Since I've commented on the "Palin's strange pregnancy" story a couple of times in the past, I suppose I should link to Justin Elliott's conclusive takedown of the version that alleges that Palin faked a pregnancy and then covered it up.
(As I've said before, the question of parentage never seemed plausible to me, but some of the other parts of Palin's birth story do, in my view seem odd, but entirely irrelevant to evaluating her as a political figure. That is, if people make parenting choices that seem different from those I can imagine making, or if people inflate and sensationalize their family stories -- and I suspect Palin did one or the other -- then, well, so what?)
At any rate, the one point I want to make here is about what Elliott refers to as the "academic paper" that seems to have sparked the last round of this, eventually resulting in Elliott's story. You know, I just got back from giving a paper at the annual meeting of the Western Political Science Association. It was an unusually good panel for the Western -- the other three papers were all quite professional, at least in their presentation form (I only have had a chance to look at one of them; another, I think, I will probably post about next week). As it turned out, my paper was the dud of the group; the main finding my co-author and I had at this point was that we either needed to have a much faster computer, or needed to start our data crunching a lot earlier. The next version should be interesting; this one...not so much.*
But I've been to a lot of meetings of the Western, and I think most of us who have been to these smaller conferences will agree that there's just a lot of crap presented. Even at the biggest, most prestigious, conferences, I've been on or at panels in which a paper was presented that just wasn't professional at all. I'm not talking about duds, with boring findings or non-findings, or even papers that appear to have something going for them but turn out to have rather sizable holes, but just unprofessional garbage. More embarrassing than a Matt Bai think piece. Sometimes those are given by grad students, but not always.
Now, I know some other disciplines are different, but we in political science do our conferences applications (at least most of the time) on spec...we write an abstract up to a year before the conference, and then the organizers choose from what they see, which isn't much. In other words, knowing that a paper was given at a political science conference means absolutely nothing in terms of quality control. Of course, that's also true for many working paper series, not to mention obviously true for papers one posts on a personal web site. I'll also note that there are plenty of academics out there who have little caution about attaching their credentials to claims that have nothing to do with their expertise (you'll note that the academic bloggers I link to try pretty hard to not do that -- if they're outside of their fields, they'll put in an appropriate disclaimer. Me too).
Even something published, alas, can wind up being not very good, especially -- but not only -- if it isn't peer reviewed.
I say all this because as much as I really would like reporters and others to use political science research, it's also important for everyone not to take "academic paper" as some sort of magic seal of quality. It isn't. Peer-reviewed paper is usually fairly reliable, but even then, be careful. That's not to say that you should ignore things at earlier stages; at least in political science, there are plenty of important findings that were nailed in the first draft of a paper that was "published" as a working paper, and sometimes those take years to make their way into proper print form. So don't wait! But do, always, assess the claims on their own merits.
Anyway, I wasted my time actually reading through the paper Elliott referred to, and it was junk. Hey, reporters! Don't let these sorts of things sour you on using serious academic work...but assess it carefully, as you would with any other source.
*I suppose I should mention what our paper is about: we're looking at individual contributors to Clinton and Obama in 2007 and seeing to whom they gave, if anyone, in the 2006 cycle. We'll then use social network tools to see what, if anything, differentiates Clinton and Obama supporters. I'm very optimistic about the project...we know little or nothing about how party networks operate in this way, and I think there's a lot to be learned. My co-author, Casey Dominguez, has already looked at party networks in PAC donations, and before that she and I did a paper on elite activity, including donations, in presidential campaigns. Now, we're going far beyond that into thousands of individual donors. But we're not quite there yet.