Why Skeptics Make Bad Pundits

First Rule of Punditry: I know everything; nothing is complicated.

First Rule of Skepticism: I know nothing; everything is complicated.

Me on BuzzFeed on Venezuela

Journalist Rosie Gray has a story up at BuzzFeed on the wave of protests occurring now in Venezuela and the backdrop of economic crisis and political polarization against which it’s occurring. I found the piece interesting and informative, but I think it also illustrates how hard it is for journalists—and, for that matter, social scientists—to avoid openly sympathizing with one “side” or another in their reporting on conflicts like Venezuela’s and thereby leading readers to do the same.

Analytically, Gray’s piece attempts to explain why this wave of protests is occurring now and why anti-government activists have largely failed so far, in spite of the country’s severe economic problems, to draw large numbers of government supporters to their cause. Most of the sources quoted in Gray’s story are opposition activists, and they are generally described sympathetically. The first opposition activist we encounter, Carlos Vargas, tells us that he and other student protesters are “making an effort to reach out to the poor.” The next, a community organizer, admits that the opposition hasn’t made serious efforts to organize in his neighborhood, but we are then reminded that censorship and pro-government paramilitaries make it very hard for them to do so.

Gray also includes portions of an interview with two Chavistas, members of a colectivo in the 23 de Enero neighborhood. This interview and one with a pro-government economist ostensibly provide the “balance” in the piece, but their remarks and other descriptions of activity sympathetic to the government are framed in a way that evokes a sense of false consciousness. Hugo Chavez is dead, but he remains popular because of a “personality cult” that “still holds a grip on many Venezeulans, especially the poor.” Gray reports the government’s line that anti-government protesters “are a group of revanchist elites out of touch with regular Venezuelans” and writes that this line has “some grain of truth.” She immediately follows that sentence, however, with a description of protesters’ efforts to recruit poorer Venezuelans who, we are told by two of Gray’s sources, would participate more if they weren’t being menaced by pro-government militias. Gray tells us that the Chavistas she interviewed in 23 de Enero have a picture of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad on their wall, and that they blame their country’s unrest on “right-wing elements” in the U.S. and some of its allies. As for where ideas like that one come from, we are told that

Across town, the Chavista intelligentsia is hard at work coming up with theories for the foot soldiers to buy into.

To me, all of those phrases and details convey a belief that Chavistas aren’t joining the protesters because they are being duped. As a social scientist, I find that hypothesis unconvincing. The model of political behavior it implies echoes some instrumentalist theories of ethnic conflict, which posit that ethnic groups fight each other because self-interested leaders goad them into doing so. Those leaders’ efforts are certainly relevant to the story, but simple versions of the theory beg the question of why anyone listens. To try to understand that, we need more sympathetic accounts of the beliefs and choices made by those ostensible followers. Gray’s piece suggests one answer to that question when she recounts protesters’ claims that Chavista militias are intimidating them into obedience, but that also seems like a partial explanation at best. After all, some people are protesting in spite of that intimidation, so why not others?

This slant matters because it affects our judgments about what is possible and what is right, and those judgments affect the actions we and our governments take. Objectivity is an impossible ideal, not just for reporters but for anyone. Still, I think political reporters should aspire to afford the same sympathy to all of their sources and the causes they espouse, and then trust their readers to draw their own conclusions. Measured against that standard, I think Gray’s Venezuela piece—and, frankly, much of the reporting we get on factional disputes and popular protest in all parts of the world—fell a bit short.

A Nice Pat on the Back

I had to leave the annual convention of the International Studies Association yesterday, before it wrapped up, but not before receiving a nice pat on the back. In the second annual Online Achievement in International Studies (OAIS) awards—a.k.a. the Duckies—Dart-Throwing Chimp was recognized as Best Blog (Individual).

It seems fitting to use this platform to thank the Duck of Minerva crew for organizing the OAIS awards and SAGE Publications for helping to make them happen. Most of all, though, I want to say thanks to all of you for reading and conversing with me. I hope I can keep it interesting.

This Is Not a Drill

Times like these, part of me wishes I studied microbes or aeronautics or modern American fiction.

