Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Von Drehle described experience as “egglike”- “At first blush, the idea appears to be something you can get your hands around … But bear down even slightly, and the notion of experience is liable to crack and run all over.” He notes that the “effectiveness” of many presidents has waned during a second term, contradicting the idea that familiarity with the mechanics of government is necessarily an asset. Indeed, scientific research in other areas seems to confirm the fickle value of experience.


In Time’s second article, John Cloud explores the “widely accepted” thesis that “mastering most complex human endeavors requires a minimum of ten years’ experience” (established decades ago by studies of telegraphy and chess-playing skills). The ten-year rule seems an “obvious and intuitive” explanation for the better performance of old-hand professionals (responsibly, studies have excluded prodigy and natural-athlete types), Cloud writes, but he leads with a scene from a Florida State University study where a veteran nurse makes the same fatal mistake on a dummy patient as a rookie:


In making the case that she would be a better President than Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton never forgets to summon the argument that she has more experience. But as the Florida State simulations show, experience doesn’t always help. In fact, three decades of research into expert performance has shown that experience itself - the raw amount of time you spend pursuing any particular activity, from brain surgery to skiing - can actually hinder your ability to deliver reproducibly superior performance.


If that last conclusion doesn’t seem plausible, think about drivers. Studies have shown that novices can be more alert and aware than veteran motorists who tend to talk on phones more and engage in other such dangerous practices. The key here is that there is a big difference between time-spent-doing and deliberate practice (drivers don’t really engage in the latter). Furthermore, as Cloud reports, there is an added difference between the majority of people who practice skills they already have and those that are constantly seeking out and practicing new skills.


It’s a bit of a stretch to apply the totally unrelated conditions of some of these experience studies to the Oval Office, but Cloud does a nice job avoiding any conclusions and merely posing the question: What do we know and how might we use that to evaluate candidates’ claims that they are most “qualified” to achieve a certain objective, climate treaty or otherwise. “Experts tend to be good at their particular talent, but when something unpredictable happens-something that changes the rules of the game they usually play-they’re little better than the rest of us,” Cloud writes. And as Von Drehle suggests, the qualities that make good president are “not exactly the sort of data you can find on a résumé.”


So when a news outlet like Greenwire publishes two articles with Obama and Clinton advisers dueling over the relative value of experience or fresh perspective, maybe the best thing for reporters to ask is not who is tested or who is new, but rather who is willing to keep practicing good government and how?

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.