Thursday, January 3, 2008

Musings on the "Naomi Klein Problem"

. Thursday, January 3, 2008

Naomi Klein has no formal training in social science. She writes books that have a superficial weightiness, but when examined more critically are found to present illogical theories supported by stories that she interprets without complying with any obvious rules of empirical research. Moreover, her theses often borrow liberally from existing social science research, which she twists to advance her normative agenda. To be blunt, I doubt that any chapter of any of her books would receive a passing grade in any graduate seminar I have ever led or taken. (I remain undecided about what grade I would give her writing in an undergraduate POLI class). Her books become best sellers, she is invited to speak to large audiences, and appears as a guest on talking head TV.

Klein, of course, is symbolic of a broader phenomenon in which people who lack social science training write books that pretend to be serious but aren't really. The arguments thus made then shape public discussion and debate. If you don't like my focus on Naomi Klein, then substitute Thomas Friedman or David Brooks or Robert Kaplan, or Amy Chua, or your own least favorite such writer. They are all the same.

There are (at least) two dimensions to this phenomenon that I don't understand. First, I do not understand why the media turns to non-experts to expound on "global issues." I can think of about 100 people more qualified to expound on the relationship between crisis and reform than Naomi Klein. So, why does the media select the least qualified person? I suspect the answer lies in some combination of having a PR person to issue press releases, I publisher willing to cover expenses to support a recent book, and a media that needs to fill air time. In other words, finding Naomi Klein is easy; finding Alan Drazen and Alberto Alesina is not.

Second, I do not understand why social scientists have ceded this ground to Naomi Klein. That we have ceded this ground is obvious. Sam Huntington, and perhaps, though to a lesser extent Robert Putnam, are the only top-flight political scientists who target a significant portion of their writing to a broad public audience. The rest of us conduct research and write monographs tailored to narrow professional audiences. My point is not to diminish the importance of such research, but to question our unwillingness to communicate our findings beyond a narrow professional community. Because social scientists have ceded this ground, Naomi Klein is the most eager person available. So, the media talks to Naomi.

All of this matters because it produces low quality public debate. "Morrissey", in a comment on an earlier post, proposed the "marketplace of ideas" as a solution to my skepticism about how we can believe what we believe when we try to extract meaningful information from all of the noise. Yet, if the marketplace of ideas is to resolve this problem at least some of the ideas being debated must be supported by logic and systematic empirical evidence. The ideas that emerge are those that have withstood serious scrutiny. Yet, because those who shape the debate too often have a political agenda and lack training in principles of scientific research and deep knowledge of the topic, while those who have this training and knowledge show little interest in shaping the public debate, the marketplace of ideas can't solve the problem.


Sensemania said...

I wonder whether Samuel Huntington does not have sucess with a wider audience because he violates scientific principles himself. His essay The Hispanic Challenge at least (I haven't read the book) is not only one-sided but also contains inherently illogical arguments (wrote a blog entry about that a while ago).

Andy P said...

Couple of thoughts:

1) Academics see complicated problems and the media wants to present the public with simplified answers.

2) Perhaps the graduate school/tenure process is such that it selects people whose temperaments don't lend themselves to the dynamic style required for mass media.

3) I think there is a culture (at least in poli) that scorns participation in the public debate in the mass media. This culture is reinforced through the raise and promotion structure of departments which don't reward professors for popular writings (even if academically grounded) or for public service. It's even rumored that nontenured faculty should avoid public forums less they appear that they aren't truly committed to "serious work".

4) Lastly, if the media as a market that selects the best ideas then the systematic selection away from academic researchers to other voices is a commentary on the value of what's being said by academics to the market. This might say something about the market or it might say something about the content of what academics have to say.

Rodger Levesque said...

Are you seriously presenting yourself as following rules of empirical research?

Here's a question? What is Naomi Klein's academic background? I bet if you look it up you'll find in it some formal training in social science.

Can you empirically prove that Klein is "the least qualified person."

And is it unheard of in the academic world to "borrow liberally from existing social science research?"

Looks to me like you're making an emotional argument here. Must be hard to have to hide your political agenda in principles of scientific research and deep knowledge of the topic, while writers/political activists like Klein can flaunt theirs with pride.

Thomas Oatley said...


Click on the link and look at the bio on her webpage. As I said, as best I can tell, she has an undergraduate degree in journalism, and an honorary law degree. No formal training in social science.

