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Education in Crisis

On the Cowardice & Irrelevance of Social Science Scholars

by ANTHONY DiMAGGIO

French economist Thomas Piketty’s new book has been the talk of the town as of late, suggesting there may be hope yet in higher education for serious intellectuals and scholarship.  The book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, was released this month, and raises serious questions about the value of mainstream social science research.

Piketty is known for taking issue with academia for producing a dearth of scholarship that’s of limited practical value for society and public policy.  After securing a professor position at MIT in his early twenties during the early 1990s, he decided to return to France.  As Piketty recounts, “I did not find the work of U.S. economists very convincing,” as his fellow scholars were “too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves.”  Piketty’s advice to future scholars: “start with fundamental questions and try to answer them.”  Piketty’s certainly taken his own advice.  Along with fellow economist Emmanuel Saez, he achieved fame in recent years by producing landmark research that exposed the record inequality that exists in Twenty-First century America.  Analyzing IRS taxpayer data, Piketty and Saez demonstrated that by the mid-2000s, inequality in the U.S. reached heights not seen since the eve of the Great Depression.  The wealthiest one percent of Americans, their data showed, now take home one-quarter of all pre-tax income per year.

Piketty and Saez’s conclusions demolished the claims of numerous pundits that inequality is not a serious problem in the United States, and that America remains the “land of opportunity” for all those “willing to work hard enough.”  In reality, the United States (beaten only by Canada) has the second-lowest poverty “escape rate” of all first-world, wealthy countries.  Americans find themselves working longer hours, for less pay, among constant cost-of-living increases across the board.  Piketty and Saez’s research also blew holes in the long-standing conclusion – common in economics – that “free market” neoliberalism produces optimal outcomes for the American masses.  If inequality continues to grow during an era when workers find themselves working longer and longer hours, this speaks poorly of the potential for upward economic mobility.

Back to the issue of academia, Piketty has plenty of unkind words for today’s scholars: “To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences…There is one great advantage to being an academic economist in France: here, economists are not highly respected in the academic and intellectual world or by political and financial elites. Hence they must set aside their contempt for other disciplines and their absurd claim to greater scientific legitimacy, despite the fact that they know almost nothing about anything. This, in any case, is the charm of the discipline and of the social sciences in general: one starts from square one, so that there is some hope of making major progress…the truth is that economics should never have sought to divorce itself from the other social sciences and can advance only in conjunction with them. The social sciences collectively know too little to waste time on foolish disciplinary squabbles. If we are to progress in our understanding of the historical dynamics of the wealth distribution and the structure of social classes, we must obviously take a pragmatic approach and avail ourselves of the methods of historians, sociologists, and political scientists as well as economists…Disciplinary disputes and turf wars are of little or no importance.”

I can relate to Piketty’s comments.  The problems in economics are common across the social sciences.  My own discipline of Political Science has long been dominated by over-specialization and obscurity, with scholars carving out extremely narrow niches and regularly asking questions of limited to no practical utility.  It’s a problem that’s quite embarrassing, frankly.  To provide an example, professional Political Science conferences regularly churn out low quality “research” with little relevance to the average American.  One growing sub-field of Political Science is nothing more than research on how to measure political phenomenon, with no actual insights into politics or the political world itself.  This research is labeled “political methodology.”  An aura of mystique surrounds this sub-field as it grows in prominence.  It is embraced by Political Scientists – most of which suffer from Economics-envy.  Political Scientists are convinced that if much of the quantitative research produced by the discipline seems too complex to understand (much of it is written in formal equations and speaks of nothing but various obscure statistical tests), then it must be “good” and a sign of “superior” thinking and “skill.”  In reality, this work is often conducted by wannabe mathematicians who speak little of real politics – and know even less.  Its adherents spend no time actually observing the political process – so they have little to offer in the way of real-world knowledge.  All the statistical skills in the world don’t count for much when you don’t know anything about the topic you’re studying.  To demonstrate how out-of -touch this research is with the American masses, consider these paper titles from a major upcoming national Political Science conference:

