What Have We Wrought?

By Steve Saideman

The ISA mess is the gift that keeps on giving. Last weekend Nicholas Kristof authored a piece in his NYT column that “addresses” the controversy. The problem is that the column is out of date. Not just in focusing on the ISA proposal that has been beaten back by the forces of reason (that would be me and other bloggers?), but that other canards get lumped in. While some noted bloggers have been denied tenure, it is highly unlikely that their blogging did them in. Indeed, there is more pressure by lots of folks (presidents, provosts, deans, grant agencies) to do more outreach.

And there is plenty of it, from Monkey Cage having a prime perch now at the Washington Post to the new news that Lynn Vavreck just got hired to replace Nate Silver to do the NYT blogging (hmm, check your own paper, dude) to Foreign Policy to Open Canada and on and on. No, APSR does not have heaps of policy prescriptive stuff, but other journals have more.

And comparing us to economists is kind of fun, given that the economists that preach stuff that politicians like (such as austerity) get heaps of love even if their stuff turns out to be quite wrong. The “no one predicted the Arab Spring” complaint reminds me of “no one predicted the end of the Cold War.” I think the former is more untrue than the latter. There was heaps of analysis about the Mideast and much of it was being disseminated to the public (just read Marc Lynch’s stuff at foreignpolicy.com and the mini-website there that he curates/edits/whatevers).

There is so much confirmation bias in this piece that it is worth of some social science. Academic journals have their place in the generation and dissemination of knowledge, even stuff jammed with jargon. That stuff has its uses, but we need to write other stuff to share our knowledge beyond the folks who are trained to understand the jargon and that is happening.

Regarding the decline of area studies, (a) blame the government for cutting the money for developing language skills, and (b) please do ignore the much fine work being done today by theory-driven folks who think comparatively while doing significant time “in the field.” The Jason Lyalls who spend much time in Afghanistan and write policy oriented stuff that is methodologically sophisticated, the Laura Seays who are deeply engaged in Africa and communicate that knowledge to the planet via Twitter, and on and on. The future is actually mighty damned bright. I am glad I don’t have to compete with these multi-skilled (language, area studies, highly technical quant skills) junior demon professors.

So, yes, we could do better, and yes, there are still folks who are stuck in the past … including those who think we are not engaging the public now more than ever.

Caveat: As the conversations ensued online after this came out, I wanted to clarify — not all political science profs should be engaged in outreach. That is one part of the job and not everyone has to do it. And junior faculty should feel the least pressure since they have to establish their credentials by publishing. If they want to do such stuff, let them. Of course, with the decline in tenure track lines, there are less folks who will have the job security to do this kind of public engagement.

A version of this post first appeared at the author’s blog.

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