The following is an email response I made to the authors of an oped written by a group of researchers in Foreign Affairs. My concern is that headline-grabbing opeds based on larger more complex studies can be misleading and often serve little useful policy purpose. Opeds are important and very influential but they must be nuanced as well and cant use a cop-out excuse that the public needs dumbed down linear narrative that raises eyebrows but distracts from complexity:
Dear Graeme Blair,
Since you are the primary author in the oped piece published in Foreign Affairs, I am addressing this message primarily to you. I am also copying the other coauthors and the editor Gideon Rose.
Chris Fair urged me to focus on your full study rather than the oped and got rather upset with me on a Facebook exchange for suggesting that academic pressure leads many young junior faculty to do quantitative studies that are not always suited to the question being asked (despite my best intention of actually showing sympathy for the pre-tenure predicament of the main authors). Alas, Facebook is not the best medium for academic conversations.
Anyhow -- the reason I am contacting you is that it needs to be pointed out that when opeds are submitted based on larger studies, it is the ethical responsibility of the researcher to ensure that the context of the research is appreciated.
Op-eds are far more powerful in policy terms than actual studies and while Chris asked me to focus on the study (which I think is a fine survey but then you should know the limits of what can be inferred from a survey), the greater issue is what policy purpose an oped of this kind may serve?
Such opeds might get a rise from the public and policy-makers simply for being somewhat counter-intuitive but they can be misleading and actually lead to policy paralysis at best.
Your oped with the title "Pakistan's Middle Class Extremists" does exactly that. It questions the efficacy of aid in fighting extremism but such causality is impossible to determine statistically from the survey design. The survey responses are opinions and say nothing of the veracity of each cohort nor of the connection between what they might say and its actual impact on extremist action. As it is, Pakistanis are marginalized in the global community through irresponsible journalism by people such as C. Hitchens (whom Chris Fair has admirably tackled).
Yet your article is playing to the same herd sentiment since the title and much of the argument irresponsibly suggests that somehow the Pakistani middle-class espouses extremist tendencies. There is little evidence to this conclusion within your survey -- only that some views are perhaps more candidly expressed by the middle class in terms of current conflicts. All of these studies that purport to present data on extremism among the middle class or elite have a fallacious assumption that development dollars are somehow responsible for the current wealth distribution as well. Indeed, the only way to do a proper study of development impact on extremist views is a before-and-after study of development intervention in a particular setting and that too would have particular limitations in terms of what causality we can draw.
The drumbeat for cutting aid (even humanitarian assistance) to Pakistan is rising in pitch and such an oped can be easily used simplistically to justify a reduction to aid. Even though you end the article with an olive branch to suggest aid should be continued for other reasons -- much of the damage is done -- and for want of clear causality as well. If researchers know that development aid is important for other reasons just as education is, then what is the point of expending the effort to write an oped which might only confound the issue and lead to errant decisions?
Most significantly using opinion surveys that are by their very nature highly dynamic to make such a generic conclusion is problematic. As is well known in survey research, opinions on specific political views change dramatically based on current events. Developing an oped in such an influential space such as Foreign Affairs that will have an impact which outdates the potential change in views of the subjects is also irresponsible.
I know you are all researchers par excellence but I would urge you to consider the impact of your decisions on writing such simplistic opeds based on far better research.
As someone who writes opeds regularly as well, I know the temptation of sensationalism in such matters -- I do hope that you will show better judgment in future when it comes to such consequential global policy issues.
Again, I have much respect for your work but feel that as a social scientist who also does frequent commentary in the public domain, it is my professional responsibility to point out these issues. My primary research is in environmental conflict resolution but the methods of inquiry and the ethical obligations are the same across the full spectrum of sciences (indeed a I teach a general course on research methods and ethics).
Please dont dismiss these comments as simply those coming from a biased Pakistani-American. My track record of publications and research will show that I am making these comments with utmost sincerity and impartiality. If you had inferred the same conclusions about India, my response would indeed have been the same!