Thoughts on Academics and the Public Sphere

Following Nicholas Kristof’s provocative call to social scientists to be more engaged in public debates (“Professors, We Need You!“), Ezra Klein has weighed in with a thoughtful riposte (“The Real Reason Nobody Reads Academics“). To a much greater degree, I think, Klein hits the nail on the head: even interested journalists have a hard time keeping track of academic insights because distribution of those insights via journals is costly and highly inefficient.

The problem I see with this point, though, is that journals aren’t meant to serve as vehicles for specialists to communicate with nonspecialists. For the most part, they serve as a collective repository for basic research in the social sciences. And that’s exactly as it should be. As a recent article in the Boston Globe points out,

There is a huge zeitgeist for research that translates existing knowledge into cures, treatments, and technologies. That’s in part because it’s easy to explain the relevance to the public — it might cure Alzheimer’s or cancer or lead to a technology that transforms society and creates jobs. Who could argue against those lofty goals?

But the idea that marshalling existing knowledge into products will solve the biggest problems facing society is naive. … The point of science is to make discoveries, and if it were already known which areas would yield insights that would be useful, scientific inquiry wouldn’t be necessary.

Don’t get me wrong: We could (and should!!) create something like ArXiv, the archive and distribution website for a handful of mostly hard-science disciplines. Indeed, the Society for Political Methodology does a great job at this for articles on methodology, and I’d love to see that model applied to political science more generally. But it wouldn’t help journalists all that much, because most of the research would be theoretical—the raw material from which applied insights can later be mined.

Moreover, as this point suggests, relevant academic insights are rarely published contemporaneously. Most of the theoretical material that academic commentators draw on was published years ago. One of the more relevant insights for America’s response to the situation in Ukraine, for example—to my mind, anyway—, comes from Jim Fearon’s article, “Selection Effects and Deterrence” (International Interactions, 2002). Jim points out that deterrent threats issued during crises will tend to fail because the initiator will already have taken them into account. Worse, the same logic leads to the conclusion that the most credible threats are exactly the ones that are most likely to fail—not because of their credibility or any lack of resolve on the part of the issuer (got that, Lindsey Graham?) but because of the situations in which they’re issued. This isn’t a contemporary article by any means, but the insight is important  for American policymakers and commentators alike. It’s difficult to imagine someone who isn’t an academic knowing that it exists. For that reason, it’s difficult to imagine a means for journalists to apply academic insights that doesn’t involve academics.

At present, I think two models for doing what Klein wants have evolved that make a lot of sense. The first, as he notes, is the academic group blog—The Monkey Cage being one of the best examples (but don’t miss Duck of Minerva, Political Violence @ a Glance, and others). These give academics the freedom to contribute only when we really have something to say.

The second model is the University Office of Communications, which can do a remarkable job of translating and disseminating research findings when they are relevant to current affairs. From what I can tell, surprisingly few social scientists seem to make use of this office. If ours is representative, they will read your paper, write up a press release in plain English, and post it wherever such things get posted so that journalists will find them. Their ability to convey the importance of our findings and to make contact with journalists is a tremendous asset, one of which we should avail ourselves when the opportunity arises.

So while Klein is right about the problems that academic journals represent for engaged journalists, I’m not sure that solving those problems would benefit journalists as much as it would academics. We need to accept at least some of the responsibility for our own obscurity and take steps to rectify it when we can, and those steps need to be recognized as valuable by our institutions. At the same time, the public (and Congress) needs to recognize the value of basic research that doesn’t have clear and immediate applications.