Foreign Policy Blogs

Academic Research-fare

Ezra Klein recently wrote:

Fairly few political commentators know enough to decide which research papers are methodologically convincing and which aren’t. So we often end up touting the papers that sound right, and the papers that sound right are, unsurprisingly, the ones that accord most closely with our view of the world.

In response, Daniel Drezner wrote up some pointers on reading research papers to help people determine whether analysis is legit.  He advises readers to watch out for straw men and theories that can’t be falsified.  Good suggestions.

But I wonder, actually, if the original problem of which Klein wrote – political commentators blindly citing research that supports their conclusions – functions the same way lawfare does.  Countries will usually always claim that their actions are legal and those of their enemies are illegal.  They seem to do this to legitimize their own actions and delegitimize those of their adversaries.  The actual technicalities of the legal argument are not as important as scoring rhetorical points.  The same seems true of columnists citing academic research to support their political arguments.  Less important is the academic debate about the reliability of the analysis of the cited paper.  More important is the legitimacy that the citation lends to the columnist’s conclusion.