As those who have been following New Legal Realism know, a core question for us is how best to translate social science for law? Indeed, sometimes we’ve asked whether you can even “get there from here.” In a provocative New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof called out to members of the academy, welcoming their input to public debate while bemoaning their failure to reach out beyond narrow disciplinary boundaries: “Professors, We Need You!”
Kristof has received pushback from academics, who have pointed out that he failed to recognize the many professors already actively involved in public debate, the many more who’d like to be if the media would only let them, and the ways the structure of the university punishes those who spend too much time on such efforts: see, for example these posts: 1. Huffington Post; 2. Corey Robin; 3. Scientific American (and more– see bottom of the page for links to more responses)
We at the New Legal Realism blog were delighted to see this much-needed conversation take off. Regardless of Kristof’s blind spots, he has called attention to an ongoing problem: how do we get some of the best-informed views into the public domain, without eviscerating those views in the process?? The “old” Legal Realists shared this concern, hoping to apply the best available social science knowledge to policy issues facing this country during the New Deal era…. and the New Legal Realists are working toward a similar goal today. In both eras, similar problems persist: easy answers are more palatable than complex ones; a number or quantitative result seems simpler, but by itself often misses the depth of qualitative research; politics and law often warp the information received from careful researchers beyond recognition. In the following piece, new NLR blogger Joe Margulies replies to Kristof with a challenge of his own, saying in essence:
Journalists, We Need You Too!
Have academics abandoned the public square? Nicholas Kristof apparently thinks so. In his column in the New York Times, Kristof complained that the academy has developed “a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” Part of this is old; mocking academic gibberish makes easy sport, and because it is easy, has often been done. But the claim that academics not only speak nonsense but court irrelevance is a more serious charge. Is it true?
Well, yes and no. It is certainly true that a great many academic specialists have deliberately taken themselves out of public life. And that’s a shame, since their expertise could help bring more light and less heat to the issues of the day. But who can blame them? Imagine yourself an authority on climate change at a small Midwestern university. For years, you have carefully studied the evidence. One day, you pen an editorial for your local newspaper in support of some initiative—say, perhaps, a high-occupancy commuter lane on a nearby highway. You point out that, among other benefits, carpooling might help reduce greenhouse gases and slow the rate of global warming.