University Press Week: Scholarship Makes a Difference

UPWeek2017

Must scholarship be difficult and full of jargon? Are experts fated to be dismissed as out of touch because their writing is unintelligible?

Chief Justice Roberts seems to think so. Earlier this month, while hearing oral arguments in Gill v Whitford on gerrymandering, Roberts dismissed political science research on the effects of redistricting as “sociological gobbledygook.” Leaving aside for one moment Roberts’ conflation of sociology and political science, let’s look at Roberts’ reasoning.

In oral arguments he posed the “intelligent man on the street” test:

“. . . [If] you’re the intelligent man on the street and the court issues a decision, and let’s say, okay, the Democrats win, and that person will say: “Well, why did the Democrats win?” And the answer is going to be because EG was greater than 7 percent, where EG is the sigma of party X wasted votes minus the sigma of party Y wasted votes over the sigma of party X votes plus party Y votes. And the intelligent man on the street is going to say that’s a bunch of baloney.”

Implicit in Roberts’ view is the seemingly common sense notion that it would be absurd to expect the intelligent person on the street to read and understand the view of scholarly experts in the politics of gerrymandering.

In fact, Roberts poses a false choice between expert knowledge and intelligibility. We know this at Princeton University Press because we routinely publish the work of outstanding scholarship that contributes both to the advancement of discourse and influences the public on the most pressing issues facing the U.S. and the world.

Take Democracy for Realists by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels. Based on painstaking research conducted over many years, Achen and Bartels forcefully present the case that voters choose candidates based on deep social identities and loyalties, often adjusting their policy preferences to match those loyalties.

If true, their thesis both overturns much of academic democratic theory as well as common beliefs about democracy. But can anyone understand this stuff? Roberts’ “intelligent man on the street?” Perhaps I’m cheating by translating their academic gobbledygook into plain English?

Hardly. Yes, Achen and Bartels’ book has been reviewed in the Political Studies Review and Political Science Quarterly. But it has also been reviewed in the Washington Post and the Financial Times, as well as the Ottawa Citizen, Tulsa World, and New York Magazine.

Or look at another recent publication by PUP, this time in sociology, Rachel Sherman’s Uneasy Street. This book challenges a simple depiction of the wealthy as materialistic, arguing that the rich have deeply conflicting feelings about their wealth. Such research could have been presented as gobbledygook. But it wasn’t. Instead, Sherman tells 50 stories based on personal interviews. The result? A book that has been excerpted in the New York Times, garnering over 3,000 reader responses in the online edition.

Journalists and readers are drawn to such books by their rigor and the expertise of their authors. In a world of “alternative facts,” journalists and readers want real expertise, the kind which comes from career-long immersion in a subject. But journalists only write about such books—and readers only spend precious time on them—when authors present expertise clearly and compellingly.

As publishers, we work hard at helping our authors achieve this balance of rigor and accessibility. We believe you don’t have to choose between the two. Expertise is not shameful, an embarrassment to be hidden from the “intelligent man on the street.” As academic publishers, let’s promote expertise and help make it central to public discourse again.  If Justice Roberts were reading these books, he would understand how great social science books are far from gobbledygook. They are essential to creating an informed public and to the health of our democracy.