Can I empirically prove that she is least qualified? No, but then one cannot empirically prove anything. I can logically demonstrate that she is the least qualified. She has less social science training and fewer years invested in accumulating specialized knowledge. She has never published a peer-reviewed piece of research on the topic in question. Other people who study the issue have training and have published peer-reviewed research. Hence, she is the least qualified.

Not unheard of to borrow ideas, in fact, that's how science progresses. Usually, however, one contributes by testing ideas rigorously. This is not what Klein does. She uses ideas to develop a specific thesis that advances a particular political agenda. Regardless of whether one agrees with her or not, one must accept that it is not social science.

Not sure I understand your last point. I suspect that if I were talking about global warming or evolution, and had thus referenced global warming or evolution skeptics rather than Klein, you would not make the point you make here--should our political agendas shape our interpretation of the evidence on issues of hard science? If not, why should it do so in other "social" matters?

High-quality public debate--regardless of the topic--requires a knowledge base constructed from high-quality science--social and hard. This means putting one's political agenda to the side to conduct research. It also implies that researchers must be willing to allow data to contradict their prior beliefs rather than allowing one's prior beliefs to shape the interpretation of the data. Klein is symbolic of our tendency to emphasize the latter at the expense of the former. I think this has real and negative consequences for the quality of public discussion and debate about important issues.

Rodger Levesque said...

Klein never finished a degree in anything, and I don't think they offer journalism at U of T. But that doesn't disqualify her from speaking or writing on issues. She's not writing alone. There's a team at work on her books while she bridges the academic/activist worlds with her muddy boots and sharp mind. Excluding writers at the level of Klein from public debate doesn't leave many left to speak. That's my main issue with your post, I'm not going to argue about the quality of debate in the media, but if anything Klein raises the level.

Don't confuse understanding social science terminology with high level, serious debate. A political economist could baffle a physicist but where does that get you? Didn't a prankster hard scientist get a pastiche of meaningless terminology published in a peer-reviewed journal?

The problem in this posts title wouldn't exist without Klein's work. What I mean is no editor is looking for someone to comment on the global issue of crisis/reform. The issue has entered public consciousness because Klein has done the work. The ground was created by Klein, social scientists have ceded nothing.

Textbooks and peer-reviewed journals don't have enough of a readership to be influencial. You should check out The preface to the American edition of Travels in hyperreality, by Umberto Eco. If you want a legitimate take on scholarly vs. popular discussion and debate.

"Should our political agendas shape our interpretation of the evidence on issues of hard science? If not, why should it do so in other "social" matters?"

This is a good question. The short answer is that political agendas are social matters. That's why some argue that social sciences are not really science.

Rachelle Daley said...

Your rant about Naomi Klein screams of academic imperialism. I am by no means an expert in social sciences and have yet to complete my degree, but I am a member of the public who is now involved in the "low quality debate" which you refer to.
Klein's book obviously did not meet the academic standards to which you are partial, but her message screamed truth within the context of my life experience. Perhaps you are to quick to judge the public's acceptance of Klein's message. Social "Scientists" have not "ceded" any ground to Naomi Klein. Klein has simply succeeded in accomplishing what so many of them have failed to do; she has reached us, the lesser educated masses, with a solid message in a form with which we can relate, while great academics pass papers between eachother congratulating themselves on their superior knowlege, training and use of "systematic emperical evidence". I hope that you accept this note as a challenge to you and your better qualified academic peers to step down off your soap boxes and attempt to enter the global conscience as your target Naomi Klein has so gracefully done.

Thomas Oatley said...

Hi Rachelle,
Thanks for reading the blog and for sharing your reactions. I am not sure I would characterize my post as a rant--as the title says, it's musings.

The broader question, of course, is not whether this book "screamed truth" in the context of your broader life experience. The question is whether her work, and those written by other authors like her, accurately portrays the world it claims to depict. Those are two very different things. Lot's of fiction resonates with (speaks truth to) my life experiences. The fact that it resonates does not make it true; it just makes it effective fiction. So, perhaps this is not the best standard to use when evaluating non-fiction work.

At the end, however, we seem to come down to the same position--wishing academics would step down from their isolated ivory towers and engage meaningfully in public debate about critical issues of our day.

Rodger Levesque said...

