The academic estate and the public debate

Just because your first name is “Professor” doesn’t make you an expert on everything.

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 in concluding that an invasion would end in tears.

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 &#8212 and, elitist though it may be to say it, to a more respectful hearing than a non-expert &#8212 if he claims that the factual premises underlying some policy are incorrect or that some likely effect is being ignored or misrepresented. 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: an intellectual activity distinct from determining facts or framing theories to hold them together. It would be nice if the scrupulous fair-mindedness that characterizes the best scholarship also characterized the political arguments offered by scholars, but I doubt it’s so.

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, and partly because the conventions of academia allow a certain amount of editorial freedom at that point in the paper. (Mark Moore has been making this point for years.)

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. I think that mobilizing the professoriate (and especially the hard scientists) in support of Democrats is a good, and possibly practicable, idea.

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.

Update Mark Thoma is right to say that experts in one area can establish credentials to be heard in another area. More on that here.

Just to clarify for the benefit of one of Thoma’s commenters: I worked my heart out for Hubert Humphrey in 1968. But the ad I criticized implicitly said to voters “Since we’re professors, we’re smarter than you are. So we won’t bother to argue that Humphrey is the better candidate; just take our word for it. That was, and is, a lousy, arrogant argument.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: