< Weird Science

Transcript

Friday, October 03, 2008

For reporters, the problem with covering the science of economics is that it’s not really a science. There is cause and effect, but very little consensus on what exactly those are in any particular case. This poses a special problem for David Kestenbaum, a physicist who has worked as a reporter for nearly a decade on NPR’s Science Desk.

Just last month, he switched to the economics beat and found himself hacking his way through a thicket of conflicting theories and assumptions. David, welcome to the show.
DAVID KESTENBAUM:
Thanks very much. [LAUGHS]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Okay, so, David, I have a joke for you. All right?
DAVID KESTENBAUM:
Oh, good.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
A physicist, an engineer and an economist are stranded on an island with nothing to eat. A can of soup washes ashore. Desperate to open it, the physicist examines the physical properties of the can, the engineer looks to improvise a tool to penetrate the can, and the economist says, assume a can opener. [PAUSE] Okay, so it’s not [LAUGHING] so funny.
DAVID KESTENBAUM:
[LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Do you think it rings true or not?
DAVID KESTENBAUM:
Sure. I mean, it’s not like physics, right? In physics and science in general I would argue, you are, in general, moving toward truth. You know, you’re moving toward an answer. I mean, no one thinks Einstein was wrong. Right? But economics, you know, I just feel like there are very few solid places to stand.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So here you are, you’re new, chaos all around you. I don't know — what do you do?
DAVID KESTENBAUM:
Basically my approach is to talk to five times as many people as I normally would [BROOKE LAUGHS], you know, on a beat that I know well. I just over report all these stories. You know, when someone says something to me, I say it back to them. I say, are you saying this, this, this? Do I have that right?

And a lot of the errors in reporting happen this way, right, it’s that you think you've understood something, and that you haven't. And so I'm trying to be really careful that I actually — what I understand is correct.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
But for someone like you, a physicist, a science reporter, tiptoeing your way through a minefield of opinion that’s
DAVID KESTENBAUM:
[LAUGHS] Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
being presented as fact, how do you sort through them?
DAVID KESTENBAUM:
The things that I find really confounding are like, you'll be talking to someone and then this little thought will occur to you, like, wait, what is money?
[LAUGHTER]
And, like — that’s like, you know, you could go for [LAUGHS], that could be like four days of time right there. But you’re on deadline [LAUGHS] and you've got to put the story together.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
They're assuming a can opener.
DAVID KESTENBAUM:
They're assuming the can opener. I mean, you know, my friend and colleague Adam Davidson here was explaining, like, GDP to me and about, you know, the sum of goods and services, and like I buy something from you and then they buy something from someone else, and that’s good. That all counts toward it.

And I said, well, why don't you and I just stand in the corner of the office with a million dollar bill? You'll make some piece of junk that pencil I'll buy it from you for a million dollars and I'll sell you my sock for a million [BROOKE LAUGHS], back and forth, and we'll increase the GDP.

And then you have to stop and think about why that doesn't actually make sense [LAUGHS]. But, again, these are like, you know, long philosophical inquiries, and I've got to do a news story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
But it’s an interesting question you raise. I mean, is that what’s been going on? People have been exchanging socks and pencils for a million bucks apiece?
DAVID KESTENBAUM:
[LAUGHS] And the government’s now going to buy up all our socks?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Exactly.
DAVID KESTENBAUM:
And hope that at some point there’s a greater demand for socks? Yeah, I think that’s exactly what’s going on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
[LAUGHS] Well, thank you for clearing that up, David Kestenbaum.
DAVID KESTENBAUM:
You’re welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
David Kestenbaum was one of NPR’s science correspondents. Now he’s covering the economy for NPR’s Planet Money.