That Kristof Column

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).

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.

Comments 10

  1. Dom February 17, 2014

    I agree with a lot of this, but I think Kristof does make an interesting point about how economists seem to be more influential in public policy debates than political scientists. I don’t buy his ham-fisted reasoning (that they tend to be more conservative) but I do think we’d be hard pressed to dismiss economics as methodologically lax or superficial. I suspect that part of the explanation is that many of the basic terminology for the discipline are now widely known and accepted (such as GDP), so economists don’t need to spend paragraphs explaining them, whereas political science is still a bit of a mystery to many in the broader public.

  2. tompepinsky February 17, 2014

    Oh I agree. The fact that economics can be as relevant as it is is prima facie evidence that we don’t need to be simple, or to get rid of abstract and abstruse language, in order to be influential.

    As to how to get us to such a level of influence, I don’t know but I suspect that the answer will have to be more effective (and actually NONPARTISAN) organization and lobbying. We need an NBER for political science.

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  6. Diana Brazzell February 21, 2014

    Like Nicholas Kristof, we wish academic knowledge reached more audiences outside of narrow academic disciplines. This challenge led us to create Footnote (, an online media company that collaborates with academics to translate their research and expertise for a mainstream audience.

 In working with scholars from top schools, we’ve found that academics are eager to share their knowledge with the public and excited to discuss the implications of their research for policy, business, and society. What they need are platforms and partners to help them translate their expertise into a form that combines academic rigor with language and ideas the public can understand and engage with. 

The incentives in academia encourage scholars to focus on communicating with a narrow audience of peers, but the drive to move beyond that and take up the mission of a public intellectual, even in a small way, is strong. It’s just not something we should expect academics to do alone.

  7. Don February 23, 2014

    Nice response, Tom.

    A social science statistics textbook I used in grad school began with a remark something like the following: “it is an unfortunate reality that god gave all the easy questions to the physicists.” Without inviting tribal warfare with our first cousins in econ, I wonder if one reason economics has greater traction in policy circles is because economic markets, however complex and non-linear, are sometimes more conducive to forecasting than the political markets that we contend with. (Though just barely. I would’ve loved to have been in the cloak room when Keynes was explaining “Animal Spirits” theory to heads of state).

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