Monday, February 17, 2014

Kristof still doesn't get it.

Nicholas Kristof has doubled-down on his very misguided column this weekend, which called on social scientists to be more relevant. A chorus of scholars answered him by noting that, in fact, political scientists are engaging the public more than ever, and that at any rate, explaining scholarship to the public is not our primary job. 

In his follow up, Kristof claims his column is not "a denunciation of academia," but he continues to miss the point of most of his critics. 

First, political science is not behind a "moat." Indeed, the problem isn't a lack of attempts to explain the findings of social science to the rest of the world. It's that too many political journalists are actively resisting those findings, even when they are presented in plain English. Fortunately, this knowledge-phobia is declining, but it's not gone. Too many journalists think that just because they interviewed some people in power once, they have nothing to learn from people who sometimes use some math.

I think this is why Kristof's concern trolling touched such a nerve. It's the op-ed page equivalent of pummeling the discipline with its own arm while chanting "Why are you hitting yourself? Why are you hitting yourself?" 

Second, Kristof still doesn't get what professors do. He seems to think we're just sitting in our offices, knowing stuff. He laments that "some professors would oppose Bill Clinton getting a tenured professorship in government today because of his lack of a Ph.D, even though he arguably understands government today better than any other American." 

OK, I'll bite. I don't think Clinton should be given a "tenured professorship."+ Not because of his lack of a Ph.D. per se, but because, smart as he is, Clinton is not a scholar. He doesn't do research. He is not in the business of contributing to the store of human knowledge. If Clinton is given a job as a tenured professor, what would he do? A "tenured professorship" is not a plum given to reward success. It's an actual job.

The job of a professor is not the same as "being smart." Academics write those pesky obscure papers that Kristof finds impenetrable and irrelevant because that's how we learn things. The demands for publication may have perversities, but it is what drives people to do research. To take an example close to this blog's heart, suppose you want to know whether an institution like the top-two primary in California will lead to more moderate candidates?  Pundits assert without evidence that the top-two primary will have that effect. But to actually find out, scholars look carefully at who wins and who loses those elections, with well thought-out measures of ideological extremism. And that means you need other scholars to do the very jargon-laden, mathematically complicated job of figuring out how to measure extremism. What they find is that the pundits are wrong. 

And so, yes, this work can be a little technical. And yes, there are perverse incentives in the peer review process. But the drive to publish technical scholarship itself is not the problem. Indeed, that drive is necessary for us to learn the things that Kristof wants us to share.

Because if you don't do the research, you end up with nothing useful to say. 

No offense. 

EDIT 2/27/14

Since it is possible that my reply to Tyler Cowan's reaction to this post on his page may get lost, I'll add it below as well. 

Cowan writes: 

I would offer a tenured professorship to any ex-President who is willing to spend real time with students and academic programs.  ...  A class actually taught by Clinton, even half of the time with another professor doing most of the actual work, would be fascinating.  

I recently read Noel’s book on political polarization and enjoyed it, especially his discussion of how intellectual elites have led the process of polarization.  Still, I would trade in having read that book for a five minute chat with Bill Clinton.

Is it possible you are confusing "professor of the practice" with "tenured professorship"? Because no one would object to giving Clinton a position primarily oriented toward teaching. No. One. This is a very common arrangement, as you know. I noted as much in my post (albeit in easy-to-miss hover-text). Yes, there are "tenured" faculty who don't do research, but not so much in political science departments. In general, "tenured professorship" implies research, and that's what was understood when Kristol spoke of anonymous professors who would oppose a tenured Clinton in their departments. If that's where the quibble is -- that "professors of the practice" can technically have tenure -- then there is no argument. Usually, these are special arrangements.

In the context of the discussion, which was about the importance of social science research, a social science department filled with Clintons would be a disaster, because it would produce no knowledge. And I suspect that Clinton, who relies on the social science research of others in his foundation, would agree.

I think I'd trade reading my book for a 5 minute chat with Bill Clinton too. I'd also trade it for a 5 minute chat with David Tennant, though, so take that for what's worth.

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