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May 26, 2012 3:09 AM   Subscribe

How are popular opinions and well-known academics perceived in academia (social sciences)? Examples inside

How are the opinions of someone like Paul Krugman or Jeffrey Sachs perceived in academia? I am curious as to how colleagues view the work of academics that are "famous" among the general public, particularly if their opinion is polarizing and publicly discussed (or Disqus'd).

This question was inspired by the feeling that public opinion is somehow usually "wrong" or so basic that they miss the heart of the issue entirely. For example:

Public opinion: Lincoln started the Civil War to abolish slavery.
Academia: The Civil War was fought over the issue of federal vs. state and keeping the union together.

Public opinion: Abortion is controversial because of religion and male dominance.
Academia: The legality of abortion is hinged on the definition of life and when it starts.

Public opinion: Democracy in African countries is unstable due to ethnic conflicts and different ethnicities can't agree.
Academia: It is not so much that ethnicities hate each other as much as people expect more future goods and trust their coethnics more.

1) How are popular opinions perceived in academia?
2) How are the polarizing and salient opinions of academics perceived among their colleagues?
posted by ichomp to Education (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I can't speak for anyone but myself, "myself" being a Scandinavian university student, but popular opinion doesn't enter into it except as entry points for interesting questions (eg., using it as a hook to "catch" the project).

If something needs to be supported, argued for or against or otherwise taken apart, we construct our cases based on academic methodologies - which is to say, popular opinion doesn't enter into it.

Among the people who make up the academia, it usually hovers between polite discussion and rhetorical warfare... which is (in other words) just business as usual for humans.
posted by DemographicLanguage at 3:56 AM on May 26, 2012

It depends, I think, on what the famous academic is doing with their knowledge. Are they boiling complex things down and presenting them in a fun way? Great. But are they over simplifying and/or outright misleading their audience like Krugman does? Then they scoff.
posted by gjc at 4:18 AM on May 26, 2012

These are two different questions.

This really depends, as gjs says. I once met a woman who was professor at University of Maryland whose field was similar to that of a mathematician who had become "famous" (as far as a mathematician can be famous) for writing some books with cross-field appeal, and I asked her about him. She replied, "we hate him!" His work wasn't regarded as wrong, exactly, but simplified, and taking credit for "founding" a field that had existed for a long time. I think part of it is that academics judge each other on different metrics. Those metrics are whether they published worthwhile papers with new analytical findings to back up their arguments. A mass market book is something that explains the field to someone not directly in it and presents new ideas in an accessible way. Stephen Hawking's work has never attracted the ire of other physicists. I think they would only say that he is just doing work on a specific part of the field, and he is not the "main physicist" in this area... But I bet the public perception of hawking is different.

Plus, I don't think you'd find historians disagreeing that the Civil War was caused by slavery, but someone might do an analysis of why a Civil War over the issue broke out in the USA but did not in other 19th century slave societies like Brazil and point out the differences. Even in your last example, "public opinion" and academia don't disagree-- the later just has a more rigorous analysis of what the issues in play are, and "public opinion" could be called a simplified distillation. "Public opinion" is a "folk summary" of what I would call conventional wisdom, while academics only get published for something with rigorous analysis that can back up their facts.

Eg, public opinion: The sizes of armies in medieval battles were big, but it was hard to count the total number.
Academia: to support an army of the size reported, X kg of grain would have needed to be transported, which is more than the carrying capacity of the available horses and is more than was available locally,, and that many people could not have crossed the bridge at the reported river cross, which would have only fit Y soldiers/hour.
posted by deanc at 5:40 AM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

My experience in linguistics is that they largely get ignored except to occasionally laugh/groan about at happy hour.
posted by ootandaboot at 6:30 AM on May 26, 2012

I think they're two different questions as well, and I'm not sure I agree about any of the "academic" opinions posed being reflective of how the academy sees those issues - especially not the Civil War, which is often studied in a racial frame. It was about many things, but it also, certainly wasn't not about slavery, nor were the several decades of abolitionism vs. digging in that were pretty much only about slavery and the slave economy.

In the worlds of history, archaeology, anthropology -- it seems as though really famous people can sometimes vex their colleagues because their pet topics, of course, get more coverage, and often are even designed to draw attention or funding. So the accusation of "showboat" or "lightweight" can come up. There's also a little bit of grousing sometimes when a famous showboat who is part of an institution gets excused from the general routine responsibilities that others have to do - sit on committees, teaching load, etc. And when the media appearances of the famous contribute to a shallow public understanding of a topic, there's frustration about how much harder it is to reframe the discussion with the proper weight placed on particular topics or the correct evidence or other interpretations, etc. As a general answer.
posted by Miko at 7:42 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

How are popular opinions perceived in academia?

I think in the worst case they are generally viewed as drastically bite-sized simplifications of complex issues. Whether academics negatively judge the simplifiers depends on a number of complex factors that are not necessarily just about the content of the ideas and what got lost in translation, but also the style of publicizing them (as Miko says).

