The Explanatory Crisis, Part 1: Contextless Facts

Crossovers cars, climate change, and the importance of context.

Last week I published a piece about our broken explanation machinery, using the Gamestop saga as an example of how popular coverage can fixate on superficial details at the expense of true reader education. But it occurred to me that there’s a lot more to say about how and why the news does a poor job of explaining most things. So I’m going to do a series here, using recent news stories to illustrate different angles.

Today I want to focus on how a piece of journalism can be conceivably defended as “accurate” in a technical sense despite it obscuring more than it clarifies.

We’ll start with a TLDR-style summary, followed by more granular discussion.

The Skinny Version:

  • Last Friday, Bloomberg Businessweek published “The Death of the Sedan Is the Biggest Car Trend of the Decade

  • Said article claimed that “the real transformation in the auto business” has not been the electric vehicle renaissance, but rather the transition from cars to light trucks (which they define as inclusive of pickups, SUVs, and minivans)

  • But those three vehicle types have actually lost considerable market-share since 2000 (~45% to ~30%), where all that share has gone to new crossover vehicles

  • While it’s true that some groups do classify crossovers as light trucks, they do so explicitly because of incentives at direct odds with consumer clarity

  • In reality, crossovers are just cars dressing up as SUVs, where the branding-by-association allows manufacturers to slap on SUV-like price tags despite crossovers very much not being SUVs in how they’re made or what they do

  • So while there’s a story here about a shift in consumer preferences, telling that story well would involve explaining how the classification / branding scheme has made crossovers so popular (and what that trend means for global warming)

  • But even in telling that story well, it’s of trivial importance next to the transformation away from gas-powered vehicles (both in the sense of how massive an overhaul it is and what the change means for us as humans)

  • While Bloomberg could wave away all this by suggesting it’s all just some pedantic debate, the fundamental problem is that their reader was almost certain to walk away with less clarity, and thus to make worse decisions after

  • While lots of journalists say things like “our job is to communicate the news quickly without adding errors, not to fight with sources or go 2-3 levels deep all the time”, that argument is only reasonable until you really think about it

So what I want to do in what follows is take 3-4 minutes to really think about it.

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Crossovers vs. SUVs

First, here’s the chart from Bloomberg:

Seen this way, cars are indeed going extinct in favor of light trucks (where the massive gap is leading some manufacturers to just stop making sedans altogether).

But then we have this for comparison, which is more granular:

What we see here is an exploding middle, where larger cars and traditional SUVs are both giving way to crossovers. But if we categorize crossovers as a type of car instead of a type of truck, cars have actually taken 14-15% more of the market since 2000.

Now, the obvious question here is why we should we classify crossovers that way. Well, that’s easy: because the difference between car and truck isn’t just semantic!

  • Cars have a unibody design (i.e., body and chassis are a single structure)

  • Trucks have a body-on-frame design (i.e., separate structures)

While they can be indistinguishable on an aesthetic level, the tradeoffs between the two make them suitable for very different uses cases:

(Note here that vans and SUVs are effectively just types of trucks, in that they’re all pretty much body-on-frame, just with different seating and cabin tradeoffs.)

  • Cars are significantly cheaper to manufacture

  • Cars are much lighter (better for gas mileage / emissions)

  • Cars have a lower center of gravity (better handling, less rollover risk)

  • Trucks can haul/tow a lot more stuff safely

  • Trucks are much better at handling uneven roads

While that’s not an exhaustive list, it gives the sense well enough. For commuting on paved roads, cars are far better. For offroading or serious hauling, trucks win bigly.

But something weird happened in the 90s: lots of commuters started buying SUVs despite not actually needing any truck-related benefits.

It thus eventually occurred to auto execs (else to their consultants) that if loads of consumers were unlikely to do serious hauling or offroading but still wanted SUVs for form-factor / aesthetic reasons, they could just sell them cars that looked like SUVs!

Of course, the real magic here is pricing. While crossovers only cost a touch more than a sedan to build, consumers are used to paying SUV prices for things that look like SUVs. So if you disguise a car as an SUV and sell it as an SUV with better gas mileage, you can index on something much closer to SUV pricing!