One of the most significant crises in international relations of the past 20 years is unfolding right now in Ukraine, but it is impossible to talk or write publicly about it without engaging in a political act that can have significant personal and even public consequences. There is no political science in real time, only politics. When analysis overlaps with practice, the former becomes part of the latter. Sometimes the stakes are high, and I’ve found recently that more people are listening that I had anticipated when I started blogging about current events, among other things.

Or, more accurately, I just hadn’t thought that part through. I think I started blogging because I had time to do it, I enjoyed and benefited from the mental exercise, and I hoped it would advance my career. Best I can recall, I did not think much about how it might eventually entangle me in public conversations with significant consequences, and how I would handle those situations if and when they arose.

In case it isn’t obvious, my last post, on Ukraine, is the catalyst for this bout of introspection. That post had ramifications in two spheres.

The first was personal. Shortly after I published it, an acquaintance whose opinion I respect called me out for stating so unequivocally that Yanukovych’s ouster was “just.” His prodding forced me to think more carefully about the issue, and the more I did, the less confident I was in the clarity of that judgment. In retrospect, I think that statement had as much to do with not wanting to be hated by people whose opinions I value as it did with any serious moral reasoning. I knew that some people whose opinions I value would read my calling the ouster a “coup” as a betrayal, and I felt compelled to try to soften that blow by saying that the act was good anyway. That moral argument is there for the making, but I didn’t make it in my post, and to be honest I didn’t even make it clearly in my own head before asserting it.

The other sphere is the political one. I still don’t believe that my opinions carry more than a feather’s weight in the public conversation, if that. Still, this post has forced me to think more carefully about the possibility that it could, and that I won’t control when that happens and what the consequences will be.

Before I wrote the post, I queried two scholars who have studied Ukrainian politics and law and asked them whether or not Yanukovych’s removal from office had followed constitutionally prescribed procedures. Both of them replied, but both also asked me not to make their views public. As one explained in an email I received after I had already published my post, the risk wasn’t in being wrong. Instead, the risk was that publicizing a certain interpretation might abet Russia’s ongoing actions in the region, and that potential political effect was more important to this person than the analytical issues my question covered. Of course, it was impossible for me to read that email and not feel some regret about what I had already written.

One irony here is that lots of political scientists talk about wanting their work to be “policy relevant,” to have policymakers turn to them for understanding on significant issues, but I think many of the scholars who say that don’t fully appreciate this point about the inseparability of analysis and politics (just as I didn’t). Those policymakers aren’t technocratic robots, crunching inputs through smart algorithms in faithful pursuit of the public interest.  When you try to inform their decisions in real time, you step out of the realm of intellectual puzzle-solving and become part of a process of power-wielding. I suppose that’s the point for some, but I’m finding it more unnerving than I’d expected.

If you work in this field and haven’t already done so, I urge you to read Mark Lilla’s The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics for much deeper consideration of this fraught terrain. I picked up Lilla’s book again this morning and found this passage (p. 211) particularly relevant:

Some tyrannical souls become rulers of cities and nations, and when they do entire peoples are subjugated by the rulers’ erotic madness. But such tyrants are rare and their grip on power is weak. There is another, more common class of tyrannical souls that Socrates considers, those who enter public life not as rulers, but as teachers, orators, poets—what today we would call intellectuals. These men can be dangerous, for they are ‘sunburned’ by ideas. Like Dionysius, this kind of intellectual is passionate about the life of the mind, but unlike the philosopher he cannot master that passion; he dives headlong into political discussion, writing books, giving speeches, offering advice in a frenzy of activity that barely masks his incompetence or irresponsibility. Such men consider themselves to be independent minds, when the truth is that they are a herd driven by their inner demons and thirsty for the approval of a fickle public.

In the 2010s, a lot of oration happens in cyberspace, and a public intellectual is more likely to blog than to give a speech. In other words, scholars who blog about politics in real time must recognize that we are “offering advice,” and must therefore guard against the risk of becoming the “sunburned” intellectuals whose urge to speak drowns out our “incompetence or irresponsibility.”

