The Promise and Peril of Public-Facing Scholarship

4 September 2021, 0945 EDT

Thanks to the Duck, to contributors to this symposium, and to Dan Nexon for organizing this. I’m humbled and grateful for the serious engagement with my essay in Foreign Policy regarding the less happy outcomes of public entanglement with academics and their ideas. The range of responses and the depth of analysis here offers much to think about.

Over the past decade (and change), there’s been a sustained push to bring political scientists and political science into the public sphere. Some of this has been informal or even inadvertent, as with the Duck’s own initial forays around the time of the Russian-Georgian war or, even earlier, how bloggers like Dan Drezner seized the first big wave of blogging as democratizing the public sphere. Others have been more intentional, as with the original and the current incarnation of the Monkey Cage, which sought to bring specific findings to the attention of journalists, policymakers, and the informed public. And still others, such as the foundation-funded Bridging the Gap project, have aimed at a mix of directly influencing the conversation and building capability through offering workshops and other measures. (I’m an alumnus of one BTG workshop, although given my slight heresies here I’m slightly worried I might be taken off the mailing list.)

In the main, I think that this push for engagement is good. Partly, that’s because I think that there’s a lot that political science and international relations can offer the public conversation; partly, I think that without such engagement there won’t be much of a case for funding our activities and hence little defense against cutting lines and funding for our work (or doing so even more than is already happening, I should say). Moreover, I think that it’s good for social scientists to take note of the social world, admit that they engage in it, and engage thoughtfully.

f we are to engage in the world, then we can’t present our engagement as costless or consensus-based.

My essay, however, expresses some of my discomfort with how such engagement is framed. If we are to engage in the world, then we can’t present our engagement as costless or consensus-based. No academic field provides perfect advice for every situation, and political science in particular, as a relatively young and underfunded field, does not always possess the depth of data or theorizing with which to make firm recommendations on a great many subjects. As such, we are apt to provide the wrong advice at times, and we need to acknowledge that in our engagement. Moreover, as the “lab leaks” essay suggests, sometimes motivated idea entrepreneurs will present a flawed or even forthrightly harmful idea to the public. When this is combined with substantial accumulations of academic capital, as with the clash of civilizations, the effect can be deleterious. The incentives for researchers engaging with the outside world to smooth over the messy edges of theory can also promote, intentionally or unintentionally, harmful misreadings of our ideas. 

To their credit, many of the contributors make these arguments much better than I did. I agree with Adler-Nissen that disciplinary incentives have promoted false parsimony. Political science is not alone in this, of course. As I write this, I’m aware of recent allegations that some parsimonious and elegant experimental results in a prominent behavioral psychologist’s work—which landed him not only substantial academic credit but lucrative speaking gigs, publishing contracts, and industry positions—were either faked or too good to be true. Intellectuals no less than Malcolm Gladwell can be drawn to neat just-so stories. Turns toward transparency and replication should help ameliorate some of this, but it’s also likely that this simply means that whatever frauds are being committed in the social sciences now will be much more difficult to detect — taken as more persuasive because all the easy frauds will be weeded out.

Contributors expressed differing interpretations of my placing of academics and their ideas in the competitive environment for ideas and influence. Oren notes, correctly, that academics are not “passive or even reluctant actors in the transmission of scholarly ideas.”

I would note that the original article was intentionally reflexive in this regard — my writing for general audiences has attracted orders of magnitude larger readership than my writing for scholarly ones, so I am hardly unaware of the inducements and dangers of such engagement. For those at the top of the influence pile, those inducements can be large: has anyone so successfully bridged the gap as multi-millionaire Nobel laureate Henry Kissinger?

For us more modest intervenors, a line on the CV, a small honorarium, or a note from the dean can equally be reason enough to continue engagement. Although she also believes that I mean that these are all accidental leaks, De Bruin, I think, accurately identifies my intention here when she writes that some, but not all, of the leaks emerge because of deliberate efforts by scholars to advertise their wares in these intellectual markets

Yet both Oren and De Bruin are right. More generally, all of these perspectives are right and nonexclusive if we focus on the ideas as what’s being replicated and adapted, whether in the “lab” or elsewhere. Scholars tend to be less aware of the incentives that other players in the intellectual ecosystem face. Dan Drezner’s Ideas Industry presents the political economy of ideational spread well; I prefer the biological metaphor, however, because the ecosystem as a whole spreads, grows, and promotes different forms of adaptation as environmental conditions change. In this ecosystem, sometimes scholars advertise themselves to spread ideas, and sometimes their ideas are spread by other actors following their own incentives. Hence the appeal of the original conceit for the essay in the first place.

We may not be objective or separate from other actors in the social system, but I also don’t believe that academics are just the same as every other actor.

This metaphor, I believe, also shifts our understanding of our place in the ideas ecosystem in ways that Barkawi would find appealing. Barkawi writes that we should “give up their favored identity as scientists who exist ‘objectively’ above the politics they study.” Thinking of ourselves as occupying a particular niche, or suite of  niches, in an ecosystem effaces any hard borders—or gaps—while also allowing for the possibility of specialization. We may not be objective or separate from other actors in the social system, but I also don’t believe that academics are just the same as every other actor. An idea or an argument to an academic means something different than it does to a policymaker, a player in the markets, or an ordinary citizen, and that relational distinction suggests some reason to continue to regard our roles as being different. 

