Good News from Academia: Political Impotence
I read a recent article on university professors. Its findings will cheer you up.
MANY of the world’s most talented thinkers may be university professors, but sadly most of them are not shaping today’s public debates or influencing policies.
There is nothing sad about this. American campuses have been run by political liberals ever since 1950. Since 1965, they have moved from the can-do liberalism of the Kennedy-Johnson Democratic Party to the New Left liberalism of McGovern to the fearful controlled speech liberalism of today. What began at Berkeley in September 1964 — the Free Speech Movement — has become the controlled speech movement.
Indeed, scholars often frown upon publishing in the popular media. “Running an opinion editorial to share my views with the public? Sounds like activism to me,” a professor recently noted at a conference, hosted by the University of Oxford.
This has been true for 70 years. The drones of academia always resented any of their peers who had influence among the Great Unwashed: the public. The deep-set envy of drones against productive members of the community has been endemic for academia ever since the 12th century. The scholars caught writing in popular journals of intellectual opinion were always suspect. Academia has always wanted to be judged only by those who are tenured, i.e., screened and rewarded in terms of campus criteria.
So, this is nothing new. The good news is this: it’s getting worse, i.e., better from the public’s point of view.
The absence of professors from shaping public debates and policies seems to have exacerbated in recent years, particularly in social sciences. In the 1930s and 1940s, 20 per cent of articles in the prestigious The American Political Science Review focused on policy recommendations. At the last count, the share was down to a [meager] 0.3 per cent.
Notice what this means. Even in a journal devoted to politics, during Roosevelt’s New Deal, 70% of the articles ignored policy making. Today, it is well under 1%.
The self-imposed irrelevance of academia has become almost perfect. The hermetically sealed world of academia is content to talk to itself. It reminds me of bag ladies before cell phones. They walked along the street talking to no one visible.
Even debates among scholars do not seem to function properly. Up to 1.5 million peer-reviewed articles are published annually. However, many are ignored even within scientific communities – 82 per cent of articles published in humanities are not even cited once. No one ever refers to 32 per cent of the peer-reviewed articles in the social and 27 per cent in the natural sciences.
No one should. The question is: Did scholars ever read these articles?
I recall being at an academic meeting where Nobel Prize-winning economist George Stigler was present. He rose to ask a question: “Why is it that not a single article published in any economics journal last year was worth reading?” That this curmudgeon asked this surprised no one. What was significant is that no other scholar rose to suggest an answer. That was in 1975.
If a paper is cited, this does not imply it has actually been read. According to one estimate, only 20 per cent of papers cited have actually been read. We estimate that an average paper in a peer-reviewed journal is read completely by no more than 10 people. Hence, impacts of most peer-reviewed publications even within the scientific community are minuscule.
This was known no later than 1975. There were academic journal articles on this.
Many scholars aspire to contribute to their discipline’s knowledge and to influence practitioners’ decision-making.
On the contrary, hardly anyone aspires to do this. They aspire above all to gain tenure — the ultimate job security. To get it, they must publish articles in peer-reviewed journals. No tenure-granting departmental committee asks if an article got read. The committee looks only at the prestige of the journal. “Prestigious” means “irrelevance off campus.”
However, practitioners very rarely read articles published in peer-reviewed journals.
John Kenneth Galbraith was a fine writer. So was Murray Rothbard. Neither of them published much in academic journals. They published widely outside of journals. They had influence off campus. I wrote an article on this back in 1988: “Why Murray Rothbard Will Never Win the Nobel Prize.” It appeared in a book, not in a peer-reviewed journal.
Economics teaches that people respond to sanctions: penalties and rewards. There are penalties in academia for having influence off campus. Such influence testifies to criteria of success that are not developed and imposed exclusively on campus. The professors want to distribute funds provided by state legislatures, federal agencies, and rich alumni. They do not want the sources of this funding to have any say with respect to who gets the money or why. We all want this, but university professors actually achieve it. Getting funded without surrendering control has always been the central meaning of the words “academic freedom.” Academic freedom is always accompanied by an unstated but widely held assessment by professors: “Never give a sucker an even break.”
Those who fund academia have done so on this basis: “Keep your opinions to yourselves off campus. Don’t call us. We’ll call you.” Both sides understand this arrangement. No one mentions it in public.
The result: “In the 1930s and 1940s, 20 per cent of articles in the prestigious The American Political Science Review focused on policy recommendations. At the last count, the share was down to a meagre 0.3 per cent.” This is good news for society. I hope this does not change. I see no evidence that it will.