Henry Kissinger famously said that academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.
Well, maybe. Here's one recent dustup that was more fun than serious and proved that some social scientists do, too, have a sense of humor -- as well as an impressive working knowledge of country and pop music, Broadway musicals and 1960s television shows.
It began last year when Texas A&M political scientist Kenneth J. Meier published an article in the usually solemn Policy Studies Journal with a title based on a line in a John Denver song: "Get Your Tongue Out of My Mouth 'Cause I'm Kissin' You Goodbye: The Politics of Ideas." (John must have come up with that one while on a Rocky Mountain High.)
In the essay, Meier offers a novel argument: that many now well-established theories of social behavior appeared first in the lyrics of country and western songs even before they were proposed by scholars or policymakers. One of his examples: country singer Hank Williams Jr.'s observation in a 1982 song that "Nobody wants to get drunk and get loud, All my rowdy friends have settled down." Meier asserts with a wink that Williams's insight clearly was "borrowed" by social theorists such as James Q. Wilson, who later suggested that the high post-1960s crime rates would decline toward the end of the 20th century as all those baby boomers grew out of their crime-prone teens and twenties.
Other scholars gleefully disagreed with Meier. Peter deLeon of the University of Colorado at Denver argued in the February issue of Policy Studies Journal that Broadway musicals, not country songs, were the real source of the freshest insights in the social sciences. His article was titled "I'm Vexed Again/Perplexed Again . . . An Alternative View of the Politics of Ideas," swiping a line from a Rodgers and Hart song.
Both are wrong, contended political scientist Richard W. Waterman of the University of Kentucky, also in Policy Studies. "It is television that provides the real wellspring of political ideas in America," he claimed. For example, Waterman suggested that "Lost in Space" must have been the inspiration for President Bush's sudden interest a few years ago in sending a manned mission to Mars. (So that's where that idea came from!)
Waterman also asserted that TV's role in celebrating the exceptional powers of animals laid the groundwork for the animal rights movement. For example, the classic show "Flipper" demonstrated that "sea-bound mammals are smarter than people." And even a casual viewer of 1960s cartoons would have to agree with Waterman that "America indeed would be a better place if it were run by Bullwinkle Moose."
Not to be outdone, Meier responded with a published salvo that borrowed the title of a tune popularized by the Austin Lounge Lizards: "Jesus Loves Me, But He Can't Stand You: A Reply to My Out-of-Tune Critics."
Stop it boys, you're killin' me! When contacted last week, Meier says he and his clever critics have declared a truce and returned to serious research -- at least for the moment.
"I think the current exchange is over," Meier said in an e-mail, adding "public policy scholarship does not need to be dull."
The Academic Songbook
Scholars wishing to follow professor Kenneth J. Meier's lead for their next research article might consider these country and western titles:
Billy Broke My Heart at Walgreens and I Cried All the Way to Sears (Ruby Wright)
I Spent My Last Ten Dollars on Birth Control and Beer (Gretchen Phillips)
If My Nose Was Running Money, Honey, I'd Blow It All on You (Michael Carr, Michael Hammond)
Did I Shave My Legs for This? (Deana Carter)
How Can I Miss You If You Won't Go Away? (Dan Hicks)
Never Went to Bed With an Ugly Woman but I Sure Woke Up With a Few (Bobby Bare)
My Wife Ran Off With My Best Friend and I Sure Do Miss Him (Phil Earhart)
You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly (Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty)
Too Dumb for New York, Too Ugly for L.A. (Waylon Jennings)
Thanks to the Cathouse, I'm in the Doghouse With You (Max Barnes, Frank Saulino & James Valentini)
Was There a Girl on Your Boys' Night Out? (Terri Clark)
You Done Stomped on My Heart and Mashed That Sucker Flat (Mason Williams)
You Shot the TV but You Were Aiming at Me (Chuck Wagon & the Wheels)
You might have read recently in the pages of this beloved newspaper the various claims that computer games are good for children because they increase coordination and are great for everyone because they give our brains an invigorating "cognitive workout."
Well, perhaps. But violent video games -- the kind that most people, especially teenage boys, love to play -- discourage interpersonal cooperation and promote selfishness, claim psychologists Brad E. Sheese and William G. Graziano of Purdue University. They report their findings in the current issue of the journal Psychological Science.
Sheese and Graziano tested 48 college students, randomly assigning half to play the violent version of the popular video game Doom and half to play a less violent version. After playing the game for 25 minutes, the students participated in a task in which they had three choices: They could cooperate with a partner for mutual gain, they could refuse to participate or they could exploit their partner for their own benefit.
The psychologists found that those who played the violent version were far more likely to exploit their partner than those who played the tamer one -- "clear evidence that engaging in violent game play makes people more likely to deliberately choose to exploit their partners," they concluded.
A Vote for Unintended Consequences
So have three decades of electoral reforms had any effect on the proportion of less advantaged Americans who vote on Election Day?
Yes -- but not in the way that the advocates of reform envisioned, says political scientist Adam J. Berinsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writing in the latest issue of American Politics Research.
Instead of luring the young, the poor and those with less interest in politics to the ballot box, new initiatives such as Oregon's vote-by-mail law have provoked greater participation from older, wealthier and white voters.
In a classic case of unintended consequences, Berinsky's review of all major election-law changes of the past three decades found that "reforms designed to make it easier for registered voters to cast their ballots actually increase, rather than reduce, socioeconomic biases in the composition of the voting public."