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The importance of the public intellectual

Not too many people knew about global warming before Former Vice President Al Gore premiered “An Inconvenient Truth.” Climate change research was something that was reserved for elites in the sciences and environmental fields.

Gore successfully used the platform of being a well-known political figure to convey scientific findings to a mass audience. Rather than merely recommending a slew of journal articles and scientists’ phone numbers, he made a movie. What’s more, his movie — unlike nearly every scholarly journal article — was relatable and accessible to your “Average Joe.” The movie allowed viewers to relate scientific research to their own lives. In social science, the same problem exists.

There are two primary avenues for transmitting social science findings to a broader public.  Journalists and well-established writers, such as Malcolm Gladwell and New York Times columnist David Brooks, and public intellectuals: those in academia that successfully simplify their findings for a wider audience.

It is safe to say that Malcolm Gladwell is a household name. The author of “The Tipping Point” and “Outliers,” Gladwell’s audience is huge and largely unmatched in social scientific writing. For Gladwell and other writers such as Brooks, their audience may be wide and their names well-known, but the basis of their work (social science) attracts a small number of readers outside of the Academy.

Writers like Gladwell and Brooks then exist as a sort of middleman between the general reading public and the Academy, which is to say, the scholars who “do” social science, like a sociologist. Their success depends on their reputation as established and reliable transmitters of social scientific research.

While it may appear as if they are doing a great deed (translating academic jargon, like, say, regression analyses), many — particularly those in the Academy — marginalize them for “dumbing down” scholarly work in order to increase their readership. Yet there is great importance in an informed public.

In his article “Is Bad Writing Necessary?” political scientist James Miller perfectly describes the emphasis author George Orwell placed on his work.  According to Miller, the “bigger audience [Orwell] could reach, the more lies he could expose, the deeper his political impact would be.” Much is the same for scholarly work.

Democracy thrives on power checks. If more people are informed — reading and wondering — about research, the peer review becomes more than just a conference between elites in the Academy. At the same time, the public must become more serious about reading, eager to tackle difficult subjects that would normally be watered down in a popularly sold book.

Yet social science is complicated and often very specialized.

Because of the tenure structure at most universities, faculty cannot spend their days writing widely accessible articles. What gets faculty members tenure is not an article that has a general interest but instead peer-reviewed and highly specific articles often fussing over tiny subjects. There is little incentive to do anything else. And as a result, the need not only for a public intellectual, but additionally a person like Gladwell or Brooks becomes increasingly vital in having an informed public.

In order for the public intellectual to succeed, some stigmas must be eliminated, including the internal peer stigma intellectuals face of essentially writing highly specialized journal articles for each other and the external public stigma of the intellectual being snobby and inaccessible.

“To overcome the academic prose,” sociologist C. Wright Mills said, “you first have to overcome the academic pose.”

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