NYT's Nick Kristof Sparks Debate: Are Political Scientists Relevant?

Scholars, especially political scientists, have become irrelevant to public debates, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof argued Saturday. After scolding the academic discipline for not engaging the public and using new tools, such as Twitter and blogs, political scientists went to their blogs and Twitter feeds to let Kristof know that they are doing exactly what Kristof complains they are not doing.

"Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don't matter in today's great debates," Kristof wrote.

"The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: 'That's academic.' In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant."

To support his argument, Kristof cited a few academics (all of whom are counter-examples to his thesis): Anne-Marie Slaughter, former dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School and a former Obama administration official, Will McCants, who works in a Washington, D.C. think tank, Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian and writer for The New Yorker, and Ian Bremmer, a Stanford political scientist who runs a consulting firm.

Kristof also supported his view by reminding his audience of the many stereotypes of academics: academic disciplines are too specialized, use too much math that is difficult to understand, prioritize journal publications over publications with broader reach, and publish difficult to read "gobbledygook."

Political science is singled out as a "particular offender" that is trying "to commit suicide."

While some political scientists agreed, in part, with some of his points, most reacted that Kristof understands little about which he writes.

"Dear Nicholas Kristof: We are right here!" Erik Voeten, a Georgetown University political scientist, wrote for The Washington Post's political science blog, The Monkey Cage. Voeten pointed out that hundreds of political scientists have contributed to the blog.

The Monkey Cage is a popular political science blog that was picked up by The Washington Post last September to do exactly what Kristof says political scientists are not doing – bring political science research to a broad audience.

It is not just The Washington Post that is providing an outlet for political scientists. The day before Kristof's column was published in The New York Times, The New York Times announced it was hiring two political scientists for a new website designed to educate the public about political science research.

"I think that Kristof means well, and there is surely something to the general themes he touches upon," Voeten wrote. "I am not saying that all is well in the land of pol-sci academia. Yet, the piece is just a merciless exercise in stereotyping. It's like saying that op-ed writers just get their stories from cab drivers and pay little or no attention to facts. There are hundreds of academic political scientists whose research is far from irrelevant and who seek to communicate their insights to the general public via blogs, social media, op-eds, online lectures and so on."

For other good examples of political science blogs, check out the blogroll on the left column of the original Monkey Cage blog. For some of these bloggers, it is not uncommon for their work to be cited by journalists, or to lead to interviews with journalists.

A number of other political scientists took to their personal blogs to point out to Kristof all the ways that they and their colleagues make their work relevant outside of journals and classrooms. From his perch as a columnist at The New York Times, they say, Kristof is oblivious to all the publication, interviews and consulting they do.

"If you're flying so high up in the air – Kristof tends to look down on most situations from 30,000 feet above sea level – you're not going to see much of anything," Corey Robin, a political scientist at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center, wrote. "And Kristof doesn't."

There is an irony in Kristof complaining that more political scientists should do what he does – The New York Times could fire Kristof and hire a political scientist. But as Robin pointed out, getting a gig at a high profile publication is not that easy, even for someone with academic credentials.

Kristof "only reads The New Yorker," he continued, "and then complains that everyone doesn't write for The New Yorker. (Robin credits Aaron Brady for that remark.) He doesn't see the many men and women who are in fact writing for public audiences. Nor does he see the gatekeepers – even in our new age of blogs and little magazines – that prevent supply from meeting demand."

University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket pointed out that journals are indeed difficult to read for those without training, but there is a reason for that.

"Yes, a lot of us use fairly sophisticated quantitative methods in this process," he wrote. "We do so not to be obscure but to be sure that what we have discovered is real. And yes, our language can be somewhat jargony at times, but this is due in large part for our need for precision."

"Frankly, any academic discipline is like this, as is basically any profession. Two brain surgeons or two plumbers, when they talk shop, are going to speak in a way that outsiders will have a hard time understanding, and they'll use tools that may seem alien, or even frightening, to an outside observer. But they'll do so because they're trying to fix a problem and communicate with the other person in a way that allows them to move the conversation forward and expand both their knowledge. So pardon us, Mr. Kristof, if the APSR is a bit tough to follow; we didn't know you were reading."

Tom Pepinsky, a political science professor at Cornell, similarly argued that the problem is not so much with academics but with "public intellectuals," like Kristof himself, who prefer simplistic answers to complex questions - not the type of writing academics do, in other words.

"But let's be very clear that cutting-edge research is complicated," he wrote. "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."

(Full disclosure: Before joining The Christian Post, this reporter spent six years as an academic in the field of political science.)