The Washington Post

Dear Nicholas Kristof: We are right here!

Nicholas Kristof has a well-meaning but highly dramatic and one-sided op-ed in the New York Times, desperately shouting out: “Professors, We Need You!” The piece rehashes familiar claims that seem to resonate well on the Times opinion page: academics write in obtuse prose on arcane tiny issues that are of little interest to the public. Even worse, they sometimes use math. Political science is in especially dire shape:

My onetime love, political science, is a particular offender and seems to be trying, in terms of practical impact, to commit suicide.

One of the main culprits is quantitative work, which is, obviously, of no value or interest to the broader world. Kristof even has some numbers to back this up!

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, one-fifth of articles in The American Political Science Review focused on policy prescriptions; at last count, the share was down to 0.3 percent.

That particular piece of information (which is about a type of article the Review no longer publishes) says nothing about whether articles are about topics of broader relevance. For example, the latest issue of the journal contains articles about Afghan support for the ISAF mission, Muslim and Hindu cooperation in South India, and the financing of American wars (among others). And the American Political Science Association created a new journal, Perspectives on Politics, to offer precisely the kind of articles Kristof seems to want.

Kristof also makes much about the latest spat where a committee of the International Studies Association proposed that its editors should not keep private blogs:

The association might as well scream: We want our scholars to be less influential!

He did not mention that professors themselves quickly screamedNo way! The proposal is dead, and political scientists everywhere are happily blogging away. Indeed, here at the Monkey Cage, we have featured hundreds of guest posts by professors; pretty much all of them relating their own research to topics of relevance.

I think that Kristof means well, and there is surely something to the general themes he touches upon. I am not saying that all is well in the land of pol-sci academia. Yet, the piece is just a merciless exercise in stereotyping. It’s like saying that op-ed writers just get their stories from cab drivers and pay little or no attention to facts. There are hundreds of academic political scientists whose research is far from irrelevant and who seek to communicate their insights to the general public via blogs, social media, op-eds, online lectures and so on. They are easier to find than ever before. Indeed The New York Times just found one to help fill the void of Nate Silver’s departure. I am with Steve Saideman that political scientists are now probably engaging the public more than ever.

Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh Associate Professor of Geopolitics and Justice in World Affairs at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government.



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Joshua Tucker · February 15, 2014

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