An article about the academic journal is

And the article itself is

jancsika said...

Let's assume for the sake of argument that you are correct that Naomi Klein a) lacks the rigorous training necessary to develop serious arguments, b) presents illogical theories, and c) creates a low quality public debate.
If all that is true, I find it ironic that your muse leads you to a) spew forth glib judgments without giving clear examples, b) pretend not to understand why talking head tv would prefer non-experts, and c) somehow miss that actually articulating your own deep knowledge of this subject would be a step towards improving public debate.
One hundred people more qualified than Klein? Yet there's exactly zero "systematic empirical evidence" offered up in this blog to support your critisms.
I'm no social scientist, but I think those numbers mean you are now officially qualified to appear as a regular on Morning Joe.

Anonymous said...

Naomi Klein's greatest talent is for self-publicity. I would say that is her greatest genius. But even as she admits with No Logo, her works lack the depth and insight that is heralded by the publicity. While she packs the back of her books with a laundry list of facts and a toilet roll of figures, such a technique is as old as the hills. Selective fact hoarding does not bring the truth.

The Naomi Klein Project - to become a rich and famous writer - is going to plan. But what do her interventions really offer to those who follow her? Her disturbing egging on of violence at international fora prior to 9/11, provoked a severe backlash from governments around the world, and gifted activists the constrained atmosphere they now live with.

She admits the vapid thinness of No Logo's attacks on brands and logos, but will she in a few years admit the ahistorical and lazy thinking behind the Shock Doctrine? It is a long-standing observation of human behaviour dressed up as a revelation: that humans exploit weakness to get their way.

Most disturbing, however, is what she is trying to achieve as a political project. She calls herself a neo-Kenysian just when such economics are as dangerous and shot through with failure as the market fundamentalists. Do people really wish for more management of their lives by the state, or are they in fact seeking liberation from both the state and heavy-handed corporations? As a case study, the UK's Labour Party has been engaged in just such a project to disasterous ends: people are rebelling against this suffocating state micro-managing and gross waste of public funds. In many ways, Klein panders to an audience of neo-Marxists pining for a new era of state growth. But a quick look around the world at what people really want, will show a far different picture: a global population straining to be made free.

gary morrison said...

er,mmm The Naomi Kline Problem?

If we believe that academic science represents the only valid measure of truth, if we believe its practitioners have the only knowledge of the world worth having and if we believe that adherence to the methods and claims of authority these sciences make constitute the best measure of our intelligence, goodness and wisdom, then we are very close to accepting the logic of the Spanish Inquisition. The history of the social sciences is replete with evidence of its collusion with fraud, deception, and politics. The seminal influence of Eugenics on American social science theory and practice is a prime example. The history of the social sciences has proven to be as freighted with ideological bias as a position paper cooked up at The Heritage Foundation.
I is clear that your disagreement with Kline is political and nothing you have written about her work rises to the level of a scientific dispute. I believe you are invoking “science” as a dodge or hustle in this case. Should we be surprised that those who share your contempt for knowledge discovered and stated outside of your dubious” scientific” research paradigm would accept the practice of torture as "logical". Given this much, is it any wonder that social scientists from the discipline of psychology were contracted to "research" and write a new torture manual? That similarly trained and licensed psychologists applied this manual’s “science” to the torture of detainees at US military prisons is a now a matter of public record.
If you wish to discredit Kline on “scientific” grounds I challenge you to show where she poses a single report as a scientific hypothesis and then show proof of her supplying false evidence to support it. Would you be good enough to furnish 12 such hypotheses and then prove her evidence supporting them to be false? Are you prepared to be judged by the rigorous standards your scientific pretensions demand?
“Scientists who ask that we go about our moral and spiritual business in a vacuum, leaving nature in their purely objective charge ask the impossible. Even the effort to partition culture, science to one side, value to the other produces in spite of itself a whole culture…it is the culture of the wasteland. Theodore Roszack

Jason said...

Public Debate should only be done by those with experience in social science?

I think that there is nothing more enlightening than listening to two working class men without any formal education talk about anything that academics write about in peer-reviewed journals. Those are the people that LIVE what most of the academics write about. This intellectual elitism is ridiculous and foolhardy in every respect.

And, wow, I just realized how old this post is. Great.

Musings on the "Naomi Klein Problem"
There was an error in this gadget




Add to Technorati Favorites