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APSA Panel on Political Science and Journalism

[ 7 ] September 4, 2010 |

I was in the audience for the APSA panel that Scott refers to below, although to maintain my anti-establishment cred* I sat in the back, away from the front row seats reserved for “major” political science bloggers.  I live-tweeted the proceedings, and unlike Dan Drezner managed to avoid comments about Ezra Klein’s hair.  The panel consisted of Marc Ambinder, Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Mark Schmitt, and Mark Blumenthal.  Some impressions:

While Barry Pump is being a touch over-snarky, he’s right to note that the enterprise had a bit of the lecture to it, in the sense that the blogger/journalists were telling the political scientists what we needed to do in order to be relevant.  On questions of blogging, journalism, and political science I am very rarely stirred to defense of institutional academic polisci, but I nevertheless felt myself stirring.  “This is what you need to do in order to make us pay attention to you” was a regular refrain from the panel, and while there is some utility to that message, it can come in shapes and sizes that provoke more or less irritation.

In part because of the constitution of the panel, discussion was weighted very heavily towards quantitative work in American politics.  I found this very interesting, especially given that half or more of the blogging political scientists in the room worked in other subfields, using qualitative methodologies.  I asked a question on the topic, and got some interesting answers, especially from Matt Yglesias.  Yglesias noted that it was curious that quantitative Americanist polisci received the most attention, given that this subfield/methodology tends to produce work that is virtually impenetrable to outsiders.  In addition to the fact, however, that voting behavior data is near and dear to the hearts of the Beltway journalist community, Yglesias suggested that what many journalists were looking for from polisci was a “men in white coats bearing Truth” effect.  Voting behavior articles impenetrable to anyone not having four semesters of methodology under their belt were, once explained to journalists in single syllable words, quite useful because they allowed the journalist to write in terms of a Conclusive Study that Totally Determined the Veracity of Some Point Beyond Further Question.

This was both very interesting and quite troubling.  It was interesting because I get the sense that it’s true; journalistic depictions of political science work often take the character of “studies have shown” which is a way of making a Truth claim.  Qualitative work is more difficult to fit into the Scientific Truth framework, in addition to being more difficult to summarize.  It’s troubling because while most political scientists tend to realize how tenuous claims to social science “Truth” are, it’s unclear that journalists have the same sense.  Political scientists know that, even apart from the brutal quantitative-qualitative battle, there are serious methodological fault lines within quantitative political science that bring the delivery of Scientific Truth into question.  All of the battles over proper treatment of variables and the appropriate characterization of causal claims kind of disappear when a journalist wants to know what “studies have shown.”

The question of subfield prominence also bears more attention.  By and large, IR and comparative haven’t had the same impact on the journalist community in either their quantitative or qualitative forms.  I think that several major concepts/grand theories from both comparative and IR have found their way into the general policy conversation (deterrence theory, for example) but it’s more difficult to find uses of clear, sound political science research.  IPE might be an exception to this.  The immense political science literature on ethnic conflict seems utterly detached from the way that ethnic conflict is treated in the popular media.

I’m tempted to say that the boundaries between good journalism on international affairs and qualitative political science in comparative and international relations are relatively thin, but years of experience selecting books for the Patterson Summer Reading List tells me that this isn’t true.  An academic book and a journalistic account really are very different, even when they tackle vaguely the same subject.  The former includes a clear theoretical perspective, and the presentation of information is provided with some methodological structure.  Journalistic accounts operate according to different (although not necessarily better or worse) structures.  Moreover, I can certainly appreciate why journalists don’t have the time to delve into full investigations of the area studies and comparative literature, or even to read some of the longer academic books in the field; I’m an academic, and I barely have time to read books anymore.

What the panel didn’t really touch on, and what I’m interested in for obvious reasons, is the phenomenon of political scientists using the tools they’ve been given to speak to the audiences that journalists normally command.  I suppose that this gets back to the first point; why should political scientists really bother making their work accessible to journalists, when they could just make their work accessible to the audiences that journalists have?  While I am convinced that the current preferred model of political science interaction with the public (none) is untenable, I’m not certain that making ourselves relevant to a profession that’s dying faster than our own is the right way to go.

*Dr. Farley does not now and has not ever possessed “anti-establishment cred”.  He simply arrived late and didn’t want to look like more of a doofus by pushing his way to the front.

  • Witt

    [W]hy should political scientists really bother making their work accessible to journalists, when they could just make their work accessible to the audiences that journalists have?

    You buried the lede. This is the question that matters.

    • hv

      Ironically, if political scientists continue to bury the lede, there will still be work for journalists. :)

  • It’s link spam, all over the frackin place.

  • Pingback: Matthew Yglesias » Why Doesn’t Anyone Care About Serious International Relations Scholarship()

  • justaguy

    I definitely agree that the emphasis on “This is how you can make us pay attention to you” is bizarre and telling. As an anthropologist, I cringe whenever people talk about what is natural and universal with marriage. Anthropologists have studied kinship for over a century, and have studied gender and sexuality in one way or another for quite some time. And yet I have never come across a single instance of any journalist feeling the need to, in a discussion of gay marriage where one side or the other makes a claim about what’s natural and/or universal with marriage, check with an anthropologist or any other social scientist studying the subject. Sure, that’s a failure of anthropologists to make ourselves relevant – we speak to ourselves in a language that is incomprehensible to the uninitiated and there’s no professional incentive to reach out to the public. But it also reflects a wider problem in political journalism, where issues like this are reported as he said/she said with no attempt to investigate the truth claims of either side.

  • Joel Patterson

    Accessible is not good enough, Rob.

    “why should political scientists really bother making their work accessible to journalists, when they could just make their work accessible to the audiences that journalists have?”

    Just because people could have your work and the other work of the poli sci intelligentsia at their fingertips does not mean they will absorb/use the info. This is why PR firms & those “Institutes” funded by David H. Koch push hard to get the attention of journalists–because what journalists write gets shoved into people’s faces in a way that what appears on LGM doesn’t. It is worth it to use journalists to communicate your ideas. If more scientists had understood this over the last 30 years we might have adopted the Kyoto Protocols.

    • hv

      Scientists are such dicks like that.