Goldgeier sharply disagrees with my diagnosis of the democratic peace misreading. I suspect we will continue to disagree with this. I find the idea that it was a misreading of history rather than the democratic peace theory to be an interesting conjecture, but it also suggests a “history” that is disembodied and abstract. Where do our ideas about such “histories” come from? Keynes and his line about “academic scribblers” offers one plausible hypothesis about how academic ideas provide diffuse but meaningful influences. At that point, of course, we are disagreeing about whose lab leaked. 

More to the point, if academic influence can be diffuse, then we have come to the core of my essay and my worries. The more we engage, the more ideas will leap across ecological borders and cross-pollinate. I assume most of this will be to the good. Not all of it will be. Yet it’s hard to think about these issues given that much motivation for increased academic-policy engagement in the Anglosphere has been driven by critiques such as Alexander George’s book Bridging the Gap. A common assumption, tacit or explicitly stated, is that political scientists know more about at least some aspect of the world than others (be they policymakers, journalists, or citizens) and thus can enlighten them through knowledge transfer. 

This model, which Skip Lupia terms “the deficit model” in his excellent Uninformed, is attractive to academics, who mostly have made their way in the world by scoring high on (and then writing) tests and essays. Yet it’s only a partly satisfactory basis for engagement with other adults. Lupia demonstrates convincingly that this paradigm does not constitute best practices for scientific communication.

Such ideas have been honed to a good enough level that they will sound persuasive to nonexperts even if they’re seriously doubted within the profession.

More immediately relevant for political science is that once we move past informing people about relatively uncontroversial facts (who’s the president, who’s the chief justice) is that the model also presumes that there’s a bank of common disciplinary knowledge on which to draw in advising different audiences, or even just explaining to them. In our workaday academic life, we know that most of political science and international relations consists of arguments among warring paradigms, theories, and critiques. After a few rounds of academic bouts, such ideas have been honed to a good enough level that they will sound persuasive to nonexperts even if they’re seriously doubted within the profession. (Offensive realism texts sell very well indeed.) 

Having honed their adaptive fitness within this environment does not mean that these ideas are correct or widely approved—it merely means that they can become highly successful invasive species when transposed into a new niche. Not everything that bridges a gap constitutes a helpful intervention. Sometimes, notoriously, these harmful exports arise because of fraud. Sometimes they represent good-hearted but misguided interventions. 

Some contributors believe the fix begins at home, with the internal politics of the discipline itself, while others, such as De Bruin, push for more engagement with the outside world (and points to useful examples of how sustained engagement can be carried out). My response is “yes, and”. A healthier academia will enable more better founded criticism of ideas, which in turn will enable quicker responses to potentially problematic ideas being let loose upon the world.

The canonical example of a leak and rapid response comes from a Monkey Cage post publicizing a scholarly argument that non-citizens could be deciding the fates of close congressional races—work that was quickly and wholly refuted by peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed scholarship, albeit not before the Trump administration (including the president himself) drew upon the newly notorious study to bolster their immigration policies. Like Adler-Nissen (and, I suspect, Goldgeier), I also believe that engagement with the world (and not just the policy world in fancy DC offices) will also make for better social science, inasmuch as “stylized facts” from which academics often draw frequently turn out to be widely recognized fallacies on the ground. 

My intention in writing the peace was to stimulate exactly this kind of discussion among producers and consumers of political science. I do, however, have even more specific suggestions of my own, which I’m sure that others will winnow and improve. Now that outlets for presenting political science research have become more plentiful, professionalized, and incentivized, we should probably encourage (even more than has already happened) a shift to the kind of synthetic analysis of the literature and findings that writers such as Thomas Edsall already practice, rather than the “T-shirts” for new books and articles that have come to be the bread and butter of many such outlets. (Mischiefs of Faction may do this as well as anyone in the ecosystem.)

The most vibrant blogs and outlets do not often have scholarly association sponsorship

Funding should support this shift. Political science should be well represented in the discussion, but that does not mean that the burden of representation should fall equally on all political scientists. As I argued in Political Science Quarterly, fellowships and other support should flow to scholars with a flair for political science communication who can then bring the insights of many other scholars (and original applications of those works) to the public. Informally, some scholars already provide this service, but few of them seem to find their work well supported. There are many ways to support responsible public engagement, including developing metrics to measure such engagement, but we should also prize and incentivize this work more directly.

One additional possible initiative also merits discussion. Scholarly associations sporadically engage in the public engagement space, but it is notable that the most vibrant blogs and outlets do not often have scholarly association sponsorship. A mezzo-level engagement niche that has not been filled would be, essentially, an outlet that specialized in 1,500-3,000 word briefings and summaries of relevant literature—paced slower than The Monkey Cage but faster than Annual Reviews of Political Science. Such a public-facing outlet could incorporate peer review or at least strong editorial review, while allowing for more complexity and nuance to be brought to the public and students in a way that would be legible to academic C.V.s. Outlets such as Current History could serve as an inspiration. 

The discipline has moved to a new stage of engagement. The stakes are high, and likely will grow even higher. Although the essay that prompted this roundtable was somewhat pessimistic, I remain optimistic that learning and communication can make some impact for good.