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Surfing the Cesspool: Political Science Rumors and the LaCour Scandal

June 16, 2015

This is a guest post submitted by Chris Barker, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Southwestern College

For the past three weeks, “Political Science Rumors” (PSR) has been on fire over a falsified data scandal involving Michael LaCour’s research showing that the presence of a gay canvasser changes how respondents report feeling about gays. The scandal has achieved national prominence, with stories running in the New York Mag, NPR, the Chronicle of Higher Education, New York Times, and Buzzfeed. UCLA graduate student David Broockman (posting as “Reannon”) first broke the story on the PSR board in mid-December 2014, according to Jesse Singal. The moderator who runs PSR pulled the original Broockman post for undisclosed reasons; it has since been reposted to PSR. Through their initial reaction to the story, and through their continuing efforts to reconstruct what happened, PSR and its posters have become part of this story.

PSR has been called a “popular, anonymous, and often caustic forum” for political scientists. Jesse Singal’s sources called it a “cesspool.” Singal himself has tweeted that going on PSR causes his eyes to bleed. (On the other hand, he has issued and reissued  pleas for help in order to continue to report on the case.) Since PSR was the crowd from which significant chunks of this reporting was sourced, board participants (and trolls) have with some justice complained about their treatment. Instead of getting credit for policing the discipline’s standards, they’ve been treated like the jailhouse snitch in a Michael Connelly novel.

PSR’s users should have jumped all over the questions originally posted by “Reannon.” However, if Broockman hoped he could use PSR’s anonymity to pose his questions while insulating himself from potential criticism, he was naïve to ask for help from those barely his equal in credentials and job security. Policing professional research standards is not, in fact, what PSR does well. Rather, it serves as a water cooler for job market candidates, and like any water-cooler the useful information exists side-by-side with the harshest invective.

Taken as a sounding-board of a profession, PSR represents political scientists as angry, hungry, hunted people whose ranks you wouldn’t want to join. “We” political scientists apparently lurk in rippling layers of invective, all above an ocean bottom of resentment and failure. Some of us lie and defraud others. Rumor and gossip are used in turn to harass and expose the frauds and cheats. And we also use rumor to take down the strong and successful, just because we can.

Before the LaCour story sucked up all the energy in the room, recent posts on PSR addressed sensitive issues such as lateral moves for assistant professors, assistants’ taking postdocs to boost their vitae, the politics of reviewing books, and editorial decisions and editorial board changes at important journals.

These highlights make the board a good resource for understanding the state of the profession. But it is less than this. There is really no hyperbolic expression that one could use to describe PSR that would outdo something already written by someone on PSR  – especially by someone just crushed in the PSR rumor mill. As Thomas Carlyle wrote in Sartor Resartus ― some say to criticize his utilitarian acquaintance and one-time friend JS Mill, which would make a perfect rumor mill post — it is “the vast, gloomy, solitary Golgotha, and Mill of Death!” The board invites you to sit in judgment on friends, enemies, and strangers, anonymously grading their accomplishments. You get to know your resentments intimately when you see yourself through the lens of the board.

The problems and group-think of the job market do need to be probed. Candidates’ treatment by hiring committees can be cavalier and partial. It is worth knowing that, during your campus visit, when the search committee member gets lost and drives you to a porn store for directions, it wasn’t really about you. (This is a true story). More importantly, committees tend to stick with generally accepted signposts of prestige and worth, or to personal connections, rather than judge candidates by their work. Graduate students can’t easily learn the value of their degree and research until they’ve experienced the broader profession. It is here that the worth of the mill is apparent. It is a rumor mill, after all, dragged back and forth by public opinion, where success very nearly is collective approbation.

Moreover, candidates themselves have various hang-ups about where they want to work, and what they want to do. You might think that academic searches should chose candidates purely on the basis of their CVs and recommendations, as an academic recently demanded. But in a revealing and intelligent post one aspiring academic outlined sixteen elements of her “job wish list,” of which eight arguably spoke to personal, geographic, and identity preferences. This shows that the political is personal. The way that we speak on PSR inevitably becomes personal, too.

PSR has an opportunity to serve a valuable function doing the legwork of questioning the validity of LaCour’s counter-claims. As the media site that posted LaCour’s response crudely states at the bottom of its summary of the LaCour piece: “The paper also includes pages of charts.” If that isn’t an invitation to PSR to do better than they did when Broockman posted the initial data, there really is no “fact-checking” use for the site. To their credit, PSRers have been trying to keep access alive to the LaCour files that he initially posted on Dropbox.

But even if it performs well in handling the LaCour aftermath, we must not forget how poorly PSR handles the job market. (My particular subfield is at special fault here. I am always refreshed when I leave our particular eddy to bathe in the broader “cesspool.”) Political science needs an agora for the ambitious to meet. This one is a bad connection, a failed download, an untranslatable conversation. PSR shouldn’t be the conscience of the profession or a workshop for verifying colleagues’ work. But it can be more than what it is.

PSR needs to step up in regular and crisis times, or let political science opinion shift somewhere more salutary, perhaps to a site without anonymous posting, and with set threads dealing with specific job openings; and, above all, to a place that is moderated in a much more thorough and professional manner, perhaps behind a pay wall in order to shift the costs of civility and sanity back onto the free-riding individual. Then, no one can complain that they are funneled into PSR because it is the only choice.

To my fellow political scientists: if you build it, they will come. If the walls are high enough, and their boundaries clear enough, they will be forced to remain (if not to come) in peace.



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Steve Saideman is Professor and the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He has written The Ties That Divide: Ethnic Politics, Foreign Policy and International Conflict; For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism and War (with R. William Ayres); and NATO in Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone (with David Auerswald), and elsewhere on nationalism, ethnic conflict, civil war, and civil-military relations.