But what does that mean in practice? Lilla isn’t trying to write a self-help guide for bloggers, but he does go on to say this (p. 212):

The philosopher-king is an ‘ideal,’ not in the modern sense of a legitimate object of thought demanding realization, but what Socrates calls a ‘dream’ that serves to remind us how unlikely it is that the philosophical life and the demands of politics can ever be made to coincide. Reforming a tyranny may not be within our power, but the exercise of intellectual self-control always is. That is why the first responsibility of a philosopher who finds himself surrounded by political and intellectual corruption may be to withdraw.

I do not consider myself a philosopher, but I take his point nonetheless.

How’d Those Football Forecasts Turn Out?

Yes, it’s February, and yes, the Winter Olympics are on, but it’s a cold Sunday so I’ve got football on the brain. Here’s where that led today:

Last August, I used a crowdsourcing technique called a wiki survey to generate a set of preseason predictions on who would win Super Bowl 48 (see here). I did this fun project to get a better feel for how wiki surveys work so I could start applying them to more serious things, but I’m also a pro football fan who wanted to know what the season portended.

Now that Super Bowl 48′s in the books, I thought I would see how those forecasts fared. One way to do that is to take the question and results at face value and see if the crowd picked the right winner. The short answer is “no,” but it didn’t miss by a lot. The dot plot below shows teams in descending order by their final score on the preseason survey. My crowd picked New England to win, but Seattle was second by just a whisker, and the four teams that made the conference championship games occupied the top four slots.

nflpostmortem.dotplotSo the survey did great, right? Well, maybe not if you look a little further down the list. The Atlanta Falcons, who finished the season 4-12, ranked fifth in the wiki survey, and the Houston Texans—widely regarded as the worst team in the league this year—also landed in the top 10. Meanwhile, the 12-4 Carolina Panthers and 11-5 KC Chiefs got stuck in the basement. Poke around a bit more, and I’m sure you can find a few other chuckles.

Still, the results didn’t look crazy, and I was intrigued enough to want to push it further. To get a fuller picture of how well this survey worked as a forecasting tool, I decided to treat the results as power rankings and compare them across the board to postseason rankings. In other words, instead of treating this as a classification problem (find the Super Bowl winner), I thought I’d treat it as a calibration problem, where the latent variable I was trying to observe before and after is relative team strength.

That turned out to be surprisingly difficult—not because it’s hard to compare preseason and postseason scores, but because it’s hard to measure team strength, even after the season’s over. I asked Trey Causey and Sean J. Taylor, a couple of professional acquaintances who know football analytics, to point me toward an off-the-shelf “ground truth,” and neither one could. Lots of people publish ordered lists, but those lists don’t give us any information about the distance between rungs on the ladder, a critical piece of any calibration question. (Sean later produced and emailed me a set of postseason Bradley-Terry rankings that look excellent, but I’m going to leave the presentation of that work to him.)

About ready to give up on the task, it occurred to me that I could use the same instrument, a wiki survey, to convert those ordered lists into a set of scores that would meet my criteria. Instead of pinging the crowd, I would put myself in the shoes of those lists’ authors for a while, using their rankings to guide my answers to the pairwise comparisons the wiki survey requires. Basically, I would kluge my way to a set of rankings that amalgamated the postseason judgments of several supposed experts. The results would have the added advantage of being on the same scale as my preseason assessments, so the two series could be directly compared.

To get started, I Googled “nfl postseason power rankings” and found four lists that showed up high in the search results and had been updated since the Super Bowl (here, here, here, and here). Then I set up a wiki survey and started voting as List Author #1. My initial thought was to give each list 100 votes, but when I got to 100, the results of the survey in progress didn’t look as much like the original list as I’d expected. Things were a little better at 200 but still not terrific. In the end, I decided to give each survey 320 votes, or the equivalent of 10 votes for each item (team) on the list. When I got to 320 with List 1, the survey results were nearly identical to the original, so I declared victory and stuck with that strategy. That meant 1,280 votes in all, with equal weight for each of the four list-makers.

The plot below compares my preseason wiki survey’s ratings with the results of this Mechanical Turk-style amalgamation of postseason rankings. Teams in blue scored higher than the preseason survey anticipated (i.e., over-performed), while teams in red scored lower (i.e., under-performed).

nflpostmortemplot

Looking at the data this way, it’s even clearer that the preseason survey did well at the extremes and less well in the messy middle. The only stinkers the survey badly overlooked were Houston and Atlanta, and I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people were surprised by how dismal their seasons were. Ditto the Washington [bleep]s and Minnesota Vikings, albeit to a lesser extent. On the flip side, Carolina stands out as a big miss, and KC, Philly, Arizona, and the Colts can also thumb their noses at me and my crowd. Statistically minded readers might want to know that the root mean squared error (RMSE) here is about 27, where the observations are on a 0-100 scale. That 27 is better than random guessing, but it’s certainly not stellar.

