February 16, 2014

Political Science Critics: Digging in the Wrong Place?

By now, most observers who care about political science have surely come across, and commented about, Nicholas Kristof’s column bemoaning the cloistered nature of political scientists. I won’t try to rehash what's already been done by Steve Saideman, MonkeyCage, and other notable scholars who are regularly engaging in public discourse. Instead, I’ll try to touch on a few things that haven’t received much attention in the debate.

In the original Indiana Jones movie, there comes a point where the heroes realize that the bad guys are “digging in the wrong place” for the Ark. They haven’t done their homework. I’m not saying Kristof is a bad guy (he’s not), but he is definitely digging in the wrong place.

1. The APSR is our flagship journal, but it is only one of many. Critiquing it with straw-man reasoning for not being policy relevant is missing out on the countless outlets and scholars intentionally seeking to engage. I know about them because I look for them. My students find them because they do a simple search. You can find unintelligible work, as well. 

2. What makes something policy relevant is not that it is dumbed-down. It is that lessons can be drawn which are applicable to making political decisions. There are many scholars who specialize in sophisticated methodological approaches, who are also capable of answering the “so what” questions. Several take the time to do so on social media and through some stellar bloggingI don't use quantitative methods in my writing; however, I am indebted to those who do. They challenge my conceptual precision and often provide counter-intuitive conclusions that make my classes and writing better. Math is nothing to be feared.

3. Teaching-focused professors, a huge chunk of the discipline, specialize in taking research and articulating it for a broader audience. Not only are we trained to translate work from academic to English, but we love to do it. We also do our own research, albeit much more slowly than those who have less than half our teaching load and who possess research budgets. As others have pointed out, teaching and research are complementary skills. 

4. Here’s where Kristof may have us; if we have these gifts for translation, we need to be out there more. That’s one reason we started this blog. There are many like it, but this one is ours. I've been incredibly impressed by the recent work by my colleague on income inequality, a highly relevant matter. Several comments have shown up on Kristof's Facebook wall critical of Twitter. I say that if you can't find insights you want on Twitter, follow different people. It is a forum for short remarks and sharing links to longer pieces worth reading.

5. Who actually wants to hear from us? My experience is that many policymakers aren’t looking for great breakdowns of policy. Instead, they want validation of previously held ideological positions. The same holds for many political scientists, so let’s not pile on too much. What’s the market for people who would actually change their policy views on the basis of something they read on Monkey Cage? Politicians who reconsider positions in the light of data are wise, but they are reviled as flip-floppers.

6. Think-tanks to the rescue? Yes and no. Many think-tanks are amazing. I steer my students to their work. The American Security Project even reached out to us here. But, others are simply bought-and-paid-for shills, helping ideologues cherry-pick studies. Don’t get me wrong; I still follow some shills because I like to be exposed to work that challenges my own views on policy. Think-tanks begun in good faith can fall prey to their own ill incentives (as opposed to the potentially bad incentives in the academy, a topic for another day). And, who holds think-tanks to account when their super-relevant work leads to policy failures (*cough* Iraq *cough*)? Good political scientists are trained to spot these folks, but I refer you back to point 5.

To close, I want to thank Kristof for highlighting for his large audience the debates that we in the discipline have been having for years. As someone who spent time in the military, I value relevance in internationally-focused research as much as anyone because if we get it right, and if leaders listen, great things can happen. I also want my students to be these wise policymakers one day.

But, rather than glance at the APSR and call us out, I would urge journalists to leverage their audiences to hold policymakers to account for failing to seek out and react to new information revealed by political scientists. Policymakers who are confused by the “inside baseball” of some of our best researchers might also want to just ask them, or a teaching professor to translate it into English before throwing the insights into the trash. For our part, academics who spend most of their work focused on teaching can be a little more visible. As Solomon wrote, in abundance of counselors, there is victory. 

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