Competition, Not Convergence

By Adam Elkus

I have a lot of thoughts on the Nicholas Kristof piece and the stirring it’s raised in the poli-sci blogosphere, but I’ve expended way too much time writing on the academic-policy divide and relevance in other venues to do more than a quick hit here.

First, an excerpt from a great blog by Tom Pepinsky:

Let me propose that disengagement by academics is not the problem. Rather, standing in the way of greater public engagement is that public intellectuals like Kristof, and policymakers in positions of power, are not interested in the sort of knowledge that real social science produces. They don’t want careful and considered, they want sharp and snappy. Superficial and ill-considered “analysis” in the form of 800 word nuggets is just not what the academic disciplines are designed to produce. That’s a good thing. We should not want to produce “TED talk” style research, even if Kristof finds it interesting.

What Pepinsky fundamentally gets is this: journalists/policy-oriented writers like Kristof and political scientists are in competition. There are a finite number of eyeballs, pageviews, think-tank panels, TV interviews, TED talks, and policymakers to be had for each broadly poli-sci related subject or application area. And you have two groups of people that claim intellectual knowledge and expert status in those areas. Yes, Kristof and political scientists aren’t really competing for the same exact audience, but there is significant overlap. Enough overlap that Kristof himself has been on the receiving end of withering attacks by academics in his own subject area.

I’m not telepathic, so I have no idea what prompted Kristof to write his column. But color me unsurprised that a journalists with no training in statistics, formal methods, research design, or obligation to undergo peer review regard such things as off-putting, irrelevant, and even perhaps threatening. Color me unsurprised as well that Kristof’s idea of what academia should be like is…..a souped-up version of journalism. Kristof sells narratives. And if you think this is all about math, you’re wrong. Public intellectuals like Kristof have more or less equal disregard for history, area studies, and ethnography when they contradict a narrative. I’ve certainly lived the latter reality watching natsec debates in Washington proceed with more or less total indifference to academic military and intelligence history and qualitative research in strategic theory. No one in Kristof’s lane cared about Clausewitz or offerings from the Journal of Military History during the counterinsurgency years, so why would they care about econometrics or game theory?

As someone that straddles a difficult line between the policy world, increasingly the tech world, and different corners of academic arcana I’ve always been sympathetic to the idea that academics should be engaged with the world beyond their journals and conferences. But let’s face it: academics, policy analysts, and journalists that produce knowledge on political subjects are all competing for attention. There’s an overlap in the Venn diagram of respective audiences for each group that controls two critical variables: social status/recognition and money. And if there is one thing that academics, policy analysts, and journalists all have in common it’s that no one produces knowledge solely for the sake of it — nothing happens without money, and knowledge production without appreciative eyeballs is like coffee without caffeine.

So this is really a reason to be skeptical of calls for pluralism in political science voiced by people like Kristof. What Kristof is saying is actually anti-pluralistic. It’s not as much a call for pluralism as much as it is a plea for political scientists to be more like NYT op-ed writers. That’s not an excuse to wallow in jargon or to take an overly scholastic (as opposed to engaged) idea of the discipline. But it is to say that Kristof is your competition, and always will be your competition. He won’t likely be happy if you make your work more accessible, as Politico didn’t exactly welcome the popular and well-presented work of Nate Silver when it conflicted with their model of reporting.

So don’t be more like him — instead beat him, steal the more important and influential slices of his readership, and force him to work harder and be more rigorous. And with the rise of Wonkblog, Nate Silver, Monkey Cage, increased public visibility of social scientists of all methodological stripes (from formal modelers to anthropologists like Sarah Kendzior) as well as the growing public and private sector interest in data-intensive social science, maybe he *should* be worried.

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