He has an encyclopedic knowledge of all recent studies that line up with his own ideas and pithy one-line complaints about the methodologies of those that don’t. He can talk for hours about the minutiae of Medicare and Medicaid and still have time to finish his economics problem sets. And his voice, somehow shrill and monotonous at the same time, will give you a headache as you try to understand how someone so smart can be so stupid. He is the policy wonk.
The policy wonk is a close relative of the bookworm. Both are motivated by the need to prove to their classmates that they are smart conservatives. Both are also vastly intellectually overleveraged. They frequently name-drop thinkers, ideas, and models that they haven’t carefully examined in an attempt to win arguments and impress their classmates. And while plenty of other people do this both in and out of college, these two types have skimmed far more Wikipedia pages than your average charlatan. They are both experts at pretending to know what the hell they are talking about.
But while the Bookworm uses the humanities to apply his sheen of intellectualism, the policy wonk opts for the social sciences. And, as choices for bolstering your pseudo-intellectual credentials go, this is certainly the shinier one.
It’s easy to dismiss humanities majors who don’t know what they’re talking about. If even they don’t know what they’re talking about, then you (and most people who haven’t skimmed Montesquieu and Joyce) won’t either. Their hazy navel-gazing is safely ignored.
But the policy wonk’s discourse on things-he-doesn’t-understand has the deceptive veneer of rigorous methodology and empirical experimentation. He cites statistics from peer-reviewed studies and economic models from Nobel laureates to support his concrete policy recommendations. And while he’s only skimmed the studies, can’t fully explain the models, and often misapplies both, none of these facts can shake his overweening confidence in his intelligence and superiority as a scientist.
Such confidence makes the policy wonk a frustrating interlocutor. He believes that he can place the burden of proof on you simply by citing some economic literature without bothering to reconstruct the argument it contains—after all, such complicated concepts can’t be understood by a mere mortal like you and the goal here is simply to shut you up.
If you don’t immediately have specific objections to his obscure citations, he will claim victory (if only temporarily) as you storm off to the library to read through an economics paper that you quickly realize didn’t even apply to the argument that he was making. Worst of all, because blind scientism has supplanted common sense at many colleges, far too many will unquestioningly accept his arguments-from-authority that masquerade as science.
While pervasive scientism in the natural sciences is bad enough, it poses an even bigger threat in the social sciences. After all, it is not clear that the social sciences are, in fact, sciences. This is not to say that the social sciences can’t be useful—contrary to popular belief, there are many fields of unscientific knowledge that are useful, if not critical. But it is not clear whether we can usefully study things like the economy and politics using our framework of “science.”
As far as we can tell, the natural world does not care what we think of it and does not change its behavior based on our theories of how it will act. But as anyone who has watched President Trump will know, humans constantly react to the way that they are perceived and the models that people use to try to predict them. When we propose theories about how people act, people will typically change how they act in response to our theory—our knowledge and models become obsolete quickly and we have to come up with new theories. This feedback loop makes successfully applying the scientific method difficult, if not impossible when it comes to the activity of human beings.
Thoughtful social scientists understand and constantly grapple with this problem. But policy wonks are not thoughtful.
Hiding behind the obfuscation of complicated methodologies and vast datasets, they try to take on the appearance of rigorous scientists without giving any thought to the underlying questions behind their fields. At best, they can be thought of as sloppy engineers with an idealistic and ambitious streak who believe that with enough social science models and data, they can effectively model and engineer their utopia. At worst, they are authoritarian frauds who try to use “numbers” and “science” to bully you into doing what they want you to do.
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