Political Scientists vs. Political Journalists

by Henry Farrell on March 11, 2009 · 11 comments

in Media

In the course of a review (free reg. required to read) of Matt Hindman’s The Myth of Digital Democracy, Matt Bai draws the following generalization.

At this point, it’s only fair for me to say a word about political scientists and political journalists, who generally regard one another with the same low-grade disdain that probably characterizes the relationship between, say, legal scholars and urban prosecutors. Academics who study politics often consider those of us who write about the field to be superficial, simple-minded and–the greatest indictment of all– unscientific . We interview three people in an Iowa diner and act as if we have penetrated the very soul of America. (Such allegations are, sadly, true enough.) Hindman’s book is permeated by just this kind of mild contempt for political journalists, who, in his view, have mindlessly extolled the democratizing virtues of the Internet while not possessing the basic intellectual skills necessary to quantify their assertions. The Myth of Digital Democracy features no less than eight visual figures and 21 tables, along with detailed dissections of such metrics as the “Herfindahl-Hirschman Index,” which I can’t really explain to you beyond the fact that it seems to involve Greek symbols and some algebra.
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.

Discuss.

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