13 February 2013

Political Science In The News: They Say Political Science is Arcane and Silly. And They Say That As Though It Is A Bad Thing!

What are we to make of this essay at The Atlantic? It is easy enough just to be snarky. We could point out that Mr. Ferenstein actually learned something important from his foray into grad school: he was not cut out for the profession. He simply did not like - or was no good at - political science (although it turns out in the comments thread that he had gone off to study political philosophy, which is a whole other thing). Good! Hopefully his talents are better used elsewhere, although this essay is hardly evidence of that. And we might also point out that he seems to have no idea what he is talking about. Example: "The problem is that modern-day "political science" is rarely related to public policy or diplomacy at all. The scientific study of politics is the hyper-analytic mathematical, psychological, and anthropological study of civic behavior" Let's assume that this final sentence makes sense (it doesn't). Let's issue the same complaint about, say, evolutionary biology, which is not really related to direct practical human purposes either.

Such responses are nearly enough to make one stop at snickering. But what if we wanted to be constructive?  If we are reasonable and self-reflective we might grant that much political science research has no obvious public relevance. But where, if anywhere, does the difficulty lie? There is lots of natural science research with no obvious public relevance. It is hard to make such research relevant (however we define that notion).* And it is expensive too. My own university just spent buckets of money a building dedicated to "translational science" to help push biomedical research conducted in the Medical School from the lab closer to potential treatment applications. And, biomedical research is not typically 'pure' science so the distance to 'relevance' is relatively short in this domain. Why should we assume that it will be easier to make that translation from legitimate theoretical inquiry in social sciences? Ferenstein is correct: "the discipline of political science lacks a system for turning abstract research into practical outcomes." There have been attempts - starting Perspectives on Politics (in part)**, individual forays into journalistic outlets or non-academic publishing, The Monkey Cage. But those hardly are systematic. How might we remedy that?

What we do know is that journalism is part of the problem. Most journalists are ill-prepared and/or unwilling to understand social science. Need an example? Consider this meme: given the polarization of American politics 'both parties are to blame.' Unfortunately, that meme is false. Journalists are bending over backwards to maintain the appearance of neutrality or objectivity instead of actually reporting what is very well established. Need another example: It we raise  the minimum wage there will be immediate, significant negative impact on employment rates. (David Brooks out is out this canard on PBS following the State of the Union address last night.) Journalists typically are disabled in replying to such nonsense.

Then there are the entities that are meant to take up "social science" and make it relevant to the 'real world' - public opinion polling? think tanks? Much of what passes for "research" in such entities is too easily dismissed as being either ideologically driven, commercially oriented or simply mistaken (remember the way Clinton relied on the idea of 'primordial conflicts' to justify sitting on our hands in the face of genocide in Rwanda and the Balkans? Remember George W. Bush invoking the 'democratic peace' in order to rationalize unjustifiable military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan?) One thing that makes academic research defensible is that there is at least the gesture toward quality control.

Finally, is "relevance" an easy criterion to endorse? Anyone who has read Sasha Isenberg's The Victory Lab, should understand why elected politicians might be reluctant to fund certain sorts of political science research. It might be used against them by their adversaries. And anyone who has thought at all about the involvement of the Rand Corporation (say) in the formulation and implementation of military strategies might hesitate to embrace relevance as well. You can surely think of other examples.

Mr. Ferenstein raises some important matters. He then makes a hash of it - mostly, I suspect, from a mix of resentment and misunderstanding. But the topic he puts on the agenda is indeed important for political scientists. Can we set aside the silly parts of Ferenstein's tirade and take up its important parts?
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* If you are really interested in this enterprise, I would recommend:  Phillip Kitcher. 2006. “Public Knowledge and the Difficulties of Democracy,” Social Research 73:1205-24; Phillip Kitcher. 2011. Science in a Democratic Society. Prometheus Books.
** Full disclosure - I am a former editor. 

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Blogger D. Ghirlandaio said...

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21 February, 2013 14:13  

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