Tom Ricks, Political Science, and Policy Relevance

I actually should thank Tom Ricks. I’ve wanted to revive this long-dormant blog for some time now, but I’ve been caught up with moving and trying to wrap up a long-term project. Ricks, the former Washington Post military correspondent, inspired me to knock the dust off this site when he made one of the silliest arguments about the policy relevance of political science on record.

In a blog post at Foreign Policy, he mocks the latest issue of the academic journal International Security as boring and irrelevant to the myriad crises the world faces. Ricks complains that with trouble in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt, that the journal would offer articles on the one hundredth anniversary of World War I and ethnofederalism demonstrates why political science is not a real discipline.

There are two problems with this post that are immediately evident. First, it ignores the obvious relevance of the articles in the particular issue of IS that he derides. And second, apparently Tom Ricks does not know the difference between academic journals and magazines or between scholarship and journalism.

As far as the policy relevance of the particular issue of International Security in question, Ricks might have been better served by actually reading it instead of scanning the contents. First, Ricks chides the journal’s editors as “unimaginative” for a threearticle retrospective on the centennial of the First World War’s beginning—referring to it as “anniversary journalism”. I’ll save his conflation of scholarship with journalism for later, but given the tendency of policymakers to rely on historical analogies, and the parallels commentators have tried to draw to between British-German and U.S.-Chinese great power competitions, the policy relevance of the origins of World War I seems self-evident. Next, Ricks dismisses an article by Tanisha Fazal on the role of advances in military medicine in reducing the number of combat deaths in war. Ricks refers to the article as “mildly obvious” but obviously misses the larger implications of this argument for debates on the decline of war in the international system. Given that the likelihood of war is at least in part a function of how policymakers view both its efficacy and acceptability as a tool of policy, whether war is actually declining, or if its demise is an illusion based on our increased ability to save the lives of those injured on the battlefield, should be an extremely relevant question to shoe; Finally, Ricks admits that, because the title included an ellipse and a question mark, an article on ethnofederalism “provoked [him] to chuck the whole issue in the wastebasket.” Okay, I’ll grant that the title is somewhat ridiculous, but what’s more ridiculous is that a man who has written two books on the invasion and occupation of Iraq cannot see the policy relevance of ethnofederalism as a viable arrangement given the sectarian crisis plaguing the Iraqi government and questions about whether Baghdad should grant greater Kurdish autonomy.

Moving on to the larger point, I’m worried Tom Ricks, a prominent and award-winning journalist turned think tank analyst, does not know the difference between journalism and scholarship. As I noted above, Ricks derisively refers to the IS retrospective on the beginning of the World War I as “anniversary journalism”.  But International Security is an academic journal—not, as Ricks refers to it twice in his short post, a magazine. Yes, scholarship should inform our understanding of events like those in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Israel, and East Asia. But systematic research takes time. It does not follow the news cycle. Moreover, the audience an academic journal serves is different than that of a magazine. Academic journals primarily—though not exclusively—serve an academic audience. On Twitter last night, Ricks derided this focus, but the purpose of scholarship is to expand the body of human knowledge on any number of subjects. Academic journals are a medium through which academics can explain how their findings add to, or change, what we know about a subject and to further debates around the existing body of knowledge. It’s not always sexy, but attempting to make it so has the potential to lead to disaster for all those involved.

Does the need to communicate to this specific audience often lead to articles that are too long to be absorbed quickly or that are too jargon-laden to be accessible to outsiders? Yes. But scholars are not limited to publication in the journals in their field. They often have blogs and publish op-eds in major newspapers or essays in magazines. In fact, one of Ricks’ own co-bloggers at Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt, is a prominent political scientist. Moreover, academics appear on news programs, testify before congress, and brief policymakers.

These are just a few of the ways academics can make their work relevant. Political science is not without serious problems at the moment, but every discipline requires a bit of periodic soul searching. That Ricks would dismiss it based solely on his own inability to see the relevance of one issue of an academic journal—and inability to distinguish scholarship from journalism—should say more about his judgment than the state of political science.

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