A single season doesn’t offer a robust test of a forecasting technique. Still, as a proof of concept, I think this exercise was a success. My survey only drew about 1,800 votes from a few hundred respondents whom I recruited casually through my blog and Twitter feed, which focuses on international affairs and features very little sports talk. When that crowd was voting, the only information they really had was the previous season’s performance and whatever they knew about off-season injuries and personnel changes. Under the circumstances, I’d say a RMSE of 27 ain’t terrible.

It’d be fun to try this again in August 2014 with a bigger crowd and see how that turns out. Before and during the season, it would also be neat to routinely rerun that Mechanical Turk exercise to produce up-to-date “wisdom of the (expert) crowd” power rankings and see if they can help improve predictions about the coming week’s games. Better yet, we could write some code to automate the ingestion of those lists, simulate their pairwise voting, and apply All Our Ideas‘ hierarchical model to the output. In theory, this approach could scale to incorporate as many published lists as we can find, culling the purported wisdom of our hand-selected crowd without the hassle of all that recruiting and voting.

Unfortunately, that crystal palace was a bit too much for me to build on this dim and chilly Sunday. And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

PS If you’d like to tinker with the data, you can find it here.

A Tale from the Replication Crypt

I got an email this morning from a colleague asking for the replication files for a paper I published in 2005 (PDF). Sheepishly, I had to admit that I didn’t have them.

Data-sharing and replication weren’t the professional norm in political science 10 years ago. Best I can recall, it never even occurred to me to put the files where future me could easily find them. I did the research, submitted the paper, and moved on to the next project. During peer review, no one asked to see the data and .do files I used, and the email I got today was, I think, the first time anyone had asked for them.

I’ve probably changed PCs three or four times in the intervening decade and haven’t kept all of the retired machines. I spent some time this afternoon looking on a DVD with files from one of those out-to-pasture PCs, but to no avail. Now, I’m staring at a frozen blue Microsoft ScanDisk screen on a laptop running Windows 98 and realizing that this path is probably a dead end, too. Those were all my options.

There’s a simple lesson here: if you’re going to do something you want to construe as science, you need to store your data—quantitative, qualitative, audio, imagery, whatever—where you can easily find and share it in perpetuity.

That’s a helluva lot easier now than it was 10 years ago, thanks to things like GitHub, Google Drive, Dataverse, and various other backup and cloud-storage services. It still doesn’t happen by itself, though. You still have to choose to do it. Today, I’m relearning why that’s important—for science, of course, but also for my professional reputation.

Most Popular Posts of 2013

Between my day job, a data-intensive side project with Erica Chenoweth, some family stuff (see my wife’s three-week-old blog), and the impending holidays, I haven’t had the time or brain power to write much over the past couple of weeks. Oddly enough, I think the Chenoweth project has been the most taxing. My role involves aggregating and analyzing a bunch of ragged data sets, and I find that the mental processing power required for that work doesn’t leave much room for abstract or creative thinking.

In lieu of new content, I thought I would call out what the site stats tell me were my most popular posts from the year. Here’s the top 10, with some manual concatenation and the home page omitted.

10. What Causes Social Unrest? Apparently, Everything

9. Egypt’s Mass Killing in Historical Perspective

8. Big Data Won’t Kill the Theory Star

7. Some Thoughts on the Causes of Mass Protest

6. Assessing Coup Risk in 2012

5. Why Is Academic Writing So Bad? A Brief Response to Stephen Walt

4. A Few Suggestions for Social Scientists New to Twitter

3. The Future of Political Science Just Showed Up [on GDELT]

2. Yes, That’s a Coup in Egypt

1. Coup Forecasts for 2013 (and a map of them)

So…coups, forecasting, social unrest, Egypt, and advice for academics look like the big themes. That’s funny, because I would self-identify as an expert of sorts on just three of those—coups, social unrest, and forecasting—and one of my primary research interests, democratization, is nowhere to be found. And advice for academics? Heck, I’m not even one myself.

