What Is An Analyst?

An analyst is neither a fortune-teller nor a scientist, and the analyst who claims to be either, or to be in the business of prediction at all, is a charlatan. Practical matters — the price of a stock, the outcome of a business venture, a political gambit or campaign, a loan or mortgage, a civil suit, a military battle, a negotiation or even a dinner conversation — are by their very nature unpredictable.

Aristotle, who wrote two books of analytics and had very specific ideas about what constituted analysis, thought these human affairs belonged to a world of “things which admit of being other than they are.” And when we’re talking about how things which already admit of being other than they are will turn out in the future, it gets even fuzzier.

A stock analyst with a good batting average is for that reason all the more impressive. Sure, some are just luckier than others and some are bound to be criminals; but the independent analyst who regularly and conscientiously gives good advice understands something about the way things ordinarily work, or the way they’ll probably work out. And so he’s a character of more than passing interest. He’s engaged in considering not only what has happened, what will happen, or what is happening, but what’s likely to happen. His recommendations are grounded in his understanding of probable outcomes. He helps others take refuge in prudence.

Of course lots of people who call themselves analysts aren’t in the business of making buy or sell recommendations on stocks. There are industry analysts, market analysts, military and intelligence analysts, technology analysts. Some work discretely behind the scenes, advising on what’s likely to happen in this or that sector. But more and more analysts are the scene itself: turn on the television news and you will find an analyst of every stripe, for every occasion; turn on NPR and you get news analyst Daniel Schorr.

For me, this is where the word analyst just starts getting interesting, when it’s being tossed carelessly around, or where it’s being used to lend a serious tone to comments on the news or any other set of remarks. CNN and NPR, television and the media, new and old, do much more than provide the analyst with a place to present what he knows; the media makes him. Today the word analyst is typically applied to a person who is a cross between someone with some special knowledge or command of the facts concerning a particular subject and a talking head. Not just an expert, not merely a pundit. An analyst.

Our analyst is a creature of the infotainment universe. Whether on television or radio talk shows or making a guest appearance at a conference or on a blog, our analysts are performers. (I almost said “merely performers,” but that wouldn’t be quite right.) Our analysts perform to inform. Rarely do their performances rise to the standard of dulce et utile, but it’s play-acting nonetheless, playing at knowing. Don’t expect these types to cut through the hype; they are themselves the hype, however serious or knowing or grave they may appear. More often than not, what passes for analysis is nothing more than a shoddy recap, a few interview questions or bullet points on a slide, or talking points rehashed ad nauseam, the source of which may be the analyst himself, a party committee, an interested group, an editorial board or a public relations firm.

And there’s the rot. Granted, this hybrid of knowledge and make-believe may be all the analysis our wealthy, comfortable technocracy can tolerate. But it’s curious that we don’t regard all these analysts with more suspicion. Quite the opposite: we reward them handsomely, treat them with respect, take their views into consideration when making big decisions about the future of companies or the invasion of countries. We nurture and esteem a vulgar mimicry that past societies found disturbing or heretical or a threat to the polity.

We are untroubled by the question whether pretending and professing knowledge are the same thing; we are happy to let a few facts trotted out from a cheat sheet stand for real understanding. It’s easier on everybody that way.

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