Ezra Klein thinks he understands the real reasons Nicholas Kristof is frustrated with academics. It’s not that we write badly. That’s actually good, at least for journalists’ livelihoods: Since academics “write in jargon but speak in English,” journalists can “arbitrage,” translating academics’ work for the public. So, Klein is not focused on helping academics reach the public themselves, as I was in my reaction to Kristof.
Klein believes journalists’ real problems with academics are that academic journals are “wildly expensive” and there is no “academic equivalent of a best-seller’s list,” making it hard to find interesting papers.
I am skeptical. I think Klein vastly under-estimates the distance that most academic writing and most academics would have to travel to be relevant and understandable to journalists. His suggestions, while laudable, won’t bridge much of that gap.
My skepticism comes from my own experiences in academia, particularly too many hours scrutinizing endless equations or convoluted writing trying to tell if an academic paper in my own field was convincing or useful. And I fear that many academics cannot extract from our work what matters to the public and explain it clearly. In fairness, much of what we academics do is intrinsically complex.
I suspect that Klein is optimistic about journalists and academics’ papers because he unconsciously envisions many academics like the ones he hangs out with. They explain well and have their pulse on what matters for the public. And there is another problem with Klein’s optimism: quite frankly, most journalists are not going to “get” complex analytical material as well as he does. Continue reading →