As it probably goes for every blogger, a few of the posts I most enjoyed writing landed nowhere near the top 10. But, hey, it’s a blog, so I get to call them out again. In no particular order:

* On the interplay between global, regional, and local forces in politics (here and here)

* On the quixotic pursuit of templates for democratic transitions

* On how social science is like microbiology

* And, appropriately enough, on blogs as catalysts for intellectual work

I’m hoping my brain will switch back into writing mode soon, but in case it doesn’t, let me just say thank you very much for reading and engaging with me for another year. Blogging continues to be a pleasure on balance, and as long as I can keep saying that, I’ll keep doing it.

Blogs as Catalysts

Virtually all the new academic publishing I’ve done in these six years began as a couple of posts on Understanding Society. You might say I’ve become an “open-source” philosopher — as I get new ideas about a topic I develop them through the blog. This means that readers can observe ideas in motion. A good example is the efforts I’ve made in the past year to clarify my thinking about microfoundations and meso-level causation. Another example is the topic of “character,” which I started thinking about after receiving an invitation to contribute to a volume on character and morality; through a handful of posts I arrived at a few new ideas I felt I could offer on the topic.  This “design and build” strategy means that there is the possibility of a degree of inconsistency over time, as earlier formulations are challenged by newer versions of the idea. But I think it makes the process of writing a more dynamic one, with lots of room for self-correction and feedback from others.

That’s Daniel Little, reflecting on six years of blogging. To me, what Little describes in that paragraph is the reason to do this. Big ideas don’t spring forth wholly developed. We cobble them together over time. Sometimes we discard parts that turn out not to fit or work, and other times we chuck the whole assemblage and start over. Every so often, we make something that really hums for a while.

We like to think of this process as something that happens inside our individual minds—especially when it turns out well. I create an idea; the world provides some feedback; and I decide how to tweak the initial design to make it better. However long that process takes, we often describe the end product as our own. That’s my idea, my theory.

But it isn’t. That “world” providing feedback isn’t a particle accelerator or a Magic 8 Ball. It’s other people, either conversing directly with you or contributing to the process through the ideas they have already built for you to hot-rod or to strip for parts. Intellectual work, and science more generally, is not something that occurs in isolation. It is, essentially, a social process.

Blogging ideas as you develop them makes the social aspect of intellectual work more explicit and accelerates it. A blog expands the power of the “computer” working on a particular idea by orders of magnitude, and it opens channels to streams of thought that were harder to discover and flowed more slowly when print journals and letters and conferences had to suffice. This expansion doesn’t make every idea turn out better, but it does increase the chances that one will, and it accelerates the process either way.

These benefits are not inherent in the internet, or in the act of blogging. They depend on the willingness of people engaged in intellectual work to share their half-formed designs, and on the willingness of others to respond constructively. When we wait to share ideas until they feel whole and polished, we often respond defensively to criticism, and the creative process gets stifled. When we deliberately engage in a “design and build” strategy, as Little calls it, we give that creative process more room to unfold.

Not many people get to do intellectual work; not everyone who does can afford the time to blog; and not everyone who reads and reacts to blogs is interested in developing the ideas they present. Still, given the technology available to us right now, it’s hard to imagine a medium better suited to this purpose. As elements in the process of developing ideas, blogs are neither necessary nor sufficient for the task, but they are undoubtedly powerful catalysts.

Just When I Thought I Was Out, They Pull Me Back In

kendzior tweet 20130919

When I saw that tweet this morning, I chuckled, then grimaced. No one bothers to send me academic job announcements, but I know what Kendzior means. Just yesterday afternoon, a friend who was venting his own work frustrations asked me if I thought about trying to get a teaching job at a university. That question comes up pretty much any time I talk to anyone about my career. After I left my salaried job a couple of years ago to try making it as a freelancer, I had a couple of colleagues who kindly tried to guide me toward teaching jobs because, I think, they feared I couldn’t survive professionally without a foothold in academia.

