Today this tweet is making the rounds:
Indeed. We know.
Over the past ten years, lots of folks have reiterated the triviality of the terrorism threat relative to other kinds of public safety or health hazards. When new attacks happen, some scholars take to the airwaves to reassure the public that the threat is not as severe as it might appear that day—and that any response ought to be proportional.
Do such claims and reassurances make a difference in guiding policy responses to terrorism? I’m doubtful.
One particular incident was fairly enlightening in this regard. Last fall after the alleged bombing of Metrojet 9268, I suggested that if IS had brought down the plane, it wasn’t as much of a game-changer as some might think. The piece was something of a response to those who suggested that attacks of this kind should precipitate major shifts in counterterrorism policy. A few days after writing the piece, I gave a radio interview in which I defended my view and offered further evidence that terrorism was a totally overblown threat—and that our misplaced obsession with it yielded all kinds of misguided, costly policies.
In the green room prior to the show, I chatted about this claim with the show’s other guest, a former FBI and homeland security official. He said he bought the statistics about the triviality of the terrorism threat, but that those statistics don’t matter. His basic point was that evidence does not drive policy responses to terrorism. Politics does. If politicians want to avoid accusations of falling asleep at the switch, they have to react to terrorism as if the media hype about it were true. I noted that this, of course, produces a vicious cycle, wherein politicians consistently reinforce rather than contest the narrative that terrorism is an existential threat to society (a process also theorized and documented in various scholarly works). Although he basically agreed with me, this fellow concluded that calling for proportionality based on such statistics was informative but essentially useless from a policy perspective.
This anecdote contains a powerful lesson for those who want to do engaged work in the traditional policy domain. There is increasing pressure for social scientists to do policy-relevant research, and there are increasingly more resources for them to do so. But fewer people pay attention to whether their work is “politics-relevant.” Many formal decisionmakers don’t give a damn whether research points toward (or against) a specific policy recommendation, unless it also points to the way in which that decisionmakers can advocate for and implement that evidence-based approach while inoculating themselves from potential political consequences. The terrorism domain provides an extreme example of this, but other hot-button policy issues have similar dynamics.
So for those scholars wanting to pursue effective policy engagement in their careers, it’s not just about interpreting a complex argument into digestible chunks and bringing attention to your work. It’s also about demonstrating how policymakers can use the information while navigating the political landscape. And it’s about informing the public–one’s community, activists, local media, and other changemakers–so that they can pressure their elected officials to embrace and advocate for evidence-based policy.
In other words, to be an effective engaged scholar, “politics-relevance” is essential too.