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Yoo again?

With John Yoo writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, it seems worth recycling these thoughts from last year, on the unfortunate occasion of Yoo writing a botched column about elections of the early 1800s. As I wrote last year:

My theory is that Yoo has fully gone through the mirror at this point and has emerged as a political activist. As an academic researcher, you have to be careful of what you say, lest it affect the reputation of your scholarly efforts. Thus the endless qualifications that I and others resort to in all our published work. . . .

All of us who are applied researchers have mirror images in the public sphere, where our work–or distorted versions of our work–become more widely known. Many of us want to publicize our work–to write Wall Street Journal op-eds, as it were–partly just to make our work more widely known, partly to present our work the way we think it should be presented, and partly to position ourselves to be more likely to promote our future work. But in doing that we have to protect our research reputations. At some point, though, the publicity or advocacy becomes the point, rather than the research itself. For Yoo, perhaps his reputation as a researcher is so politicized at this point that there’s nothing left to protect. At this point, he might as well go for it and develop a name for himself as a freelance editorial-page writer?

As a researcher, I envy newspaper columnists’ opportunity to have their writings immediately read by millions of people. At the same time, I assume they envy my ability to spend as much time on in-depth research projects as I would like. On the occasions that I try to write something for a broad readership, I’m careful to protect my viability (as Bill Clinton might say) as a researcher. I wonder if Yoo has decided that the choice has already been made for him.

P.S. Full disclosure: I wrote an op-ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer last fall (on the topic of the popularity of governors from small and large states), but they ended up never running it. That’s ok, though; I think Yoo needs this job more than I do.

2 Comments

  1. ms34k says:

    Really Prof. Gelman? Over the past year and a half you don't think you've changed from a researcher to a political activist?

    Because you're the only one.

  2. Andrew Gelman says:

    MS34k: No, I'm not claiming there's anything special about me. There are a lot of social science researchers out there at all different levels of political activism, and I fully respect those researchers who are more politically active than I am, on both sides of the spectrum.