In fact, the answer in my head has always been “Yes, but…” Of course I think about it. I spent five years in graduate school ostensibly training to become a professor, and many from my cohort went into academia. I didn’t, but I’ve spent most of my career since then working with scholars on research that most people would regard as academic. In other words, I do “intellectual” work, and there is a pecking order to intellectual work that is ingrained in the minds of most people I encounter in my daily life, including my own. Unless your sense of self-worth is entirely detached from your interactions with other human beings—and I think that would mean you were a psychopath—it’s impossible not to hear those questions and translate them into reminders that you occupy a lower spot in that order, into hints that you are not quite worthy.

It’s funny, but I used to go through the same thing as a runner. During grad school and for a couple of years after, I was a mediocre but committed road racer, mostly doing 5 and 10Ks. For reasons that elude me now, I spent one season trying to break 2 minutes in the 800m. When the subject of running came up, people would often say something like, “Have you run a marathon? You should do one of those. I have a friend who… ” To runners, asking a middle-distance racer why he’s not doing marathons is like asking a cellist why he isn’t playing the violin. It’s not better or worse, just different. Still, you understand the subtext, and it’s hard not to feel like you’ve just been asked why you’re not a real runner and what you plan to do to fix it. You want to shrug and laugh it off, but you also want the other person’s respect and feel like you’ll never have it if you don’t get with the program as he or she understands it.

And let me be honest: I didn’t go into academia after grad school, in part, because I couldn’t. When I was finishing my dissertation, I applied for a few teaching jobs in comparative politics, but I didn’t even get invited to give a talk for any of them. I was married and needed a job, so we moved to the DC suburbs and I eventually found other ways to make a living.

With the passage of time, those “other ways” accumulated into a career of sorts. Right now, I get paid well to do work that I enjoy from a home office on a flexible schedule. By all rights, this is a dream situation, and still I can’t see Kendzior’s tweet or hear my friend’s question and not think, “I wonder if maybe now I could finally get a real job?”

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

Symposium magazine ran a piece this week on Ethan Perlstein, a “gentleman scientist” who went “rogue” after grad school by crowdfunding his next research project, “a meth lab for mice to find out where radioactive amphetamines accumulate in mouse brain cells.” Perlstein’s story is presented as an example of the Next Big Thing in academia: independent scholarship. In Perlstein’s words,

This trend is not going to stop. It has revolutionary moments, like all movements, but this train is out of the station.

As someone who’s managed to make a good living for the past two and a half years as an independent scholar—or freelance researcher or consultant or whatever the heck it is that I do—I want this to be true. Honestly, though, I think it’s still very, very hard to survive professionally without a regular paycheck and an institutional or corporate mooring, and the vast majority of people who try will fail.

Why? Let’s start with Perlstein’s story. His mouse meth-lab project raised about $25,000 on Kickstarter. Getting one $25K chunk of funding is great, but it’s hardly going to make your year. For that, you’re going to need to string together at least a few projects of that size or larger (remember, that funding also has to cover research expenses). Each of those projects will require a proposal or crowdfunding campaign, and those things take a lot of unpaid time to put together. Most projects won’t have a Breaking Bad hook like Perlstein’s did, and many attempts to inject that kind of playful tone and pop-cultural relevance into your marketing campaign will fall terribly flat.

I get the sense that lots of social scientists considering alternatives to academia see consulting as one way to fill the gaps between funded projects. In principle, that’s true. In practice, though, it’s a bad bet. In a follow-up to his unorthodox retirement announcement, Phil Schrodt had this to say about consulting:

I may have tossed out a dangerously attractive concept that will be even more attractive in six weeks when you are grading bluebooks. Two very important caveats:

  • I’ve already been doing this for about twenty-five years and have both networks, and at the moment four independent income streams.
  • I have demonstrated technical skills.

The first in particular takes quite a while—and no small amount of luck—to develop, and simply going out on your own early in a career—and I’m not really on my own, again, I’ve got long-established networks—is probably not advisable.

