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Should Political Scientists Engage the Public Sphere?

- September 23, 2010

This is my last post on this subject for a while (I hope). In my previous posts, linked at bottom, I’ve reported on this APSA panel with several journalists, suggested some ways that political science can engage the public sphere, and both offered some thoughts (and cited Harold Wilensky’s thoughts) on when and why political and social science is incorporated into policymaking.

This post is about some possible rejoinders to the notion that political scientists should be engaging the public sphere.

Rejoinder #1: Academics who garner public attention get punished.
As Henry “mentioned”:https://themonkeycage.org/2010/09/when_political_science_counted.html, at the APSA panel Dan Drezner suggested that a New York Times story about the research of untenured faculty was the worst thing that could happen to them. This point attracted perhaps the most attention of anything else that was said in the panel (“Matt Yglesias”:http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/2010/09/if-a-working-paper-falls-in-the-wilderness-and-a-journalist-hears-about-it-is-that-worse/, “Scott Erik Kaufman”:http://acephalous.typepad.com/acephalous/2010/09/the-short-answer-yglesiass-question-is-yes.html, “Seth Masket”:http://enikrising.blogspot.com/2010/09/is-there-risk-to-academic-bloggers.html).

Let’s deal with the Drezner scenario first: your scholarship gets media attention. Is this a bad thing, especially for junior faculty? Probably not. First, most colleges and universities are thrilled when their faculty’s research gets noticed. Second, even at those few (elite) universities where public attention risks earning you the label of “non-seriousness” (Yglesias’s term), what are the chances that a little media attention serious endangers one’s chances of tenure or one’s career trajectory generally? Virtually none. If you research record is sound, the fact that an article got mentioned in a major newspaper is hardly going to submarine your career, unless your colleagues are jealous freaks.

Let’s deal with another scenario. I suggested in an earlier post that more political scientists could engage the public sphere by blogging. Is this a danger for junior faculty? Only if (1) your blogging seriously infringes on your ability to do published research, good teaching, or whatever the criteria for tenure are at your school, or (2) your colleagues are, for whatever reason, instinctively suspicious of blogging, perhaps because it smacks of non-seriousness, aspirations to be a public intellectual, or what have you. If either of these is true for you then, duh, don’t blog. If they aren’t true, then there is no reason to assume that blogging is a serious detriment to anyone’s career. Seth’s “point”:http://enikrising.blogspot.com/2010/09/is-there-risk-to-academic-bloggers.html is also correct: there is no guarantee that blogging will help your career either. But I think that fears about blogging or anything else that might promote your research are mostly exaggerated.

Rejoinder #2: Who cares about journalists?
Here is “Robert Farley”:http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2010/09/apsa-panel-on-political-science-and-journalism:

bq. What the panel didn’t really touch on, and what I’m interested in for obvious reasons, is the phenomenon of political scientists using the tools they’ve been given to speak to the audiences that journalists normally command. I suppose that this gets back to the first point; why should political scientists really bother making their work accessible to journalists, when they could just make their work accessible to the audiences that journalists have? While I am convinced that the current preferred model of political science interaction with the public (none) is untenable, I’m not certain that making ourselves relevant to a profession that’s dying faster than our own is the right way to go.

Farley is suggesting, I think, that scholars can just engage with policymakers and cut out the journalistic middleman, as it were. Dan Drezner also “makes this point”:http://drezner.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/09/06/on_the_matter_of_international_relations_theory_and_american_political_journalism. And it is a fair point. My instinct to engage with journalists probably stems from the biases that stem from studying mostly American politics, whereby I see that the audience is much more the media than policymakers (which probably is as damning of the American politics subfield as anything else). But I think the spirit of what the panelists were saying, and what I’ve been saying, remains: the broader problem is that political science isn’t engaging _any_ community (policymakers, reporters, etc.) as well as it could. Whatever the target audience, we could be doing more.

Rejoinder #3: Journalists don’t care about political science.
Or, to put it more charitably, the the “fit” between academic and journalistic perspectives is always imperfect. This idea was discussed in various places after the panel (“Barry Pump”:http://staff.washington.edu/bpump/wordpress/2010/09/03/apsa-miscellany/, “Drezner”:http://drezner.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/09/06/on_the_matter_of_international_relations_theory_and_american_political_journalism, “Pump again”:http://staff.washington.edu/bpump/wordpress/2010/09/03/irony-thy-name-is-pump/, “Will Wilkinson”:http://www.economist.com/node/21010609).

First point. Of course journalists should ignore a lot of academic research. The majority of research, I would guess, is spadework. It refines existing studies. It engages in purely methodological debates. Etc. It’s just not front-page material. And that’s fine. It’s just how disciplines accumulate knowledge.

Second point. Of course it is hard to reconcile the incentives of journalists and academics. Journalists have a 5 pm deadline to write about some event. Academics are lucky if their research gets published 2 years after that event. All of this doesn’t need rehashing.

Third point: We can certainly lay some blame at the feet of journalists, as Pump and Wilkinson suggest. Not so much because they didn’t read the latest APSR as because their general approach bypasses much of what political science has learned. I can link to a jillion posts that I’ve written that illustrate this. If we expect business and economics reporters to have some acquaintance with the academic study of economics, and if we expect health reporters to have some acquaintance with medical research, then I think it is fair to ask the same of political reporters and political science.

Final point. And this is my final point for a while. Let’s stipulate that any individual scholar could find that “engaging the public sphere” has more costs than benefits. I think that’s unlikely in most cases, but I certainly won’t quibble if any person comes to that conclusion. The question is what political science _as a discipline_ should be doing (if I can sidestep the collective action problem inherent in posing the question to the discipline). We shouldn’t be overly neurotic, worrying about every possible negative consequence of media attention. Most of those are imaginary. We shouldn’t be overly self-critical: of course political science has its disputes, its pathologies, and its blind spots. So what? Are supposed to perfect the discipline before we publicize its findings? And we shouldn’t sit on our hands and blame journalists, policymakers, or the public for ignoring us. Many of them always will, so it doesn’t do us any good to do nothing but complain.

Ultimately, the lesson is this: if we think there’s something valuable in what we have learned, then we should make it known. Full stop.

Earlier posts:
“What Political Scientists Can Offer Journalists”:https://themonkeycage.org/2010/09/what_political_scientists_can.html
“5 Ways To Get Political Science Into the Public Sphere”:https://themonkeycage.org/2010/09/things_political_science_can_d.html
“On the Irrelevance of Political Science (Redux)”:https://themonkeycage.org/2010/09/on_the_irrelevance_of_politica_1.html
More on the Irrelevance of Political (and Social) Science