Nick Kristof’s recent column singles out the social sciences and humanities for failing to be relevant and publicly engaged, and names political science as one of the worst offenders. It has ticked off plenty of political scientists, who wonder (quite reasonably) what planet Kristof is on. The rise of publicly engaged political science is one of the great stories of our discipline in the past decade. People will write entire dissertations about phenomena like the Monkey Cage and the Duck of Minerva, and how new media have shaped political science as a discipline.
I don’t have much more to add about the general critique that Kristof simply isn’t paying attention. I would note that Kristof’s accompanying swipes against quantification and the decline of area studies as producing irrelevant and disengaged scholarship are just uninformed. (They also smack of innumeracy.)
Amidst all the hullabaloo, though, something has been missed. The responses from the Monkey Cage and Duck of Minerva are basically pleas for greater attention: “we are right here!” But let’s be very clear that cutting-edge research is complicated. Conclusions are provisional, conditional, and usually unsatisfying. New research is fallible. Language is abstruse because it’s precise. We often have to say that we don’t know something, that actionable conclusions are hard to draw given the evidence available to us. And exactly none of those things fit well with what Kristof seems to have in mind.
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.
Consider this Twitter exchange to be one sad illustration: the editor of Foreign Policy wants to “dial back” the academics (and a smart journalist has a witty retort).
Sweeping, likely wrong preferred MT @djrothkopf Kristof gets why FP dialing back acad. contributions. Too many are opaque, incremental, dull
— Dan Murphy (@bungdan) February 16, 2014
Of course, I’d like to see more venues for political science like VoxEU that reach out to broader policy audiences with short summaries of cutting-edge research. But while it’s great for academics to strive for greater public engagement (see, for example, this blog), it is not our problem that the Kristofs of the world aren’t interested in what we’re selling.