I don’t usually read Nick Kristof, I’ve grown tired of his political naiveté and his obsession with sex workers, but I saw people tweeting about his new column — about how academics should get more involved with public debate — and thought I’d like and agree with it. (I think everyone should get more involved with public debate, FWIW, but as an academic, I’ve thought about the issue more with regard to academics, though many things about colleagues make me think they wouldn’t contribute much.)
Corey Robin sums up Kristof’s (via) criticism of academics: “the usual volumes of complaint: too much jargon, too much math, too much peer review, too much left politics”. In fact, Kristof twice criticizes academics for being “too quantitative”.
There was a very quantitatively inclined (non-academic) fellow who used to work for the Times and who drove as much as 1/4 of the Times internet traffic in the lead-up to the election. Thus, the argument that readers are turned off by quantitative arguments doesn’t hold much water. There was one group that didn’t like Nate Silver and his numbers much though:
A number of traditional and well-respected Times journalists disliked his work. The first time I wrote about him I suggested that print readers should have the same access to his writing that online readers were getting. I was surprised to quickly hear by e-mail from three high-profile Times political journalists, criticizing him and his work. They were also tough on me for seeming to endorse what he wrote, since I was suggesting that it get more visibility.
Kristof’s criticism of academics for being too quantitative is part of a turf war. Establishment media types are innumerates who got where they got by kissing the right asses, and they’re threatened by numbers and, more broadly, by specialized knowledge of any kind.
Kristof readily admits that he likes to absorb research via TED talks. At least David Brooks reads books and research papers, even if he doesn’t understand them.