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political science and journalism

Greg Marx at the Columbia Journalism Review has an interesting article about the relationship between political scientists and journalists. Political scientists tend to be skeptical of journalists because they effectively make their living propagating baseless myths about politics, while journalists tend to be skeptical of political scientists because a) they’re convinced their “real world experience” gives them unique insights into the political process, and b) political scientists often obscure their findings in mathematical equations, forgetting to translate them into plain English for others — like journalists —  to assess.

Take Marc Ambinder’s unfortunate comment when John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s book was released as an example:

Political scientists aren’t going to like this book, because it portrays politics as it is actually lived by the candidates, their staff and the press, which is to say—a messy, sweaty, ugly, arduous competition between flawed human beings—a universe away from numbers and probabilities and theories.

Or Matt Bai’s oddly uncalled-for grumbling:

Generally speaking, political writers don’t think so much of political scientists, either, mostly because anyone who has ever actually worked in or covered politics can tell you that, whatever else it may be, a science isn’t one of them. Politics is, after all, the business of humans attempting to triumph over their own disorder, insecurity, competitiveness, arrogance, and infidelity; make all the equations you want, but a lot of politics is simply tactile and visual, rather than empirical. My dinnertime conversation with three Iowans may not add up to a reliable portrait of the national consensus, but it’s often more illuminating than the dissertations of academics whose idea of seeing America is a trip to the local Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Both these contain a certain pseudo-populist attack on the Ivory Tower, but both ultimately fail, well, empirically. It might be the case that an hour long conversation over dinner with three Iowans is a great way to explore the nuances of a few people’s beliefs, but if you were a political strategist, would you really feel comfortable making a controversial policy decision based on that, or would you benefit more from a randomized poll of 1,000 national respondents? Human beings may well be “sweaty,” “ugly,” and “messy,” but social life in the end does tend to be probabilistic. While journalists will, for example, search for every possible explanation when the Democrats lose seats in the midterm election, the actual answer won’t sell too many papers: the incumbent party pretty much always loses seats in the midterms. It’s not special enough to merit wasting so much space on the editorial pages over.

But, while I’m obviously quite critical of journalists here, political scientists deserve a bit of blame for the situation too:

  • When political scientists do make it into the mass media, they can be awestruck by glimpses of fame and merely end up repeating the common wisdom rather than relying on social scientific analysis to correct common journalistic tropes. This is especially true of political scientists who have made their names as media darlings first-and-foremost, rather than first gaining credibility within the academy. Political scientists are, after all, humans like any one else, and their analysis is only more useful than any other random hack of a source when it is backed up by the sort of research that would make it through a peer review process.
  • As Jonathan Cohn pointed out in a 1999 article in The New Republic (which doesn’t seem to be legally available online for free viewing), many political scientists seem genuinely uninterested in being politically relevant, focusing far more on increasingly sophisticated models of the sort that earn them the ire of the Ambinders and Bais of the world. Along the way, they rack up academic journal publications and, thus, tenure, thereby generating and maintaining the status quo of political irrelevance. But this is hardly true of everyone in the discipline.

So what’s the best way forward? A few things might help. For one, more active communication between political scientists and journalists would benefit both. Indeed, political scientists have as much — if not more — to gain than journalists, as such communicaton would provide incentives to write with greater clarity and keep the relevance of their work in mind. So, political scientists should start more blogs!  Short of that, they should send relevant research to journalists, especially new media types that are actively sympathetic to the discipline (see Klein, Ezra and Yglesias, Matthew). Political reporters, likewise, should read academic work in a more systematic way. Indeed, the substantive knowledge provided by a bachelor’s degree (or even master’s degree) in a discipline like political science is, at this point, frankly more relevant to the future direction of political journalism than the type of skillset developed by conventional journalism programs.


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