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.



b. March 11, 2009 at 11:05 am

What is there really to say, other than “What rubbish”? I don’t really see an argument here; it’s more an assertion that we can’t study politics systematically because politics isn’t systematic. But he doesn’t actually engage the literature to show that all of our systematic theorizing and quantitative testing is bunk. Instead, he complains about having to understand a sum of squared proportions.

And I’m not sure what he’s trying to get at with the line about Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Is there some kind of reference there that I’m missing? Or is he just proceeding from a shopworn assumption that academics just don’t know what “real America” is like, and that this is obviously a fatal flaw of their work? Has he actually read _any_ political science dissertations, let alone enough to say that his coffee-shop interviews are “often more illuminating” about politics in the United States?

Maybe we’re just not even talking about the same thing. If there were a Jeopardy answer “This is the business of humans attempting to triumph over their own disorder, insecurity, competitiveness, arrogance, and infidelity,” who would actually give the question “What is politics?”

Dubi March 11, 2009 at 11:08 am

This is like the eternal feud between programmers and UI-designers. The two groups are simply not trying to do the same thing. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we can stop being bothered by how the media negatively effects the general public’s understanding of politics (if journalists were more like political scientists, what they’re writing will be just as widely read as what we political scientists write – that is, not at all), and focus our minds on things that matter, which is making sure that those people who ARE in a position to make use of what we have to say (policy makers) understand this difference, and listen to us, not to them.

Paul Gowder March 11, 2009 at 12:02 pm

Only 21 tables in 200 pages? I think I speak for the entire Stanford-Michigan-Rochester axis when I say that the book clearly errs in the other direction from the one Bai identifies. ;-)

Kevin March 11, 2009 at 12:50 pm

I second the previous comments and John’s follow up post, but I think it is also worth highlighting Bai’s anti-mathematical bias as well. Rather than attempt to understand the mathematical representation of the argument Hindman puts forth, Bai dismisses outright the notion that ideas associated with greek letters are worth his time.

Jim March 11, 2009 at 3:41 pm

Bai’s indictment of political science is only applicable in the sense that political scientists too often study what appears to non-practitioners to be obscure, verging on navel-gazing, minutiae. This is partially due to the fact that most political scientists have, as their audience, other political scientists. Politics may indeed be a messy process, full of messy people doing messy things. That doesn’t mean it’s not knowable on some level. It just means that people who study it, and people who read those who study it, have to understand what questions are being asked and how they are being answered.

Anonymous Coward March 11, 2009 at 5:16 pm

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.

“A Herfindahl index measures how diverse or concentrated an industry, or something like it, is. A Herfindahl index of 0.5 means that the “industry” is as diverse as one with two equal-sized “firms.” A Herfindahl index of 0.3 means that the “industry” is about as diverse as one with three equally-sized “firms.” A Herfindahl index of 0.25 is equivalent to a market with four equal sized firms, 0.1 to ten firms, and so on.”

Was that really so damn hard?

Dubi March 12, 2009 at 1:32 am

Anon – I explained that to a mathematician friend of mine (well, not that, but a similar one – the effective number of parties index), and he asked me “what do you mean by “as if it had three equal parties”?
I have to say I couldn’t answer him. He then suggested an alternative measure that was way too complex for me to understand.
So, while we’re dumbing stuff down for the masses – what would you answer to the question “what do you mean by “as diverse as one with three equally sized firms”?”

Burt March 12, 2009 at 9:25 am

One interpretation, of several, is “the probability that two randomly picked individuals will be in the same group”. One group, H = 1 (no diversity). Two equal groups, H = 1/2. Three equal groups, H = 1/3. … Infinite groups, H = 0 (maximum diversity).

There are other concepts of diversity and other measures that follow.

MissLaura March 12, 2009 at 10:30 am

Matt Bai is the Jim Cramer of political reporting, with a healthy dollop more condescension.

paul g. March 12, 2009 at 7:22 pm

eh. Doesn’t concern me much. I have good relations with many thoughtful journalists. I benefit from their groundedness and hopefully they benefit from my attempts to translate political science into a suitable story.

Many in our profession are utterly clueless about politics and about journalism, however. And proud of it.

Sharoney March 13, 2009 at 10:56 pm

Shorter Matt Bai: “I may be a pretentious twit who would go for the cheap anecdotal story rather than try to learn about and explain actual analyses, but at least I’m not as bad as David Brooks. At least when it comes to all internet traditions.”

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