I think some people have this “Beltway bandit” image stuck in their heads, this idea that Washington is awash in money and they just need to find a way to tap into that without immersing themselves in it. They’re right that there’s a lot of money involved, but the great bulk of it is being channeled through a small number of big consulting firms and massive grants to major research institutions. It is not, I repeat not, being thrown at the academic equivalent of wandering minstrels. If you’re not at one of those big research institutions or under a consulting agreement with one of those big firms, it’s really, really hard to get on people’s radar. As someone who used to sit on the other side of this process, I can tell you that contracting rules and bureaucratic procedures makes it very hard to identify and take risks on hiring people who aren’t already known quantities. These facts should give pause to anyone new to his or her field imagining that there’s a bunch of ripe fruit out there just waiting to be plucked. Instead, as I put it in a conversation on Twitter a few days ago, I think the real model for social-science consulting looks more like this:

Step 1. ???? Step 2. Be a recognized expert. Step 3. Profit?

What’s more, social science isn’t pharmacology. With rare exceptions, there’s not a commercial payoff in sight. My hunch is that the pool of private dollars in search of social-science research to fund is very small, and most of what’s out there comes from philanthropy tied to social-justice issues like poverty and violence. As long as this pool doesn’t grow dramatically—and it’s not clear to me why it would at a time when philanthropic giving in general seems to have plateaued—then the more people who try, the more crowded the arena will become. So, even if the scale of independent social-science scholarship grows, the success rate for individual scholars will probably shrink as that happens. The whole Big Data thing seems like it might inject a lot more interest into the field, but I’ll bet most of the research that spawns is going to happen inside big corporations like Facebook and Twitter, which can afford to invest in basic research. Meanwhile, interest in making boutique data sets and funding new studies on things like hegemonic stability theory and the survival strategies of authoritarian regimes is probably going to hold fairly steady at the near-zero level it has now.

And that’s just the field-specific stuff. Contrary to the optimistic line we get from Thomas Friedman and others about the rise of the à la carte, go-it-alone economy, there are still huge structural impediments to self-employment. I’m thinking in particular of the exorbitant costs of health care and child care. Without access to cheaper and better versions of these, freelancing is going to continue to be very tough sledding. Most of us still get health insurance through our employers. If your spouse works for an organization that offers good benefits, great. If not, tough luck. You can buy your own on the private market, and Obamacare is gradually making that more affordable than it used to be, but it’s still a huge expense. If you or anyone in your family has a costly pre-existing condition, the monthly fees for private insurance can become breathtaking. I speak from experience on this one. This is a huge barrier to entry, and all the WiFi hot spots and smart phones and blogs in the world won’t bring it down.

I’m now knee-deep in my own one-family experiment with freelancing, and I occasionally wonder how and why it’s worked for me so far. My answer always starts with the point Phil Schrodt made about the value of already being a known quantity with professional ties to people with money to spend. I started this spell of my career after a ten-year stint with a big consulting firm that connected me to lots of great scholars and sharp people in several U.S. government agencies. If I had tried to do something like this right out of grad school, I’m virtually certain I would have failed fast. I like to think that my careerist turn to social media and blogging have made a big difference, but that’s probably not true. Sure, I’ve landed some paid freelance jobs through those channels, but the vast majority of my income in the past two years has come from work that came to me through the connections I made and the reputation I developed in my old salaried job.

At least as important, I’m lucky for the accident of my and my wife’s birth into families with money. Without that cushion, I don’t know that I would have taken the risk of foregoing a paycheck in the first place, and I probably couldn’t have gotten through the couple of dry patches I’ve hit in the past 31 months.

Even with that safety net, one of the downsides of working this way is the constant anxiety that the music can stop at any time.  In spite of all the advantages I’ve been handed, I constantly feel like I’m just one or two missed opportunities from a deeply negative cash flow and a frantic hunt for any salaried job with benefits that will have me.

So Perlstein’s Kickstarter project is great and all, but let me tell you another story. I recently heard from an old colleague at a small consulting firm, a place I worked soon after grad school, that the firm had gone bankrupt late last year after something like a 25-year run. Now this former colleague—a person with terrific technical and managerial skills, many years of experience, and lots of connections—was struggling to find some way to earn money. When we spoke on the phone, the anxiety in this person’s voice was palpable.

You didn’t ask for my advice, but here it is. Until we make big advances on affordable health and child care that isn’t tied to an employer, or unless you’re independently wealthy, this former colleague, and not Perlstein’s crowdfunded mouse meth lab, is the image you should keep in mind as you consider whether or not to give independent social-science scholarship a go.

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