What an Academic Wants, What Kristof Needs…

As most readers will know by now, Nicholas Kristof today wrote a New York Times column entitled “Professors, We Need You!,” calling upon academics to engage the political world and chastising us for retreating to our ivory towers and burying our findings in numbers and turgid prose.

I’ve seen two types of responses from political scientists so far. One is the claim that Kristof severely misunderstands what political scientists do. The other is that he completely ignores the public activity that many of us are currently doing. I’ll take these in turn.

While there are some public intellectuals among our ranks, for the most part, we are hired to research (at least those of us in tenure-track jobs), and we are promoted and tenured (or not) on our ability to do just that. Research involves examining an area of scholarship that is insufficiently understood and trying to press it forward, usually by developing new theories or building new data sets to test them. Yes, a lot of us use fairly sophisticated quantitative methods in this process. 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.

That said, it may well be that political science has a particular responsibility among the academic disciplines to engage the practical world. Erik Voeten at the Monkey Cage addresses this nicely, noting that many political scientists have been doing exactly that. The blogroll at right lists a number of excellent political scientists who have chosen to write on current public affairs not because their universities demand it, but because they feel an obligation to explain political phenomena to the larger political world and desire to participate in public debates. For Pete’s sake, Kristof’s own newspaper just hired Brendan Nyhan and Lynn Vavreck for this very purpose.

And some might even view our activities as occasionally consequential. My fellow Mischief Greg Koger was among those political scientists who explained to the U.S. Senate that it could eliminate the filibuster with just 51 votes, and they did it (at least on judicial nominations). Other political scientists, including another fellow Mischief, Jennifer Victor, were among those who agitated for restoring NSF funds for the political science program. That happened. I’m certainly not suggesting direct causal links here, but we are clearly engaging the political world.

So I would agree with Kristof that we do have some obligation to reach out to the broader world, but not only are many of us are already doing that, but he has an obligation to reach out to see what we’re saying. It’s not hard, and many excellent journalists, including Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Peter Aldhous, and even once in a while Kristof’s own op/ed pages colleague David Brooks, are occasionally doing it. Check some of the political science blogs. Call one or two of us up once in a while. Maybe attend a conference. If you insist on thumbing through the APSR, try shooting an e-mail over to an author who is writing about a subject you care about. You’ll probably find them less prone to turgid prose when speaking to you one on one. And you might be surprised to find how many of us care about the political world and are trying to affect it.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.