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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The "Ivory Tower" Insult in Public Discourse

This is about the role of academics in public discourse. Much of what academics say is dismissed as "ivory tower nonsense," or something similar, but should it be dismissed so easily? The essay below from Mark Kleiman was written partly in response to Michael Ignatieff's apparent apology for his support of the Iraq war that appeared in the New York Times Magazine. In the article, Ignatieff blames his errors about Iraq on an thinking like an academic rather than with the good judgment he has learned in politics:

I’ve learned that good judgment in politics looks different from good judgment in intellectual life. Among intellectuals, judgment is about generalizing and interpreting particular facts as instances of some big idea. In politics, everything is what it is and not another thing. Specifics matter more than generalities. Theory gets in the way.

But he has this wrong. Academics learned long ago to look at the data rather relying on emotions, precisely what Ignatieff says he has now learned from being in practical politics. Go back and see what the academics were saying (here too) and compare it to what the "practical politicians" were saying and judge for yourself who had the better perspective on the likely consequences of the war and its aftermath. As Mathew Yglesias states:

Academics in the field of Middle East studies were overwhelmingly opposed to the war. Similarly, international relations scholars opposed the war by a very large margin. The war's foci of intellectual support were in the institutions of the conservative movement, and in the DC think tanks and the punditocracy where the war had a lot of non-conservative support. People with relevant academic expertise -- notably people who weren't really on the left politically -- were massively opposed to the war. To imply the reverse is to substantially obscure one of the main lessons of the war, namely that we should pay more attention to what regional experts think and give substantially less credence to the idea that think tankers are really "independent" of political machinations.

The academic community has often been opposed to conservative plans in a variety of areas, and there have been concerted attempts by some conservatives to undermine academic voices in public discourse (liberal bias, ivory tower, etc.) The attempts have been fairly obvious, and somewhat successful, or so it seems to me. Mark Kleiman says academics should speak up, but if they want to maintain their credibility with the public they should avoid claiming any special authority when speaking outside their main area of expertise:

The academic estate and the political process, by Mark Kleiman: In general, academic specialists in foreign policy, strategy, and Middle Eastern affairs made much better guesses about what would happen if we invaded Iraq than did politicians and pundits. (Yeah, yeah, I shoulda listened. Sorry, sir! Won't happen again, sir!)

And yet "ivory tower" remains an unanswerable insult in political discourse, as if journalists and politicians were proud of their ignorance. Many academics don't speak out much in public fora, even in areas of their expertise. Why doesn't the academic estate do more to claim its rightful voice in public affairs, and why, when it does, is it so little heeded?

I think there are two key distinctions here that are often lost: the distinction between an expert's proper authority in his own field of expertise and a general claim by people with faculty appointments to opine about public affairs, and the distinction between research and policy analysis.

Academics are, by nature, specialists. In general, the claim of specialists to offer expert opinion outside their specialities is to be treated with skepticism. (Socrates made that point, if I recall correctly.)

Back in 2003, the UCLA Faculty (or, rather, the 200 people who bothered to show up for the meeting) voted its opposition to the pending invasion of Iraq. That conclusion was arrived at by vote after a short and chaotic debate (mostly among people with no scholarly credentials relevant to the choice at hand), and was not subjected to the sort of peer review or careful analysis that we require in our scholarly lives. I thought then that the resolution did not deserve the attention that, in fact, it didn't get. By passing it as a faculty, we were illicitly claiming for our political opinions the authority that properly belongs only to our scholarly views. I still think so, though the proponents of that resolution turned out to be right...

That's not to say that academics, per se, have no proper public role. Someone who studies Iraq or climate change or taxation professionally is entitled to a hearing — and, elitist though it may be to say it, to a more respectful hearing than a non-expert ... Non-experts, including other academics, ought to disagree with experts, or disregard expert views, only cautiously and tentatively, unless there are comparably credentialed experts on the other side.

But, even if someone is a genuine expert in a relevant subject area, his claim to dictate the correct policy has much less force than his claim to describe what is the case and predict what is likely to happen, unless that person is also an expert in thinking about choosing good policies...

Read the "policy implications" section of a typical social-science paper. It rarely reflects the sort of cautious judgment about the relationship between observation and inference displayed in the "methods and results" section. That's partly because many social scientists haven't thought about the very different methods appropriate to policy analysis...

To earn respectful attention to our opinions about what ought to be done, we need to learn to make those opinions intellectually respectable, which means, among other things, both carefully distinguishing what we know from what we prefer and accurately representing the limits of our knowledge.

I'm not saying that, if we do so, we will get such attention; we probably won't. But I am saying that the attempt to use intellectual prestige, separated from serious and dispassionate critical truth-seeking, as a weapon in political struggle is no more legitimate than the use of money or celebrity as a weapon in political struggle, and less so if that attempt falsely claims the respect due to actual expert relevant knowledge.

Since academics have some capacity to lead opinion, some leisure, and some money, and since they're mostly on the right side of the current major political divide, I'd like to see them more active in politics. ...

But when I saw an ad in the New York Times in October 1968, with a bunch of professors' signatures under the headline "A Thousand People Who Think for a Living Think You Should Vote for Hubert Humphrey," I thought that was arrogant bullsh*t: "elitism" in the legitimately pejorative sense of the term. And I still think so.

And don't miss this commentary on the Ignatieff article [as highlighted by Brad DeLong].

Update: I've been bothered by how to fit someone like Paul Krugman, who I think has earned the right to be heard on a broad array of issues, not just economics, into the framework outlined by Mark Kleiman. So I don't think we should rule out that people can establish credibility beyond their academic area of expertise.

    Posted by on Wednesday, August 8, 2007 at 12:33 PM in Economics, Politics, Universities | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (47)

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