Why Nicholas Kristof Is Wrong About Political Science

It took Nick Kristof’s latest New York Times screed….er… op-ed piece to get me to break my self-imposed blogging hiatus.  In yesterday’s column, Kristof rehashed some by now all-too-familiar critiques of the political science profession.  (Full disclosure: I am a card-carrying member of that profession!)  Kristof’s main point is to lament the declining influence of the “public intellectual” within the political realm – a decline he attributes in part to political scientists’ increasing reliance on quantitative methods as a tool for conducting research.  If prediction is the sine qua non of a real science, then political science, despite (or because of!) the use of quantitative methods, is a miserable failure according to Kristof. Witness the discipline’s conspicuous failure to anticipate the recent “Arab spring”.  More generally, Kristof argues that the discipline’s increasing reliance on statistics makes its research much less accessible to the layperson, which again contributes to the declining role of the public intellectual. Kristof also decries the decline in the number of articles in the discipline’s flagship journal the American Political Science Review that contain policy prescriptions.

I’ve dealt with some of these critiques before, focusing in particular on the role of forecasting as a means of assessing the credibility of the discipline, so I won’t rehash my comments here. (My basic point in the previous post is that political scientists are, in fact, pretty good forecasters, and getting better.) But it seems to me that Kristof is completely wrong about the decline of the “public intellectual” – if anything, the increasing use of social media, including numerous blogs and twitter feeds, has raised political scientists’ public profile to its highest level ever, a point that Erik Voeten also makes over at the Monkey Cage website.  (That website, not incidentally, is a prime example of political scientists’ disseminating their research in easily accessible terms to a very wide readership.)  Indeed, I could point to a dozen such sites that I routinely access to find out what my colleagues’ research says about current events. It was the reason I started this blog more than five years ago – to expose readers to what scholars have learned about the exercise of presidential power in all its manifestations.

As for the decline in policy prescription – I would argue that this is a sign of the discipline’s maturity.  As we’ve developed a better understanding of the complexity of the political world we are less prone to jumping in with policy prescriptions that may be premised on faulty assumptions, incomplete testing or little-to-no data.  This caution is, in my view, to be preferred to the type of almost daily and often questionable policy prescriptions one finds in op ed columns by individuals like columnist Paul Krugman, who Kristof cites as an exemplar of a public intellectual.  How often have we heard columnists proclaim, for instance, that gerrymandering leads to polarized politics?  Or that campaign contributions can buy votes? Or that Americans are increasingly polarized along cultural issues?  Or that Romney’s gaffes cost him the 2012 presidential election?  These are all claims commonly made by Kristof’s “public intellectuals” but which political scientists have spent considerable time debunking.

In my view, the biggest mistake Kristof makes in his column is to characterize academics  as falling within one of two categories – those public intellectuals ( or “rebels”!)  who can speak to the masses about large, important issues, and the stats geeks who publish articles in obscure journals, written in indecipherable language and based on overly complex methods that few people can understand.  Contrary to Kristof’s claim that “academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose”, the tenure process with which I am familiar  rewards those academics who demonstrate clear thinking and accessible research methods. Similarly, the very best doctoral programs within political science expose Ph.D. candidates to a range of methods, both quantitative and qualitative,  so that these students understand not only what these methods can and cannot do, but also how to interpret and present their results in ways that are accessible to others.  And it is not just academics who benefit from this training. Here at Middlebury College at the undergraduate level, we are exposing an increasing number of our political science majors to methods training, including but not limited to basic statistics, so that when they go into the real world, they are prepared to think critically about the findings, claims and counterclaims pushed forward not just by political scientists in blogs and journal articles, but also the opinions proclaimed by columnists like Krugman and Kristof.

And now, I have to go edit my piece on the 2012 presidential election, which argues – drawing in part on basic statistics – that Obama won reelection because of the economy, and not despite it.  Take that, Nick Kristof!


  1. Matt,

    Welcome back, even if only for a day!

    One of the difficulties I have found in trying to explain our research findings to the public (which we do everyday in the classroom) is that they resist anything that doesn’t square with their already adopted ‘truth.’ I think this causes some to throw in the towel and proclaim that it just isn’t worth the effort. It is disheartening to read the comments on the Monkey Cage now that it has gone to the WA Post.

    I did an interview this weekend with one of the major papers here in MS on the role of independent expenditures (which have suddenly exploded in the MS Senate race) that opened the eyes of the reporter just a teensy bit.


  2. This is great! Readers, if you haven’t clicked on this link, do so now – a great parody of Kristof!

  3. Thanks Rob! I’ve had the same experience with journalists who ask me to comment on a particular event. Invariably, what they are really looking for is the “money” comment that will substantiate the central theme of their story, which they have already practically written. It then looks like an “expert” has provided support for what they believe to be true all along. Very frustrating. And you are exactly correct about the deterioration in the comments section on the MonkeyCage site since it moved to the WaPo pages – it used to be that the comments were as enlightening as the main post. Sadly, that’s no longer the case. That’s the downside of an increased readership, I guess.

  4. Good to see you are snowed in and have time to blog. Welcome back. You must read Sherman’s new book on Roger Ailes : “The loudest Voice in the Room.”


  5. Thank you Jack – It’s good to be back, although I can’t say I really have time to blog, snowstorm or not! But I’ll do my best….

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