Are Political Scientists Smug? Maybe

Last week, Greg Sargent tweeted the following:

I thought Jon Ladd dealt with this appropriately (“Have you ever tried to talk to an economist?”). But I’ve been thinking more and more about Sargent’s comment in the wake of the recent dialogue between the likes of Jonathan Bernstein, Ed Kilgore, and my co-bloggers Julia Azari and Jennifer Victor over the knowledge gaps between political scientists and the general public. Sargent, in particular, suggests that political scientists, while positing themselves as dispassionate scholars, are actually prone to exaggeration and over-compensation when the heat turns up. He criticizes “the tendency of academic folk to self-polarize a bit in order to counter what they regard as the bogus folk wisdom of journalists and operatives.”

Are we smug? Do we over-compensate? Possibly, although probably no more than any specialist in any other field. I consider this smug behavior simply a consequence of recent attempts by political scientists to reach out to a broader audience beyond the university. In fact, the discovery that political scientists are smug is a fantastic step forward. We were smug ten years ago, but no one noticed. Being accused of smugness is one of the costs of engaging the larger public and speaking with people who aren’t political scientists. We spend years developing expertise in an area, which gives us some confidence when we speak to people outside the academic bubble. But yes, that can come off as obnoxious if we aren’t careful, which just ends up alienating the people we’re trying to reach.

And yes, our description of our research may come off as exaggeration and over-compensation when we speak outside the academy. This is, in part, a by-product of scientific research, in which we are trained to rigorously test and re-test our ideas, to issue caveats about the tenuous nature of our findings, to control for various confounding factors, and to consider alternate hypotheses. This is a vital part of the scientific process, but it makes for lousy public debate. Condensing a 30-page academic paper into an 800-word blog post, a two-minute conversation with a reporter, or a 140-character tweet will undoubtedly make it more interesting, but will come at a considerable cost. The caveats, the nuance, the alternate hypotheses, and nearly everything else is dumped overboard in favor of pith and persuasion. “Third quarter economic growth in 2016 will pick the next presidential election” is just far more interesting than “Election year economic growth tends to be associated with greater vote shares for the incumbent party’s presidential candidate, but can be mitigated by war or ideological extremism, and campaign spending probably won’t have much of an impact unless it’s a close race, and 2016 is an out-of-sample prediction anyway so we can’t have too much confidence in it.”

So let’s just concede the point. Yes, we can be smug sometimes. And we can be better than that. And while journalists can certainly be smug, too (read an op-ed page lately?), the better ones have figured out a good antidote: they ask a lot of questions. It’s hard to come off as a smug know-it-all when you’re making inquiries, and that’s as much a part of good journalism as it is a part of good scholarship.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

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