What we’ve got here is failure to communicate

by Andrew Gelman on February 4, 2013 · 16 comments

in Blogs,Political Science and Journalism

One of the central goals of our blog is to improve communication between political journalists and political scientists. From one direction, we want to make journalists aware of important and relevant scholarly research. From the other direction, we want to encourage political scientists to write for general audiences.

As part of our goal, we spend a lot of space on promotion, encouraging journalistic work that we like and spreading the word about new political science research by ourselves and others.

Sometimes, though, we’re critical. The usual targets of our barbs are:

– Scholars who attempt popular writing outside their areas of expertise, don’t check their facts, and make silly mistakes (for example)

– Scholarly work that could be fun if presented as such but is overhyped and oversold in its real-world implications (for example)

– Innumeracy in political reporting (for example)


Other times, we link in our posts to relevant news articles or analyses published by journalists, not with the purpose of criticizing but rather to anchor our discussion in the context of current political debate. In these sorts of links, we are acknowledging journalism as part of the “real world,” and we are connecting our political-science work to the larger public discourse.

The trouble is, sometimes the mockery we do (and here I’m speaking first about what I do, but also more generally of bloggers in general) establishes a general adversarial tone that seems to stay in the air, even when we’re doing straight references to journalists. That’s what happened here the other day.

Following up on an earlier post I’d done on our research on the potential effects of changes to presidential election vote counting (in particular, national popular vote or a congressional-district-based electoral college system), I posted some simple calculations on the 2012 election. In that post, I gave a brief parenthetical link to a relevant recent article by Nate Cohn in the New Republic.

Cohn commented on my post and showed great annoyance that, as he saw it, I’d imputed some foolish positions to him. In response, I rephrased to clarify that I had no problems with what he’d wrote.

But I think the real problem was not what I’d posted in this case but rather the general expectation of animosity, based on years of interactions between journalists and bloggers. There’s just the expectation that, when a blogger links to a news analysis, it’s to criticize, to mock, to “fisk,” if you will.

I’ve seen this happen once or twice before, when I’ve linked to a news article that I liked, but the journalist in question got angry at what he perceived as snark. No snark was intended in these cases, but it’s notoriously difficult to convey intonation in typed speech, and if you’re expecting snark, you’ll likely see it.

So, to step back, my fault was not anything particular right here, but rather more generally in establishing an occasionally adversarial position in the past.

It goes like this: I mock John Yoo, I mock Gregg Easterbrook, I even mock Niall Ferguson (whose earlier work I’m on record as liking a lot). Then I give a straight link to New Republic writer Nate Cohn and it’s perceived as a slam. If I hadn’t established a pattern of mocking, maybe my recent post wouldn’t have been misread.

And, really, there’s no reason to mock, not if my goals are those of the Monkey Cage, to help make political science more relevant and journalism more science-based. Mocking can be fun, and it can make the occasional blog post more fun to read, but I don’t see it serving the larger goals at all.

So, from now on, no mockery. Here’s an example where I actually wrote the blog post in two ways, first to mock, then in a completely sincere tone. If I keep this up for a few years, maybe the journalists who I write about will accept my links in their intended spirit. But, for now, the ball’s in my court.

P.S. Here’s the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotes. They all seem right to me, except for #21. I think all the other quotes on the list are better and more memorable (with the exception of #88, I suppose). What were they thinking??? Overall it’s an excellent list. I wonder what are the best movie quotations that didn’t make the cut?

{ 16 comments }

Nate Cohn February 4, 2013 at 12:42 pm

Without weighing in on whether you should abandon snark going forward (although I enjoy it!), I don’t think that our misunderstanding was related to past flirtations with mockery.

You led by suggesting that I thought Democrats possessed an Electoral College “lock.” Your piece then proceeds to argue that the Democrats only possess a modest advantage, not the lock-esque edge held by the GOP under a CD system. I think a reasonable person could therefore interpret your piece as aimed at disputing mine, especially since it’s relatively common for writers to establish and then refute a strain of conventional wisdom.

I felt more confident in my adversarial interpretation because you supported your argument by contending that the uniform swing overstated the Democrats’ edge in the Electoral College and, although you didn’t say so, an application of the uniform swing was the basis for my determination that the Dems possess an EC edge. Since your piece both argued against (your characterization) of my thesis and the primary warrant for my piece, I think you can appreciate why I thought your link wasn’t just parenthetical.

In one regard, past writings may have colored my interpretation of your piece, but it wasn’t prior snark. My good friend Anton Strezhnev, a Ph.D. student in political science at Harvard, was already taking issue with my use of the uniform swing on similar grounds:
http://causalloop.blogspot.com/2013/01/why-inference-matters.html

But even if Anton hadn’t posted that, I suspect I still would have thought that your piece was intended to refute mine, since, well, it did refute (even if only implicitly) a mischaracterized version of my thesis, as well as the data underlying it.

In any case, I hope that you can appreciate why I interpreted your piece as refuting mine, even if you don’t think it was the fairest interpretation (and it might not have been). I’m sorry if my comment was overly hostile, and I do sincerely appreciate your revisions, as well as your thoughtful consideration of how our non-disagreement should influence your writing in the future. But for what it’s worth, I don’t think that our disagreement is emblematic of snark-enduced animosity between political scientists and journalists.