* “Adjusting for Confounding Bias with Multi-Valued Treatments: The Covariate Balancing Propensity Score for Categorical Treatment Regimes”

* “Best of All Plausible Worlds?  Checking Robustness in Time-Series Cross-Sectional Models with Fictitious Plausible Alternate Treatments”

* “Evaluating the Robustness of Item Count Technique Estimators under Random and Non-Random Measurement Error”

* “Testing for Spatial-Autoregressive Lag versus Unobserved Spatially Correlated Error-Components”

 

You read those right.  I couldn’t make up titles like that if I tried.  Sadly, papers in other sub-fields of political science (those that are supposed to be concerned with actual politics) are often no better in terms of their practical use.  The narrow over-specialization of the field – and the failure of most research agendas in providing tools for improving democracy and political transparency – are apparent in paper titles such as:

* “The Role of Nominal Level Legislative Careers in Explaining Constituency Service in Parliament under Mixed-Member Electoral Rules: The Hungarian Case

* “Self-Control and Receptiveness to Affective Framing: A Critical Test of Cognitive Load and Ego Depletion”

* “Are the Kids All Right? Evidence of the Heterogeneous Effects of Empathy-Inducing Media from Survey and Field Experiments”

* “Workload, Delegation, and the Electoral Connection: Evidence from the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887”

* “Examining the Fate of Interparty Judicial Appointments Under New York’s Bipartisan System for Nominating Federal District Judges, 1977-1998”

These are merely a tiny fraction of the thousands of papers presented each year in my discipline.  American professors have developed entire careers with little interest in how academic resources can be re-allocated to enhance the common good.  Ph.D. students in the social sciences are rarely socialized by their mentors to understand the importance of producing research that’s useful in the real world.  In fact, it’s commonly taken as a sign of seriousness and scholarly “potential” when one produces the exact opposite: publishing in highly prestigious, esoteric academic journals read by only a tiny handful of social scientists throughout the country.  These works are widely ignored by politicians because they’re written in arcane, jargon-laden language, and never intended to be read by those outside of a small club of Political Science’s initiated.  The discipline has sent a clear message to the world: the more difficult one’s research is to understand, and the fewer people that read it, the more serious the intellectual prowess of the author.

Piketty is right to condemn the social sciences for neutering themselves in pursuit of prestige, while spitting in the face of practical findings and political advocacy.  Lack of relevance to the political world doesn’t make one’s research interesting or worthwhile, but this message falls on deaf ears in insulated places like high ed social science departments.  A main reason for scholars’ contempt for political advocacy is cowardice.  The vast majority of scholars have been socialized their entire lives to believe they must always remain “objective,” and that to take a position on an issue would be heretical.  Most scholars operate according to a pack mentality – fearful of engaging in unconventional behavior.  By producing useful real world research, one is challenging the sacred rules governing “objective” social science that celebrate esoteric research agendas.  To step outside that mold would be to endanger one’s prestige, and risk that one will be seen as unprofessional in colleagues’ minds.  Such pressures ensure that academics remain part of the problem, not the solution.  They fail by design to challenge the political and economic power status quo and injustices that occur around them.

Perhaps one day mainstream academics will be pressured to produce research of use in actually improving society.  Such a radical change will only take place with external pressure from American taxpayers and the public.  Parents (the funders of this academic research sham) and state taxpayers will have to pressure universities and colleges to reassess their priorities when it comes to allocating valuable resources away from silly (and ultimately fruitless) research agendas that all-too-often dominate American academia.  The stakes are too high for scholars to continue down this path of irrelevance.

Anthony DiMaggio holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Illinois, Chicago. He has taught U.S. and global politics at numerous colleges and universities, and written numerous books, including Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2009), When Media Goes to War (2010), Crashing the Tea Party (2011), and The Rise of the Tea Party (2011). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com.