As part of our Audible Impact podcast, we will be featuring short interviews with academics on the reach and relevance of their disciplines. For our first Impact Interview, Joel Suss, Managing Editor of our sister blog, LSE British Politics and Policy, spoke to Mark Blyth, Professor of Political Science at Brown University and author of Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea on what social scientists and humanities academics can do to improve the accessibility and impact of their work.
Presented by Sierra Williams. Produced by Cheryl Brumley. Contributors: Mark Blyth. Music and sound came courtesy of the following user at the Free Music Archive: Tozo (Halluzination). Image credit: Math Chaos, Dalal Al Mudhaf
Joel Suss: I asked our Twitter followers to pose you some questions. Here’s one from Matt Wood, a PhD researcher from the University of Sheffield. He asks: How can political scientists make their work more accessible to policymakers and the public.
First one, dress it up in math. There’s a funny thing – it was a historian who made this point – I don’t know who he is, it was a British historian, and I heard this story and it makes so much sense. He said ‘Why is it that historians who actually know stuff about planet Earth never get listened to. Whereas an economist, who lives in an entire world of mathematical theorems that actually may or may not gel onto the world at certain points in time, but they’re really powerful.’
Now is it because policymakers can read papers that need knowledge of linear algebra and calc 2? No. Can their advisors read that? More likely not. So what happens? Well basically when you pick up an econ paper, what it does is say, ‘Here’s a paper where I’m going to show that when you cut public spending it actually leads to growth’ and you get an introduction that is pretty straightforward, pretty logical, and then it dissolves into math. So then you skip twenty pages and you get to the end and you say ‘I have shown conclusive evidence with π r² that this is what happens, blah blah blah’. So it’s just an easier digestible thing. It’s filled with math, it must be true!
Now you pick up a history paper and it asks so what is really the truth about the Germans and inflation phobia? And you get ‘Well on the one hand…On the one hand you get these factors, etc’ and you plow through fifty pages and by the end of it you are still none the wiser. So a lot of it has to do with the simple presentation of the argument and that is why economists get listened to. I’m really convinced of this. Because it is certainly not because there is really robust evidence, because if you go through a lot of the stuff, particular the cases of so-called expansionary policy, it is simply not the case.
What else do you need to do? Simplify. Stop the disciplinary conversation for a minute. It’s fine that you want to talk to your peers but the problem with disciplines is that they create silos. And if all you’re doing is responding to the latest theoretical bell and whistle that Professor X has produced then you get kind of scholasticism-slash-19th Century German philosophy. When it’s Professor X’s commentary about Professor Z’s thesis about Professory Y’s book and nobody cares. At the end of the day, particularly for political science, frankly if it wasn’t for the existence of graduate programmes, where we make a graduate student read our stuff, half the journals in the field would be dead. And if it wasn’t for the cable TV model of journal purchasing that makes libraries purchase hundreds of journals at once, most of them wouldn’t be around. So if we had the same for our supper in terms of policy relevance, it would be a very different political science. I would like our model to change to be more like that because things are far too important to be left to abstract politicians.
Joel Suss: Do you believe your work, the publishing of this book and this video you’ve produced (see below) is this having an effect on policy? Is it having an impact?
It’s very hard to tell. But as Paul Krugman (namedrop) said in the New York Review of Books article, I mean how the case for austerity crumbled, this book is just one part of a whole series of academic and other studies that are coming out now that basically show that this doesn’t add up. So you’ve got Sanjay Basu’s book on the Body Economic: How Austerity Kills, this one comes out, Paul Krugman’s earlier work, Stiglitz’s work, all the rest of it. There’s a whole bunch of people that have been pushing back on this. So this is just one part of that. I mean I’m one voice in the chorus. But I hope it’s powerful and I hope most of all that I hope it changes reasonable people’s minds because there is something wonderfully intuitive about the story of ‘Look you’ve got too much debt, stop spending’. But you need to take the next step and say yeah but there’s a paradox of thrift. There’s a fallacy of composition. What happens if we all stop spending? We may end up in more debt. Economies are not like households. Households do not get to issue their own script. The Blyth family does not get to import people into the Blyth family, tax their children three generations down the line. There is no secondary market in Mark Byth debt that I issue to myself. So you’ve got to break through these utterly fallacious categories and change the tenor of the conversation because if it’s really harmful, if this is really just self-harm, let’s just stop doing it. There’s no good to come of it.
For the full interview with Mark Blyth, see LSE British Politicast Episode 2: Austerity Economics and Central Banking.