Andrew Gelman February 4, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Nate:

This all makes sense. Just to clarify: I wasn’t saying that you read my post as adversarial because of my own history of snark. It was more that I felt there is a general pattern of bloggers screaming and snarking at journalists (and, in response, journalists ignoring or acting dismissive of blogs), so that it’s natural for any journalist, when seeing a blogger comment on his or her work, to anticipate an adversarial tone. I agree that, in this particular case, the original version of my post was not clear.

Nate Cohn February 4, 2013 at 6:09 pm

That’s fair. My comment was intended to address this line, not your broader point about journalists more generally: “If I hadn’t established a pattern of mocking, maybe my recent post wouldn’t have been misread.”

www February 4, 2013 at 3:40 pm

What’s wrong with the Lecter quotation?

The only crimes on that list are that neither Glengarry Glen Ross nor Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are absent.

“We’re adding a little something to this month’s sales contest. As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody want to see second prize? Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.”

“I hope that was an empty bottle, George! You can’t afford to waste good liquor, not on your salary! Not on an ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR’S salary!”

Andrew Gelman February 4, 2013 at 8:19 pm

There are so many quotes they could’ve included. I just didn’t think #21 was particularly pithy or memorable.

anonymous February 5, 2013 at 9:46 am

In my household, we never have fava beans without quoting #21. (I’m not kidding.) But I’m with you on questioning #88. And for my money, Pulp Fiction has several lines more memorable than many on the list.

Keith M Ellis February 4, 2013 at 8:14 pm

I would have gone with “coffee is for closers”.

Evan Harper February 4, 2013 at 10:51 pm

Re: the postscript, I think there are some other mistakes on there. It was stupid to use “open the pod bay doors please, HAL”, instead of HAL’s far more memorable response, “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.” They’re also missing Mae West’s immortal line, “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” and “These go to eleven” from This is Spinal Tap. Of course top-N lists are arbitrary but these seem like very strange judgement calls.

Jon M February 5, 2013 at 9:49 am

I would suggest that sarcasm and snark are actually part of what makes your posts entertaining so it would be a shame if you stopped that entirely. And since reading ease and enjoyment are certainly part of what makes the monkey cage a casual read (rather than part of my academic reading), I’d say that a certain degree of sarcasm does serve the aims of the blog.

Communicating with the wider public and journalists also entails making the posts engaging enough to read.

Maybe just tag each snarky post with a tag to clearly mark which are intended as such. The side benefit will, of course, be a time series of monkey cage blog snarkiness that can be later be used for “important” research.

Scott Matthews February 5, 2013 at 11:47 am

I concur — keep up the snark and sarcasm, if possible. The occasional misunderstanding is just the cost of doing business. I read enough non-mocking (or at least manifestly non-mocking) political science. I don’t read MC purely for light entertainment — I learn a great deal, in fact — but I do appreciate the humour (when it’s successful… [I'm mocking you here]).

I guess it’s possible that your post is mean ironically, in which case, I’ve clearly not gotten the joke. Wouldn’t be the first time.

brad February 5, 2013 at 9:49 am

Comedies are really underrepresented on that list (a quick count and I see less than ten). Not necessarily a bad thing for “best” movies of all time, but when it comes to the best movie quotes, I think it might be a problem. Obviously we’ve all got our favorites, but I’m just sad “we’re on a mission from god” or “It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark… and we’re wearing sunglasses.”

Phil February 5, 2013 at 2:08 pm

To be fair, you sometimes write something along the lines of: “Schmoe is obviously unfamiliar with this area of research, leading him to analyze the wrong dataset. And he compounds the problem by applying a completely inappropriate analysis, and then he interprets the results incorrectly (he should be talking about sigma, not beta.) I was initially untroubled by this because I assumed Schmoe is in fourth grade, but it turns out he’s an economics professor. Just to be clear, I’m not trying to criticize Schmoe here, and certainly not economists, I’m just making a general point about not being able to trust what you read because even highly educated people sometimes make mistakes.”

These crack me up.

After seeing a few of these, one learns to discount the “..I’m not trying to criticize..” pronouncements, even though sometimes you really do mean it.

Rebecca M February 5, 2013 at 8:51 pm

The problem with 21 is that it doesn’t need the first sentence.

Andrew Gelman February 5, 2013 at 9:54 pm

They just rate The Silence of the Lambs very highly. On their list of top 100 heroes and villains, they list Anthony Hopkins as the #1 villain (maybe that’s ok; personally, I’d put him below Kevin Spacey and a bunch of others, but, sure, you can make the case that Hannibal is #1) but then they list Jodie Foster as the #6 hero. You gotta be kidding. Jodie’s fine, but no way does she go above Rocky, Ripley, Spartacus, etc etc.

David Kane February 6, 2013 at 9:38 am

1) Could not believe that “Yippee ki-yay MF” was missing.

2) Shouldn’t statistics be able to help out the AFI on this question? Web and twitter hits (as in this) provide an objective measure of memorableness, perhaps adjusted for time. Lots of hard problems to solve, especially text munging of alternative spellings and what not.

Rick Matland February 8, 2013 at 1:29 am

“To my brother George, the richest man in town.” Absolutely Nothing from It’s a wonderful life? Is a big miss.

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