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Political Science and Political Journalism

Via Henry Farrell, Matt Bai comments briefly on political journalists’ view of political scientists:

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.

I think this kind of attitude is not universally shared, and generally leads to bad political journalism. I think it’s obvious to anyone who thinks about it that the features of journalism — original reporting, first-hand conversations, speed, granularity — allow it to push the frontiers of our understanding beyond what rigorous political science could possible do. At the same time, it’s just incredibly foolish to go about doing the work of journalism about politics devoid of any broader theoretical or empirical foundations provided by political science.

The events of the day play out against a larger structural backdrop. And it’s just not possible to try to understand them a-theoretically. What journalists unschooled in political science tend to do is to substitute prejudice for understanding. So you notice that in Maryland and Virginia there are a lot of well-to-do Democrats and start writing stories which presuppose that poor people are generally Republicans and rich people are generally Democrats. An alternative approach would be to read Andrew Gelman’s book and you’d see that this is an idiosyncratic feature of a small portion of the country and that, overall, high income is a strong predictor of Republican voting.

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Reading Gelman’s book isn’t a substitute for interviewing people or trying to understand campaign strategies. But it provides you with an accurate understanding of the larger context in which to situate those interviews. If you don’t read it, you won’t understand your reporting properly.