So if you’re Ford and someone asks you if an Escape is a car or a truck, you’ll find creative ways of not answering that particular question! You’ll say “well it’s a compact sort of SUV” or “it’s something of a light truck” or whatever in that vein, where your primary purpose is obscuring that fact that crossovers are just taller sedans that lots of people use to signal that they are some combination of rich and outdoorsy.

Anyway, how crossovers actually get classified will depend on the purpose:

  • Government agencies like the EPA will lean towards calling them passenger cars (unless they’re at least AWD), as their focus is holding commuter vehicles to higher mileage standards so as to combat global warming

  • Government agencies like the Bureau of Economic Analysis (part of the Department of Commerce) will say “lol sure ok they’re light trucks” because their job is a mix of goosing GDP and making industry happy

So Bloomberg got their data here from the latter source, and presented it accurately in a purely literal sense. But the way they framed it was:

Despite all the buzz about how electric vehicles will reshape transportation, the real transformation in the auto business has been consumers’ race away from traditional cars and toward so-called light trucks…

Which is, uh, bananas. The “transformation” required here was trivial. A slow-ish and predictable shift in product mix (where that shift makes manufacturing easier and more profitable!) isn’t a big deal. In contrast, switching from ICE engines to electric is a massive changeover in nearly every sense that matters. Not only do sourcing and production and warranty structures have to be retooled, but dealer relationships (a symbiotic part of the whole ecosystem) suddenly get 10x more complicated.

More importantly though, the carbon emission cuts from switching people from real SUVs to crossovers is being offset by also putting more and more ex-sedan people into increasingly larger cars, whereas getting people into electric vehicles (increasingly fed by solar energy) is a big part of our survival plan. Thus if we’re going to write about the crossover trend, we should be writing about it critically, not in a way that steers even more consumers into vehicles that are objectively worse for the future of our species.

Anyway, let’s move on to the bigger picture.

What Does Journalism Exist to Do Exactly?

One could argue that the job of reporting the news consists of no more than just reporting what’s new (whether a new happening or something newly uncovered).

In addition to being linguistically reasonable, this take is also true to journalism’s legacy function. Lots of things have always been happening in the world, and the speed of information was once incredibly slow, so reporting the news even in a narrow sense was once a great civic help. A local publisher arranging for someone to drop off a physical stack of paper by 7am covering goings on across the world gave readers the means of making far more informed decisions relative to not having that data.

But the world has changed. The news largely reports itself now, at least so far as new happenings go. Where journalism was once necessary for raw information flow, we have no real dependence there anymore. If every reporter in the US called in sick tomorrow, we’d still know the weather and who won the game and how Congress voted. And if anyone cared to learn about compositional shifts in the auto market, GM and Ford would make sure their self-serving PR updates were readily available.

Of course, this doesn’t mean we need journalism less now. Quite the opposite! But if its job is to help us make informed decisions relative to a world without journalism, it has to do something new now — something other than what can be accomplished by bots.

  • Lots of information flows are wrong. Journalism can tell us what really happened.

  • Lots of information flows lack context. Journalism can supply that context.

  • Lots of information flows are incomplete. Journalism can uncover things that wouldn’t otherwise get uncovered by natural market forces.

These things are all incredibly valuable! But what unites them is their focus on explanations. The world is murky and hard to understand, and lots of powers have strong incentives to keep it that way. But we progress as a society by means of explanations, and thus any institutions that provide them do a tremendous civic good.

The crucial thing about explanations though is that they require more than arbitrary accuracy. “Well we correctly noted what the trade group said” doesn’t itself promote a clearer comprehension of the world. Without any deeper context, it’s just a factoid more likely to lead to a bad decision (e.g., buying a crossover to follow the trend) than a good one (e.g., buying an electric vehicle or the smallest gas car feasible).

Now, I don’t mean to pick on this specific reporter. She’s one of dozens on this beat guilty of the same sin. That said and meant though, what exactly was the point of this piece? What civic value could anyone extract from it? And why are so many like it?

If journalism is just vaguely rewriting press releases, why are we wasting human time on it? GPT-3 bots can do this now, and they can do it better. Humans have unique values and talents that can be put to higher ends — like journalism that explains.

Looking around the world, and at all the misinformation and disinformation that’s filling the many explanatory vacuums, I’m not even sure what the counter-argument here is anymore? Either we care about moving forward or we don’t, and if we do then we have much better means of going about it.

(If you’re curious about what a better model might look like, see section v here.)

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