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February 05, 2013 11:48 AM What We’ve Got Here Is Failure to Communicate

By Andrew Gelman

One of the central goals of our blog is to improve communication between political journalists and political scientists. From one direction, we want to make journalists aware of important and relevant scholarly research. From the other direction, we want to encourage political scientists to write for general audiences.

As part of our goal, we spend a lot of space on promotion, encouraging journalistic work that we like and spreading the word about new political science research by ourselves and others.

Sometimes, though, we’re critical. The usual targets of our barbs are:

– Scholars who attempt popular writing outside their areas of expertise, don’t check their facts, and make silly mistakes (for example)

– Scholarly work that could be fun if presented as such but is overhyped and oversold in its real-world implications (for example)

– Innumeracy in political reporting (for example)

Other times, we link in our posts to relevant news articles or analyses published by journalists, not with the purpose of criticizing but rather to anchor our discussion in the context of current political debate. In these sorts of links, we are acknowledging journalism as part of the “real world,” and we are connecting our political-science work to the larger public discourse.

The trouble is, sometimes the mockery we do (and here I’m speaking first about what I do, but also more generally of bloggers in general) establishes a general adversarial tone that seems to stay in the air, even when we’re doing straight references to journalists. That’s what happened here the other day.

Following up on an earlier post I’d done on our research on the potential effects of changes to presidential election vote counting (in particular, national popular vote or a congressional-district-based electoral college system), I posted some simple calculations on the 2012 election. In that post, I gave a brief parenthetical link to a relevant recent article by Nate Cohn in the New Republic.

Cohn commented on my post and showed great annoyance that, as he saw it, I’d imputed some foolish positions to him. In response, I rephrased to clarify that I had no problems with what he’d wrote.

But I think the real problem was not what I’d posted in this case but rather the general expectation of animosity, based on years of interactions between journalists and bloggers. There’s just the expectation that, when a blogger links to a news analysis, it’s to criticize, to mock, to “fisk,” if you will.

I’ve seen this happen once or twice before, when I’ve linked to a news article that I liked, but the journalist in question got angry at what he perceived as snark. No snark was intended in these cases, but it’s notoriously difficult to convey intonation in typed speech, and if you’re expecting snark, you’ll likely see it.

So, to step back, my fault was not anything particular right here, but rather more generally in establishing an occasionally adversarial position in the past.

It goes like this: I mock John Yoo, I mock Gregg Easterbrook, I even mock Niall Ferguson (whose earlier work I’m on record as liking a lot). Then I give a straight link to New Republic writer Nate Cohn and it’s perceived as a slam. If I hadn’t established a pattern of mocking, maybe my recent post wouldn’t have been misread.

And, really, there’s no reason to mock, not if my goals are those of the Monkey Cage, to help make political science more relevant and journalism more science-based. Mocking can be fun, and it can make the occasional blog post more fun to read, but I don’t see it serving the larger goals at all.

So, from now on, no mockery. Here’s an example where I actually wrote the blog post in two ways, first to mock, then in a completely sincere tone. If I keep this up for a few years, maybe the journalists who I write about will accept my links in their intended spirit. But, for now, the ball’s in my court.

P.S. Here’s the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotes. They all seem right to me, except for #21. I think all the other quotes on the list are better and more memorable (with the exception of #88, I suppose). What were they thinking??? Overall it’s an excellent list. I wonder what are the best movie quotations that didn’t make the cut?

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.