Kristof, Columbia, and the ‘Public Intellectual-Professor’: Part 1

This will be a two-parter since there’s a lot in it. It’s been interesting reading the initial article about why professors need to be involved in public debate from Nicholas Kristof and seeing the rejoinders, particularly Michelle Goldbergs’ article about Columbia University’s decision to let two of their best professors of public health go. I’m a doctoral candidate whose research agenda is a hybrid between political science and public policy, and I haven’t decided yet on whether I want to go into academia or public policy, so I’ve found this debate interesting. Starting with Kristof, who I usually enjoy reading, I agreed with his sentiment at a meta level, but found the article generally ill-informed and at times oddly contradictory.To get us started, in the third paragraph he mentions the current level of disdain held by half the political spectrum toward intellectuals, intellectualism, and the general notion that investment in education is good. He probably could have stopped writing right there, since all the details that follow are far less causal in the chain of why academics are increasingly cloistered than public opinion, which leads to our current political economy of education policy and finance. That he only dedicated one short paragraph to this topic is problematic to say the least, since everything else he says after is basically half-truths and/or incorrect.

He then points out that academics have made it worse for themselves in an already hostile environment by producing hard-to-understand theoretical arguments, relying heavily on quantitative methods. This is where his first combination of being ill-informed and contradictory comes in. First the ill-information: social sciences went quantitative to follow the money, not because social scientists have a desperate need to be inscrutable. Don’t believe me? Social science research from the 1940s through the 1990s used comparative methods, policy analysis, or was survey driven. Samuel Huntington’s significant article and book “The Clash of Civiliations” came out in 1993 and was a good example of how political scientists of the time generally wrote. Sure, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Robert Axelrod have been pushing the envelope of quantitative game theory since the 1960s, but the quantification of the social sciences at large is relatively recent.

Then he gets contradictory. While academics have become more quantitative and arcane, apparently alienating themselves from the real world, fields such as economics, public policy, business, ‘some sciences’, law and history have remained publicly relevant. Wait, didn’t being too quantitative made you irrelevant? Apparently Kristof has never looked at an economics journal, checked the entry requirements for a good graduate program in public policy (lots of calculus and stats required), or skimmed a business report; he also seems to think that the unnamed sciences don’t use complex mathematical methods. Law and history remain relevant, so if the others are too, then it’s not because of their quantitative thrust.

He does hit on some very real issues, like what gets you tenure. But I think he mis-attributes intent here; most academics don’t go into their fields with the bizarre intent to be opaque and inscrutable. I think a lot of academics, tenured and untenured, would love to do more work that is of public value, but as he correctly notes this work doesn’t get you tenure. Peer-reviewed publications do, which brings us back to the quantitative research issue. If I’m a political scientist, I can find a quantitative article, add a variable to the replication data, write a gigantic, overwrought literature review, and if the result is statistically significant, I’ll get a publication and thus be one step closer to a successful tenure review. Do it two times a year for five years, that’s potentially ten ‘high impact’ journal publications. But truly ground breaking social science research, if it uses quantitative methods at all, is more often driven by historical and comparative analysis. Barrington MooreCharles Tilly, Theda SkocpolElinor Ostrom, and more recently Stathis Kalyvas, might be empiricists but their various ground breaking works didn’t use opaque statistical modeling. Innovation and creativity are not necessarily mutually inclusive with earning tenure; academics know this and since most of us want job security we play some obscurity ball to get our careers going.

He has a few other places where he contradicts himself, in some surprisingly illogical ways. Sociology, he says, should be more important to the political debate, but lacks political diversity (it’s heavily left leaning), so conservatives ignore it. It’s heavily left leaning only in that it’s an empirical field, and most conservative policies don’t reflect reality (see the paragraph below on economics). Having an idea that is ungrounded in reality won’t get you tenure (or hired) in a social science department, so researchers who are conservative first and empiricists second won’t do as well – they should try political philosophy perhaps. Then there was this, the most detached contradiction of all of them:

“In contrast, economics is a rare academic field with a significant Republican presence, and that helps tether economic debates to real-world debates. That may be one reason, along with empiricism and rigor, why economists (including my colleague in columny, Paul Krugman) shape debates on issues from health care to education.” (italics mine)

I know a great many Republican/conservative political scientists, so the above paragraph starts with a falsehood, then dives headlong into further illogic. So, Economics. Is it about a Republican presence that tethers an academic field to real-world debates? Or is it the empiricism and rigor? For a commentator of Kristof’s stature to make such a profoundly incongruous, contradictory statement, is surprising. He is essentially saying that validity stems from having all voices at the table, while then saying it’s also about empiricism and rigor. What if half the voices are coming to a conclusion that has never been empirically demonstrated (tax cuts grow the economy…but not)? Also, economics is the field of empiricism and rigor? You sure? The same field that got us the tech bubble, the housing bubble, the economic crash of 2008, and equilibrium models of poverty reduction that have increased poverty? The entire point of empiricism and rigor is to better understand the world around us in the most objective way possible; what is valued is not inclusivity, it’s having the most demonstrably sound argument.

I appreciate Kristof’s desire to push for an academic role in the shaping of public debate; it’s something I strive to do as a researcher in a policy field. Unfortunately in doing this he demonstrated a total lack of understanding of why academics do what they do (both operationally and epistemologically), while trotting out problematic and illogical misconceptions about how validity, empiricism, and rigor should be defined. Fortunately Michelle Goldberg wrote a rejoinder that touches on what is likely a bigger problem in academia; the political economy of how we value knowledge, intellectualism, and validity as a society, and what this means for how professors and academics do their jobs. I’ll cover that in part two later this week.

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