Politics and the Academy

In a recent New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof called on scholars, particularly social scientists, to decode their cryptic disciplinary tongues and reenter the political debate. Where in the Kennedy era stood a “brain trust” of Harvard faculty at the center of policymaking, he argues, one now finds some economists and virtually no other academics. Meanwhile, academia at large has become more arcane and less engaged with practical questions.
As a former economics geek who has since come to see the discipline’s limits for understanding social life, I find a lot to like in Kristof’s piece. He’s right that, as behavioral scientist Richard Thaler once put it, “the United States government is run by lawyers who occasionally take advice from economists.” Economists remain in policy posts as sociology, anthropology, and political science largely fade from the picture. Further, even economists’ findings matter little in our polarized political environment. Just look at the five-year, ongoing debate over the stimulus, where the numerous econometric studies on jobs created have, I would wager, swayed few if any politicians on the issue.
Perhaps Kristof is right, then, that our political discourse lacks sufficient academic grounding. Maybe the lack of political agreement on how the Federal Reserve’s bond-buying measures or a minimum wage increase impact the economy stems from insufficient scholarly engagement with these popular debates. But the key feature of these questions is that the economics discipline itself has not definitively answered them either.
Science, very much including the social sciences, requires a degree of skepticism and humility that our polarized politics militates against. Though we might like to think that we Americans approach political debates as research questions and our deepest ideals as falsifiable theories, the realm of the political and the realm of the scientific rarely coincide so neatly. And too eagerly integrating the two holds risks for the academy.
In keeping with Kristof’s brain trust model, I point to the example of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report The Negro Family: A Call for National Action. Moynihan, a Ph.D. in sociology and, later, U.S. senator, worked in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations as assistant secretary of labor. His 1965 report on the growing rate of single-parent households in inner-city black communities, intended for a close audience of policymakers, got leaked in small segments to the media. A firestorm ensued. Although the report primarily attributed African Americans’ challenges to racism and economic marginality, Moynihan’s critics latched onto a few of his phrases to call him a racist. Few remarked that, despite his moralistic language, his call for major jobs programs for the urban poor lay to even President Johnson’s left.
Indeed, for decades after the infamous “Moynihan Report” debacle, most sociologists refused to entertain the notion of unique, disadvantageous cultural adaptations in the inner city. Not until 1987, when sociologist William Julius Wilson wrote The Truly Disadvantaged, did some in the field begin to engage cultural questions again. Cultural sociologists have since added important perspectives to urban policymaking. But the field still operates under the specter of that fateful 1965 report and the politicized debate that ensued.
Now, I am the last one to claim that social science is, or can be, wholly objective. As Max Weber, one of the founders of sociology, correctly argued, all scientific inquiry conducted by humans, beings with values and ideals, is inherently subjective. Empirical social science cannot tell us what to believe, but it can tell us how to evaluate our beliefs against the facts and against each other. Indeed, it commands us to subject our deepest ideals to scrutiny in order to fully understand their consequences. This science, Weber insists, offers “nothing to those persons to whom this truth is of no value.”
Surely more rigorous attention to evidence and evaluation of alternatives would make for a better politics. I remain more skeptical than Kristof, however, that the way to this goal is through subjecting the academic disciplines to the whims of our polarized political discourse, one where Weber’s truth of critical scrutiny clearly is “of no value.” Academia, including the social sciences, has a lot to offer politics, but I’m not so sure it’s mutual.
-Daniel Backman, President

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