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If a Working Paper Falls in the Wilderness and a Journalist Hears About It, Is that Worse?

By Matthew Yglesias on September 3, 2010 at 3:58 pm

"If a Working Paper Falls in the Wilderness and a Journalist Hears About It, Is that Worse?"

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I appeared on a panel at the American Political Science Association annual meeting yesterday about journalism and political science and one thing that struck me (apart from the relative rarity of this kind of sneering condescension) was that political scientists’ description of the incentive structure of their own profession was kind of bizarre. As I heard it explained to me, it’s not merely that taking time to help inform a non-specialist audience about political science findings isn’t specifically rewarded, it’s positively punished. And not simply in the sense that doing less research and more publicizing is punished; I was told that holding research output constant, getting more publicity for your output would be harmful to a junior scholar’s career because it would feed an assumption of non-seriousness.

That’s pretty nuts. After all, the state legislators and rich donors who give money to universities are presumably sponsoring research because they think it’s potentially important for people to know the results of good research. Interestingly, economists really don’t seem to have this problem. Obviously, lots of economics research is done on obscure topics or written in a way that’s inaccessible or intended for an expert, professional audience. And the formal economy of academic promotion is similar in both fields. But economists seem to me to overwhelmingly take it for granted that the world would be a better place if more people were better-informed about economic theory and reasoning and that economists who succeed in informing people are doing something praiseworthy.

At any rate, I really think this attitude is bad for the world. There are lots and lots of people out there working in the field of trying to alter public policy. And there are many other people doing descriptive writing for an audience primarily composed of those trying to alter public policy. It would be much better for the world if those people had a better understanding of how the American political system operates, of how foreign political systems operate, of how the international system functions, and other key political science topics. It’s not that I expect “sending emails to bloggers” to become Priority #1 for anyone in the field, but surely if people manage to do good work and also to convey the essence of that work to non-specialists they shouldn’t be punished for it.

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