How Can We Vaccinate Against Viral Political Science?

31 August 2021, 0945 EDT

In “Political Science Has Its Own Lab Leaks,” Paul Musgrave highlights the damage wrought by academic ideas and findings that have escaped into the real world. Having gone through the wringer of peer review, he contends, our work is designed to withstand objection—making it particularly dangerous in the hands of journalists and policy-makers. As ideas migrate outside of academia, they are often stripped of their nuance; scope conditions and caveats carefully included in academic work may be ignored or misunderstood. 

If we want to avoid “lab leaks” – or at least mitigate the damage – then we need to understand how they happen. The article glosses over this issue; its central metaphor suggests that the process is an accidental one. Yet while all peer-reviewed research has theoretically passed through the hoops Musgrave argues prepare to survive outside of academia, only some ideas make the jump. 

The desire for relevance may also tempt scholars to apply theories more broadly than their scope conditions warranted. 

Some academic ideas make their way into wild through the deliberate efforts by scholars to promote their own work through Monkey Cage pieces, Atlantic articles, and the like. Musgrave likens such venues to “wet markets where wild ideas are introduced to new and vulnerable populations.” The example Musgrave cites here, Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, first introduced in a Foreign Affairs article, is a particularly egregious one. Nonetheless, the time pressures and space constraints inherent in public scholarship can lead even the most meticulous scholars to remove the nuance from their findings or to overweight conclusions from a single piece of research. The desire for relevance may also tempt scholars to apply theories more broadly than their scope conditions warranted. 

Other ideas, however, gain wider tracking through direct appropriation by journalists and policymakers. While it is easier for non-academics to access academic ideas promoted in popular venues, they also may seek out relevant work on their own.

No matter how they come across an academic idea, policymakers in particular may unintentionally misinterpret it, draw implications not supported by the work itself, or use it instrumentally to support their own preferred interpretation of a problem or policy outcome. As Musgrave discusses, policymakers reduced democratic peace theory to the axiom that democracies do not go to war with one another and used it to justify everything from NATO expansion to the Iraq War. 

These two different problems suggest different solutions. If irresponsible public scholarship is the issue, then developing a more rigorous ethic of public engagement is vital. Indeed, there have already been important steps in this direction, such as those being developed by the program on Rigor, Relevance, and Responsibility at the University of Denver’s Sié Center. Scholars engaging in public-facing scholarship should be encouraged to think through the potential pitfalls, and to be as explicit as possible about what scholars do and do not know about an issue. 

The second problem is more intractable. Once ideas are published, whether in the form of peer-reviewed research or pieces intended for wider consumption, it is difficult to control how they will be used. Encouraging journalists and policymakers to maintain their skepticism when encountering enticing ideas from academia, as Musgrave proposes, might help. The is particularly true early in the policymaking process or in area areas where policymakers lack relevant expertise, when political actors ares still forming their views.

However, cultivating more good-faith caution among non-academic consumers of scholarly ideas does not address the problem of pundits or policymakers selectively drawing upon academic work to help justify decisions that have already been made. 

The risks accompanying a “lab leak” of that kind can likely only be mitigated by scholars themselves entering the breach to spell out what they believe to be the policy implications of their own work, and pushing back publicly when we see political science concepts being stretched or findings misinterpreted in public debate. In other words, the solution to political science’s lab leak problem might just be more public engagement, rather than less.