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How political scientists can be rigorous and relevant at the same time

As the American Political Science Association starts its meeting, some rules of thumb for how to stay relevant

Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman speaks during an interview in New York, May 4, 2012, unworried about his standing as a scholar or his policy relevance. Damn him and the discipline he rode in on!!!  REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

The American Political Science Association is beginning its annual meetings tomorrow — hopefully with a bit less drama than how things went last year.

These meetings are usually a moment for stock-taking among political scientists about their standing in terms of rigor and relevancy.  The glib answer is “better than Uzbekistan.” The less-than-glib answer is more complicated.

In terms of rigor, well, there have been a few setbacks as of late, but also evidence that the discipline will be moving forward on making sure mistakes are not made so frequently. In terms of relevancy, there are the standard complaints about professionalization making it harder to ask the Big Questions.  But truthfully, there are a lot of ways in which the profession is trying to bridge that gap.

My own piece of advice on this question is simple.  The best way for academics to maximize their rigor and their relevance is to focus on those areas where the Beltway consensus is at variance with the academic consensus.  This means paying attention to two literatures — the political science-y stuff and the wonk stuff that appears here, in Foreign Affairs, or in Foreign Policy.

If there is a gap, that’s fantastic for political scientists. Because that creates a pretty easy-to-write paper that demonstrates the policy consensus, then discusses the academic consensus, and ideally provides data to explain why the gap persists. Often it’s because the policymakers retain untested assumptions, like China’s holdings of U.S. debt giving China foreign policy leverage. But sometimes it might be because policymakers think about the question differently, which in turn can provoke academic reconsideration of the question.  Take, for example, the ongoing debate about the role of reputation in international crises.  The overwhelming consensus in international relations theory used to be that it didn’t matter much at all. Now, there’s a reevaluation going on.

Eighteen months ago, I warned about the pitfalls of this strategy for academics:

For the academic interested in policymaking, the presumed goal is translating cutting-edge research into accessible prose for those in power. That can be useful, but what is even more useful is telling policymakers facts that seem obvious to academics. It’s the settled wisdom in the academy, the “blinding glimpse of the obvious,” that often needs to be disseminated to policymakers. Because academics mostly talk to other academics, however, they are often unaware that what seems obvious to them is not obvious at all to the other tribes.
The problem is that the academic incentives to write about the settled wisdom are close to nil.

What’s changed in my advice is that I think the academic incentives might be better than I thought. There is academic value in pointing out that policymakers think differently about an isue than academics, and value in testing whether any academic consensus is robust enough or not. My “Bad Debts” essay has been very, very good to me — good enough to merit a favorable mention from Paul Krugman earlier this week.

Which raises a point that’s worth making again: economists never seem to worry about this whole rigor vs. relevance debate. Why is that? I’ll be offering an answer to that tomorrow, because it’s relevant to the future of political science.