The outrage of the moment in academic circles is this Nick Kristof column on how academics need to be more engaged with a broader public. And it’s really impressive how he manages to take an idea that I basically agree with– I regularly give talks on the need for scientists to do more outreach via social media– and present it in a way that’s faintly insulting.
This came to my attention via Chuck Pearson on Twitter, who also has a long blog response. There are also good responses from Edward Carr and Corey Robin, and the hashtag Chuck launched, #EngagedAcademics includes lots of counter-examples of faculty who do work to connect with a broad public.
Given all that, I probably wouldn’t bother to post, but one slightly different thing did strike me that I haven’t really seen elsewhere, namely that it’s a little ironic for a professional pundit and columnist to denounce academics as isolated and out of touch. Particularly somebody who writes for the New York Times editorial page, a group whose only encounters with ordinary people seem to involve Thomas Friedman taking cabs.
It’s absolutely true that academics are, in many ways, writing only for other academics. And this reflects a systematic problem with the reward structure of academia. But this is hardly a unique problem, and the pundit class is probably the next worst group. Their isolation is disguised by the fact that they work for and publish in mass media, but the fact is that the vast majority of what professional political writers like Kristof talk about is of interest only to a fairly narrow set of other political pundits. They spend vast amounts of time and ink on debating the political significance of cultural ephemera that are utterly insignificant in the end.
This is the forgotten lesson of the 2012 elections, when Sam Wang, Nate Silver, and other quantitative political analysts demolished the predictions of professional pundits, showing that the vast majority of the stuff that talking heads jabber about had absolutely no effect on the outcome. Arguments about who “won” the last fifteen minutes ended up making no difference to the polls, and the basic statistical models used to aggregate polling data were vastly more successful at predicting what actually happened than the gut instincts and supposed expertise of the chattering classes.
But, of course, none of that had any effect on the pundit class, who acted abashed for a day or two, then promptly resumed speculating about how the color of the pantsuit Hilary Clinton wore on Tuesday would affect her chances of winning the Iowa caucuses in 2015. Despite being made to look fairly ridiculous by largely unknown academics and sports analysts who happen to understand math, nobody lost a job, or missed more than a couple of beats. The meaningless chatter continues, blissfully independent of larger reality or the concerns of people who are not professional Beltway obsessives.
It’s almost like they have tenure…