Cult of the Irrelevant

Cult of the Irrelevant : The Waning Influence of Social Science on National Security

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How professionalization and scholarly "rigor" made social scientists increasingly irrelevant to US national security policy

To mobilize America's intellectual resources to meet the security challenges of the post-9/11 world, US Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates observed that "we must again embrace eggheads and ideas." But the gap between national security policymakers and international relations scholars has become a chasm.

In Cult of the Irrelevant, Michael Desch traces the history of the relationship between the Beltway and the Ivory Tower from World War I to the present day. Recounting key Golden Age academic strategists such as Thomas Schelling and Walt Rostow, Desch's narrative shows that social science research became most oriented toward practical problem-solving during times of war and that scholars returned to less relevant work during peacetime. Social science disciplines like political science rewarded work that was methodologically sophisticated over scholarship that engaged with the messy realities of national security policy, and academic culture increasingly turned away from the job of solving real-world problems.

In the name of scientific objectivity, academics today frequently engage only in basic research that they hope will somehow trickle down to policymakers. Drawing on the lessons of this history as well as a unique survey of current and former national security policymakers, Desch offers concrete recommendations for scholars who want to shape government work. The result is a rich intellectual history and an essential wake-up call to a field that has lost its way.
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Product details

  • Hardback | 368 pages
  • 155 x 235 x 35.56mm | 725.75g
  • New Jersey, United States
  • English
  • 8 b/w illus., 14 tables
  • 0691181217
  • 9780691181219
  • 1,085,225

Review quote

"Michael Desch has written a fascinating account of the relationship between the academy and the Washington policy community over the past century. For the growing number of younger scholars who are seeking to develop academically rigorous research that is relevant to policy, this look back at how some leading figures in national security tried to bridge the academic and policy worlds will prove tremendously instructive."-James Goldgeier, American University "In this deep history of scholarly engagement with strategy and tactics in the age of nuclear and guerrilla war, Michael Desch shows how formalization, rooted in economic fads and fashions, stripped common sense and practical utility from security studies. Gripping, meticulous, and persuasive, his work is of equal value to those who share his wish that academics may better serve the state-and those who think the point is to change it."-James K. Galbraith, author of Inequality: What Everyone Needs to Know "The question of policy relevance has bedeviled social scientists for the past century. This is a serious, sober, and well-researched exploration of the issue."-Daniel W. Drezner, author of The Ideas Industry "Stimulating and thought-provoking, Cult of the Irrelevant brings a valuable historical perspective to a subject that too often lacks it."-Hal Brands, author of American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump
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About Michael Desch

Michael C. Desch is the Packey J. Dee Professor of International Relations and founding director of the Notre Dame International Security Center. He is the author or coauthor of four previous books on US national security policy.
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