentives (professional publication is more important than social impact), and aversion to debate with non-academics who may neither respect their credentials nor engage in “structured fair play.”

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