On Irony and Ivory Towers

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…


  1. #1 G
    February 16, 2014

    Pardon the religious language, but “Amen to that!”

    Though, I’ll differ with you about “the next worst group.” IMHO, pundits are _the_ worst group. Academics are supposed to produce new knowledge, insight, and wisdom, and for the most part they do so, plus or minus farcical exercises in postmodernism and critical theory.

    For sheer quantity of recursively and fractally self-referential bovine excrement, one can’t beat the pundits. Worse, they are almost contractually obligated to keep their thinking squarely _in_ the box, only occasionally meandering to its borders to have a peek over the edge and then returning to the safety of its inner sanctum, where the status quo plural of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism are smugly reinforced.

    There is a thoroughly pragmatic reason why academics should become more engaged with the great unwashed masses out here: raging obscurantism still has real power and is still waging a relentless war against science and education, and in many cases is winning. If you don’t make your case to the public, you lose. And when science and education lose, everybody loses. For a stark example one need only look at the re-emergence of measles and pertussis outbreaks, and the emerging denialism of the germ theory of disease(!).

  2. #2 Chuck Pearson
    Virginia Intermont College, Bristol, VA
    February 16, 2014

    I can’t repeat this enough times – I am ridiculously grateful (and kinda floored) that what basically amounted to a temper tantrum I threw last night has drawn this kind of warm and generous response from so many, let alone from a guy (forgive me for sucking up) who I’ve been reading for forever in internet-years and who is one of my role models for what an Engaged Academic should look like. Chad Orzel was the first name that popped in my head when I got asked “what are three or four examples of engaged academics?”, and not without reason.

    Thanks, thanks, thanks so much. For everything.

  3. #3 Ultraviolet Thunder
    February 16, 2014

    I think the reason there aren’t any consequences for a pundit being wrong is that being right isn’t the goal. The entire motivation for punditry to be heard heard . As long as they hold an audience’s profitable attention they can stray as far as necessary from truth, fact and sense.

  4. #4 Peter Morgan
    February 16, 2014

    I don’t think Kristof is a cookie-cutter pundit, and I’d rather be more generous to him. He’s been laboring on issues like famine, disease, and war in the developing world for decades. He sees little change for the good, much change for the worse, and, I suspect in frustration, he wants to galvanize anybody with influence to exert themselves for the oppressed peoples of the world (although I wouldn’t want to deny that he has some self-interest in his punditry being influential, still he is not advocating, say, that we sell more weapons to Africa, tax the poor, etc.).

    I think Kristof apparently doesn’t understand that research is by its nature done not by single individuals who could change the world if only they would speak out, instead being done by many different types of people and groups of people, some silent, some incessantly on Twitter, some on timescales of weeks, some on timescales of decades (and I left a comment on his Facebook page to that effect), but he sees many smart people in academia appearing to him to do little to help the world, even though he thinks that many of them share many of his principles, at least more than do political, financial, and commercial elites. Sadly, I think his misunderstanding is much of why his approach is not likely to make him many friends in Academia or accelerate the uptake of ideas from academia. Ironically, what he knows well, foreign aid, itself also has many organizational and time scales, where changes that take centuries to play out are as common as they are in academia.

  5. #5 Jamie
    Northern Virginia, Outside the Beltway
    February 16, 2014


    It’s not like you to make that sort of error.

  6. #6 weirdnoise
    February 16, 2014

    Pundits are entertainers, full stop. They’ll remain employed as long as enough people listen, watch or read them.

  7. […] perch at the New York Times, would want to consider these anecdotes. Then again, he essentially has tenure, so why would […]

  8. #8 jane
    February 17, 2014

    I agree with G. An academic can be wrong in print once in a while, but if everything he publishes is plainly garbage, before too long he will lose respect, be denied funding, and have manuscripts rejected. Pundits can be conspicuously and repeatedly wrong, and the networks and newspapers just keep on paying them to be wrong again; among other things, that’s how we have the same crew who helped to gin up the Iraq war on false pretenses now trying to pull the same scam again. Why do people keep asking Daniel Yergin what the price of oil will do, after he’s proven he has no idea?

    OTOH, I think it is both morally and strategically a good idea for academics to look for every possible opportunity to engage with, inform, or provide services for the public. Their tax dollars pay for an awful lot of research. If they don’t feel that they get anything out of science, they have the right to vote to stop spending that money, and eventually they will. I never – literally never, unless by necessity due to schedule conflicts – turn down a request to speak to any group. I have colleagues who never agree to any such request. It seems to me that they are missing the point that the purpose of science is not supposed to be to put ink on paper on a shelf somewhere (or, sigh, digits in a PDF file at PLoS); it’s supposed to be to benefit humanity.

  9. #9 Eric Lund
    February 17, 2014

    Pundits–never have so many been paid so much to be so wrong. And yes, they do seem to have tenure. The Washington/New York press corps is sometimes referred to as “The Village”, and with good reason. But this village doesn’t just have one idiot. Nor is Kristof the worst offender, even among people employed by the New York Times: they also have Thomas Friedman (whose alleged transcripts of conversations with taxi drivers I suspect of being apocryphal) and David Brooks (of Applebee’s salad bar note).

    Once in a while one of these blind squirrels finds a nut, as Kristof did here. But such columns are notable because they are so rare.