Social Science should be interesting
I love reading academic papers. I probably enjoy them more than reading longer non-fiction books, because I can get the interesting part just by reading the abstract and then skimming the results section. I read random articles from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP) a few times a week, and I always find something interesting. If not there, then I browse Legislative Studies Quarterly, or the American Political Science Review, or a few other select journals.
These journals are just a goldmine of interesting stuff - the most recent issue of the JPSP had an article about how culture affects the ability to think in counterfactuals (see here). It had another about the impact of mindfulness meditation on guilt (see here), and another on the ways in which people react to others’ misfortune (see here). That selection wasn’t made by me choosing the most interesting papers from the most recent issue, they’re the first three articles in the issue. It’s a great journal! (I hope these papers seem interesting to others and I haven’t totally missed the mark by recommending things that most people think seem like they would be unbearably dull).
But so many academics don’t take the time to actually broadcast their interesting papers to the world, or to re-write the conclusions in plain English. I think there’s probably a demand for reading summaries of the papers rewritten in plain English - I do it on this blog (and those posts have proved particularly popular), and Ethan Mollick has basically become famous on Twitter by doing it.
The academics I am aware of who do actively try and generate public appeal seem to do well as well. I get the sense that the professors at George Mason University (Bryan Caplan, Tyler Cowen, Robin Hanson, etc.) have become semi-famous out of the revelation that academic social science might actually be interesting to people who aren’t academics. Admittedly, there’s likely to be some selection bias - there are likely many academics who try and write stuff for popular consumption and fail!
There’s also a problem with lots of academics choosing to write about things that just aren’t interesting. My grandfather is a professor who often expresses mild dismay at the topics that academics choose to work on, giving the example of a professor he knew who focused on legislation related to finance during some ten year period in the 1600s, or something like that. It’s probably partially the case that some people just like to study things that are extremely specific and don’t seem particularly important or interesting to most of us, but I also worry that there’s a problem with the incentives in academia - you’re told that you need to make an addition to the sum knowledge of humanity, and the easiest way to do that is just write about one specific aspect of human life during one period that nobody seems to have delved into yet.
For my master’s thesis, I wrote about the correlation between UKIP’s vote share in a constituency in the 2015 General Election (for American readers, a party that advocated for the UK leaving the European Union), and the subsequent number of tweets about the EU by that constituency’s MP in the run-up to the EU referendum. Apologies if I’ve lost you already, I know that this is completely boring and unimportant. It doesn’t much matter if a 1% increase in the UKIP vote share in 2015 in one area is associated with a 3% increase in the number of Eurosceptic tweets by the Member of Parliament for that area, and I wish I’d spent my time writing and thinking about something a bit more important.
The reason that I wrote about a topic as boring as I did was because I had a lot of incentives to do so, not because I thought the impact of UKIP was particularly riveting at the time of writing. My advisor told me that this was something nobody had written a paper about before, and that would increase the chance of me getting a distinction. I was told that we could only write about events during one brief period of time in one country, so that ruled out some interesting cross-country comparisons. People in Silicon valley are asked ‘what’s the most important problem in your field, and why aren’t you working on it?’, whereas in academia it seems like you’re more likely to be asked why the hell you would attempt to try and answer the most important question in your field, given so many others are trying.
I wasn’t even allowed to do a proper causal design because I was told that linear regression was sufficient for getting the top mark, so who knows if the fact that the UKIP vote share was associated with MPs tweeting more negatively about the EU was a causal effect. I did the boring thing, I scraped the tweets that nobody else had scraped before, and I got the distinction I wanted.
I probably don’t know enough about academia to make broad claims about why the incentives are misaligned as such to produce research that is either boring, or research that is interesting but not written in a way that most people can understand or in a place that most people will ever care to look at. But I do have a suspicion that lots of academics just don’t think to put their work somewhere accessible, or don’t know where they ought to put it. And frankly, I’m not sure I would know where to put an accessible summary of a paper I wrote either either.
Maybe that accessible place doesn’t really exist. Unless you’re someone who has the time and reputation to get an op-ed published, or have a popular blog like Bryan Caplan, it isn’t obvious where you would go to write up an accessible summary of your research other than Twitter (although most academics fail to even do that). The Loop seems like a useful website for political scientists to know about, but even their articles are a bit too jargony. Let me know if there’s somewhere else I should be aware of where academics are writing summaries of their research in a way that ordinary people would understand.