Kristoff Kerfuffle: On the Pace of Diffusion of Ideas

Yesterday Nicholas Kristoff trolled professors, and especially political scientists, crying out: “Professors, we need you!”  Naturally, it echoed about the web (e.g., here), and kicked up a counter-response from bloggers noting that they exist (e.g., here and here).[1]

What strikes me as missing from the discussion is consideration of the temporal process for knowledge diffusion.  As I am incapable of making the case better than John Maynard Keynes did when addressing this very point in 1936, I leave it to him:[2]

the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.

It is not in Mr Kristoff’s interest to consider Keynes’ point, but it is one that Professors do well to keep in mind: ideas take root when the young people who learn them assume positions of power, usually a decade or more later.  #GenerationalLagStructure


[1] Someone has surely noted the irony of The New York Times hiring political scientist Lynn Vavreck on the same day that Kristoff posted his troll.  UPDATE: Seth Masket does so here.

[2] From (1936) The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, chapter 24.

About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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2 Responses to Kristoff Kerfuffle: On the Pace of Diffusion of Ideas

  1. Sean says:

    This Kristof debate is premised on a false dichotomy. Reading the essays one presented with two incompatible options.

    Political science research is restricted to discipline-specific journals (preferably APSR) that address picayune research questions in a manner that makes the research completely inaccessible to the uninitiated, shrouded behind impenetrable logic, language, symbols, and/or equations.

    Political science “research” that is accessible is the result of faulty scholarship, or reflects the casual observations of a cab driver.

    Scholar or journalist: If it can be understood by a non-political scientist it is not research.

    The fallacious framing of the debate renders it impossible to imagine solid scholarship presented in manner comprehensible to general readers. Data-driven recommendations that can be understood and adopted by policymakers.

    Choose your side. Fail to side with Political Science and be awarded the “Scarlet J” – Journalist.

  2. Pingback: Norms, Rules, and Protecting Scholarly Associations | Will Opines

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