Not every area of punditry has quite as many hanging curveballs as politics. For whatever reason you can break the ‘serious’ threshold in politics with a pulse and the right friends or contacts. Even now it is mostly a blasted wasteland of knowledge protected by an aggressively anti-intellectual ruling clique, where a little empiricism can put someone well ahead of the crowd. A guy really focused on good data analysis can start an empire with his unique brand. The entertainment biz also qualifies, though you have to separate brain-dead public reportage from the Olympic-level bean counting that moves show business behind the scenes.
Other fields like sports tend to be more meritocratic. Imagine that Billy Kristol’s family name bought him a seat in some MLB announcer’s booth. How long do you think he’d last? About as long as Rush Limbaugh. Most people in sports know at least something and an OCD-level commitment to data hardly by itself sets you apart from the pack. To stand out you need to really know your shit, plus some other hook. A memorable personality will do the trick, or you could build a niche specialty so deep that everyone just accepts you as the local guru. Nate Silver will bring quality analysis to sports but his unique brand is a Slate-slash-upworthy mix of provocative contrarianism and smart headlines. None of that should be taken as a criticism; done well and not half-assed (cough GREGG EASTERBROOK) it sounds like a winning plan.
In other cases the fox approach can lead you wrong. A particularly talented generalist who spends long enough in a sea of folks with data skills that range from good (baseball nerds) to brain dead to the Washington Post opinion page can start to think every field of knowledge has low hanging fruit waiting for a fox to reach out and grab.
Now look, I have done smart-ish things in my life. A few years back I dunked on a Nobel winner in a tough field with a series of papers in PNAS and a Nature journal. I don’t ususally brag about this crap. Honestly for the most part it means I know a lot about a few things about which most people should never care. But I hope that it does establish some credentials when I say my few graduate credits in climate (towards an oceanography degree) were really f*cking hard. By ‘hard’ I mean orders of magnitude worse than those courses like orgo chem with intentionally ramped up difficulty that my undergraduate school used to to weed out less than 100% committed bio majors. You could point out that I came from a not-so-quantitative background. True, but I had no geology background either and I can call up the basics of a paper that I wrote on finding where ancient deep water currents used to meet by looking for a telltale change in palladium-protactinium isotope ratios in the sediment. Now take a fairly vanilla climate question like how does El Nino work? We spent days on how seesawing mid-water boundary layers create that particular climate oscillation. I tried, man. I really tried. I know that we know how it works, I have seen the models and the data, but the physical/quantitative basis of how that bastard operates was permanently over my head.
Alright, I’m done reminiscing. You should take home that sometimes you need a hedgehog. Another good example is theoretical physics, where most professors can tell you about the intelligent amateurs who bombard them with TIME CUBE-quality answers to life, the universe and everything. Good Will Hunting was a movie. Some things you just leave to the level-capped mages with extra grey matter and the
insanity commitment to put in 10,000 hours or whatever it takes to contribute to a field like that without stepping on a rake.
Roger A. Pielke, Jr. is not a climate mage. He spent his 10,000 hours studying weather, which he does well but no doubt knows is not the same thing. Pielke gets a lot of attention for knee-jerk contrarian climate theories that are not TIME CUBE bad, but still not good.
I get why you would hire a guy like Pielke – breezy contrarianism fits the house brand and will certainly generate a lot more site traffic than same-oldy bad news written at a higher reading level by people who do know what they are talking about. It is a good business decision. I just wish it did not, you know, matter.