The Arrogance of Academia

“You really know a lot about politics,” a professor recently told me.  But no, it was not a compliment.  It was a passive-aggressive putdown designed to let me know I’m not one of “them” yet. You know “them,” the real political scientists out there. Well, I’ve got news. I’m not about to throw away a lifelong passion for politics to focus exclusively on formal models that produce findings with no real-world impact and that nobody cares about.  I decided to pursue a PhD in Political Science because of, not in spite of, my interest in politics.  I understand the scientific aspect of political science, and agree that it’s important.  But the science should not overrule politics or practicality.

I’ll be honest.  I had never opened, or had even heard of, a political science journal until I began my Master’s program.  And if a political aficionado like me hasn’t heard of the journals, then clearly this research is not designed for, or easily accessed, by the mass public.  And that’s a shame.  My favorite political scientist of all time is Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia.  I enjoy reading his columns at election time, and hearing his usually-accurate predictions of what will happen.  His type of political science is very practical, has implications to the masses, and is easily accessed and digested.  But because he goes on cable news and discusses his predictions, he’s shunned by the discipline.  That’s nearly tragic.

One of the ongoing debates in political science is the level of practicality our research should produce.  Why is this even a debate?  Shouldn’t every political scientist’s goal be to produce research that has a real-world impact?  Unfortunately, too often, it’s not the case.  I get the feeling that, more often than not, political scientists produce research simply to make their colleagues ooh and aah in wondrous praise.  It seems professors who fit this mold often pass these feelings down to their students, creating yet another generation of political scientists who can’t see the forest for the trees.  Luckily, my subfield, voting and elections, seems to lend itself to more practicality than some of the other fields in the discipline.  But, I believe every subfield should take a greater interest in practical politics than is currently the case.

I want to elaborate on a point I made earlier in this article.  I do understand the importance of the scientific aspect of political science.  I’ve taken my methods courses, run my regressions, and learned the necessary formulas.  Make no mistake.  Methodology is absolutely critical to what political scientists do.  I just happen to think the implications of our findings, in too many cases, take a backseat to methodology.  At the very least, politics and science should be equal partners in the discipline.  Right now, it feels like the balance is off-kilter.

I will be the first to admit I have much to learn in political science.  But, I feel my two years plus in the discipline does permit me to voice my concern.  As in any career, a person usually has to chart his or her own course.  Academia is no exception.  And right now, despite scorn from some in the discipline, I’m taking the path to practicality.  And I’m no less a political scientist because of it.

2 thoughts on “The Arrogance of Academia

  1. guestin

    The media, the public, and elites don’t pay attention to political science because it doesn’t fit their preconceived notion about How Politics Actually Works. You mentioned you’re interested in elections and campaigns, which is a great example. Nobody cares what the models say ahead of time because all the action is in the horse race narrative. Alan Abramowitz called the 2012 election within a percentage point months ahead of time, but who cares? It’s all about Hurricane Sandy and voter suppression. Political science research produces practical implications that are ignored because they provide answers that people are uninterested in. There are still clear problems with openness in the field (e.g. gated journal articles), but you’re projecting your own personal inadequacies on to this debate. You couldn’t be hassled to do a little research and figure out what you were getting into with political science and now it’s the field’s fault? Please. Complaining about reading a formal model in a political science program is like signing up for the Army and then being shocked when they ask you to shoot a gun. It’s fine if you’re interested in producing what you call practical work, most people who do are among the most well-known academics in the field. But they also often use crazy methods. Take Nate Silver (not a political scientist but known for his “practical” work), you think his 2012 election model was just some linear regression with poll numbers? Nah, it was a monster equation that utilized advanced econometric techniques. If his methods weren’t solid he’d be out of the job (blog). It’s cool if political science isn’t for you. Theres a public affairs department across the street, and I’m sure they’d be glad to take you and your money.

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