It is worth noting that all of your examples above, no matter how you classified them, would seem to fall into this category. (E.g. I am under the impression that philosophical work on abortion in ethics is _much_ more nuanced, regardless of the position it is arguing, than the summary in the post, and doesn't necessarily come to that conclusion.) I think it is widely understood that the level of nuance and complexity in academic work needs to be translated in some way to appeal/communicate to non-experts, but no one has a perfect solution as to how. I'd say that most academics who think about this issue approach it primarily by teaching intro courses in our specialty, more than writing books or op-eds.
posted by advil at 8:21 AM on May 26, 2012

Also, in the best case, they can be viewed quite positively. An example from linguistics: much of Steven Pinker's later pop sci writing is problematic and not viewed so positively, but "The Language Instinct" is widely viewed as (still) the best book to give someone in order to explain linguistics, and it was a major service to the field. I think part of why this book is so great is that it simplifies just enough to be readable by anyone, while still giving a compelling taste of the complexity and depth of human languages, and makes it clear what linguists actually do. I wouldn't say that this book was extremely polarizing, though.
posted by advil at 8:28 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ha - Pinker is exactly who I went to. I've definitely seen people roll their eyes about The Language Instinct (I think because it overstates the certainty about what's universal? been a long time since I read it), although I agree with advil's assessment that it's readable and engaging without being too wildly wrong. His popular work on other issues in philosophy of mind is regarded poorly though.

Daniel Dennett is another popular philosophy writer, and he is regarded better within philosophy academia. I think he's still seen more as a popularizer rather than a person whose own views should be studied in their own right, but he's probably the most important person in that category working today. He's seen as a reasonably careful thinker and he comes up with useful interesting examples, both of which earn respect.

Many popularizers are not academics. These people often misunderstand current academic discussions. Even more commonly, they have no contact at all with current academic discussions, and their talking about a field is based on one undergraduate course twenty or forty years ago - so it's sloppy and it's inaccurate.

If someone says that "philosophy of science says that "to be scientific a theory must be capable of falsification" they are working from a 50+ year old understanding of the field. (Philosophy of science is especially prone to this, because people learn about it from their science teachers in high school or college, and those science teachers learned it in one or two lectures when they were in college, etc...)

But what about a "best case" popularizer, who's a current academic and whose presentation of the field is accurate and up-to-date?

In philosophy, to be a Big Deal within the field, you need to be someone whose own writing/ideas merits study. One part of that is originality/novelty: your work should bring up new issues, frame them in new and useful ways, offer new proofs of old claims, offer really compelling new thought experiments, etc. And you need to do the baseline that's required of everyone in the field - think and write very carefully and clearly, and properly acknowledge the work of other thinkers in the same sub-area. "Situating" your work with respect to the work of other academics is very important ("Contrary to Jones 1982, my example shows that such-and-such").

Often, popularizers generally aren't saying something that counts as original within their field. And they don't offer new proofs, etc. They are mostly recapping old findings in a more engaging writing style.

They also simplify away much of the complexity the academics are interested in. Much academic work has to do with the margins of a field, in the sense of "there's a big area that's settled, and now we're trying to figure out the nitty-gritty at the edges of that settled area"... so if a popularizer gives a big-picture view of the settled area, but ignores the edges, s/he is ignoring the part that is of active interest to academics. There may be fierce debates about the edges, and when a popularizer ignores the edges, people aware of those debates may feel that s/he is leaving out something critically important.

Also, popularizers don't do much "situating", taking stock of the he-said-she-said nature of academic debates. In many academic areas, including the right names in your paper (as people you must respond to) is a sign that you understand your field - you know whose work is important. Leave this out and you're leaving out an important social marker of membership in the field.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:53 AM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

The moral of that last piece (about "best case" popularizers) is that it's rare for someone to be both a popularizer and a Big Deal within the field. But best case popularizers can still be respected as popularizers within the field, and then their contributions to the field in terms of their own research would be assessed separately.

Math is an interesting case of this, because IMO there is more discipline-wide respect for outreach and (accurate) popularization. So you do get very well-respected people writing popular books and columns about math. They are generally people who made their reputation by doing real math, and then turned to popularization later. (I am thinking of an NYT column on math from a few years ago by Stephen Strogatz, which I believe was said to be pretty good.)

The NYT runs a series of columns on philosophy, and these have been a very mixed bag - some have been just terrible and widely-lamented within the field. Philosophical writing above all should be clear, logically sound, unambiguous, and some of the columns failed that. Ouch.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:03 AM on May 26, 2012

I don't think your characterizations of popular vs. academic opinion are accurate.

In linguistics, the popularizers that are well-regarded are people who have managed, mostly, to avoid being wrong. Everyone feels qualified to write about language, but without some basic expertise, they're likely to have an incoherent understanding of it that leads to terrible errors.

Stephen Pinker is an example of someone who was able to write an accessible book that mostly avoided being wrong - and this book is often recommended by linguists. He's not a seminal figure in the field but "The Language Instinct" is probably the first book on the list of books linguists recommend to non-linguists.

On the other hand, something like Bryson's "Mother Tongue" is mostly regarded as a joke.

Apart from the issues of specific popularizations, popular opinions about language can be pretty ... well, wrong. Often. But sometimes clung to with zeal.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:32 AM on May 26, 2012

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