Wonks vs. Nerds

by Joshua Foust on 3/13/2010 · 6 comments

Back in January, Drew Conway, Thomas Zeitzoff, and I co-wrote a response to a high-profile study on ecologies of conflict. Our primary complaint wasn’t that quantitative study per se was wrong—after all, Thomas and Drew are primarily quantitative in their work—but that it requires a lot of context and understanding to give the numbers meaning beyond themselves.

Naturally, Andrew Exum joined the fray, calling the three of us a gang of assassins and generally going on about his opinions of the entire field of quantitative study. He eventually distilled his thoughts on the matter into a “manifesto,” which, being outright skeptical of quant studies’ value, generated severe angst in the academic blogosphere (our friend Drew wrote an engaging response).

Exum shot back by saying he was only kidding, and the post was meant to be flippant. Which is fine—he certainly has the right to write satire (though I hope he leaves a few more indicators he’s being silly next time). But what I found most interesting in all the fallout from this was a bloggingheads thingy between Dan Drezner—whose blog I don’t read (boring!) but whose professional work I enjoy—and Heather Hurlburt, the executive director of the National Security Network. They have a lengthy section where they discuss, essentially, the wonks vs. nerds debate:

I’m only a little shocked to see Drezner so willingly admitting the faults of academia—after all, he has tenure up at Tufts and doesn’t have to face reprisals from badmouthing any potential selection committee. But what was so tellingly absent from this discussion were the failures of the policy community. Both have serious issues: despite Hurlburt’s insistence policy work is grounded in the real world, any cursory glance at the kinds of work we discuss on here is ample evidence that just in our teeny, tiny world of Central Asia (and sometimes the Caucasus!) the actual real world very seldom factors into the analysis.

Indeed, I’d feel comfortable placing academia and policy in contrast merely for how each community chooses to ignore or simplify reality: academia retreats into theories and numbers, while policy retreats into ideologies and wish-fulfillment (and both struggle with serious bias issues and stereotypes).

So while it’s nice to see Drez (can I call him that?) admitting his field has it’s issues—it does!—I was surprised to see Hurlburt so unwilling to admit her own field’s issues as well. The reality is, reality is more complex than either field really gets comfortable admitting in papers and journals and books. And the reality is, fluently discussing anything in the real world is going to require understanding both worlds, since at the end of the day they focus on different things. And they kind of sorts of said that. I just wish they’d made that point clearer.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Madhu March 13, 2010 at 4:16 pm

“Indeed, I’d feel comfortable placing academia and policy in contrast merely for how each community chooses to ignore or simplify reality: academia retreats into theories and numbers, while policy retreats into ideologies and wish-fulfillment (and both struggle with serious bias issues and stereotypes).”

You know, sometimes I agree with you and sometimes I don’t, but you are a consistently interesting blogger. But to the main points of your post:

Ah, academia (wonk world is a complete mystery to me, except as I see bits of it filtered through the blogs I read.)

Academia lacks transparency such that there exist two “worlds” – academia’s idealized version of itself, and the grittier reality of political fiefdoms, bureaucratic wrangling, and personal professional jealousies or competition. Academia, as it exists in the U.S., big academia anyway, is corrupt. But if you make that statement, many academics think that you are a loser who couldn’t make it in the publish or perish tenure-track world, or maybe, that you are just a plain old loser.

But is is corrupt. You know it, I know it, pretty much everyone knows it, and I’m not sure what you do about the mass-psychosis of knowing something and not acting on it. Perhaps I am being too negative, but the stories almost anyone could tell from academia! Stories of spouses of important faculty, or chairs, gobbling up departmental resources, students pressured or threatened, committees for awards packed with personal favorites, intellectual incrementalism and group-think. I don’t know. Academia produces some very good research, I just wish it would turn its formidable intellectual skills toward studying itself, sometimes.

I doubt that will ever happen. It hums along, content to dispense advice on how the larger world should run itself, but it can’t even keep house itself.

Aw, ignore all that. Venting about past experiences, I suppose.

Dan DePetris March 13, 2010 at 4:51 pm

I can actually speak from personal experience here. A few months ago, I had a long meeting with one of my professors- and advisers- on what I should do after graduation. I knew immediately that I wanted to pursue advanced education in graduate school, but was lost on what path I should follow to achieve this goal. Is an MA the best route for my ambitions, or should I embark on the long and tedious process of doctoral research? More importantly, which path would provide me with a better career?

Before the meeting, I had a strange feeling that my professor would lobby me to enroll in a Ph.D program. After all, members of the academic community often boast their own field, hoping that others would follow where they left off. But to my surprise, he said the exact opposite of what I expected. ‘Academia is not for everyone’ he warned, and more often than not a doctoral degree will serve as a disadvantage for those who want to work in the U.S. Government.

How could this be? Well, it’s simple; the divide between practitioners and academics is extremely wide. Practitioners view academics as a remote class of people who are more interested in research for research sake, rather than research for applied problems. Practitioners want answers for today’s complex issues, like the national economy or America’s numerous foreign-policy concerns. A doctoral candidate may not be the best person for this type of job.

I’m still a bit puzzled by all of this.

AJK March 13, 2010 at 8:39 pm

The real world has a nasty habit of busting up our theories.

But in all seriousness, the major issue wonks and nerds face is that they need to write to their audience – their employers – in order to get paid. Whether that means keeping your mouth shut during budgeting meetings or making sure Boeing gets a plug, its a serious hurdle to leap.

And of course we all simplify. The question, as you said, is how do we do it. You have to take out some variables and try to read through the noise, it all depends on what thesis you’re trying to prove and what objective you’re trying to reach. We’re all flawed in our outlooks, but I myself am just trying to find the best way for me myself to get some change going.

Phil K March 13, 2010 at 9:20 pm

Talking Inside Academia is one of Drezner’s favorite passtimes, especially when it comes to PoliSci navel-gazing topics like methodology and policy-relevence. He and Joe Nye did a talk similar to this one when Nye ruffled some feathers with that NYT op-ed a year or so back (Drew Conway got in on that discussion too).

Heather Hurlburt March 14, 2010 at 9:05 pm

Glad you picked this up — i would certainly agree that my discipline has lots and lots of issues with reality, but it never occurred to me that the debate here was academic nerds vs. think tank nerds. I’m aan implementer, not a think tanker, and my critique comes from the implementer’s point of view. The critique of the many, many aspects of reality the implementers get wrong is, of course, one of the more useful things academia could put its mind to…

Schmedlap March 14, 2010 at 10:32 pm

Quantitative analysis is infallible. We recently discovered that the way to fix corruption within large financial companies is to simply align executive compensation with desired outcomes. It’s just a simple equation – and there – problem solved. Or, to bring it back to the issue at hand, we know that 20 counterinsurgents per 1000 inhabitants is the magic number. Yes. Magic. Just do the math.

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