Monday, March 29, 2010

Fighting Science with Snobbery

. Monday, March 29, 2010

(Like everyone else I grow tired of rehashing this stuff, but a friend asked what I thought. As long as I was typing it up I thought I'd post it here.)

Ryan Sager asks a question...

Why do so few people in politics seem to know or care a whit about political science? People in sports care about sports science. People in business care about the science of how to do whatever it is they do better. But folks involved in politics — campaign consultants, journalists, and politicians themselves — could hardly be any more ignorant or disengaged when it comes to the science of politics.

... then answers it:

[M]y theory of why no one in politics likes to think about political science: because it renders them powerless. How do you do your job as a political consultant when the truth is that 90% of the success or failure of what you do will be determined by the unemployment rate? If you’re a political journalist, how do you write a story every day for a year (or three years, given our current presidential election system) saying, essentially, “Well, the fundamentals still make it exceedingly likely the president will be reelected.”

This echoes previous thinking on this blog and elsewhere, and I'm glad Sager came to that conclusion. I do think he's too generous to the wrong people -- I don't think that pundits and commentators realize how little they know about politics -- but at least he's barking up the right tree. Unlike Andrew Sullivan, who responded to Sager's article thusly:

And then there's the fact that so many political scientists are quant-wonks you'd run from if you met them in a Starbucks. And, yes, I have a PhD in political "science".

Well, maybe his PhD deserves the scare-quotes (he did it in Political Theory), but why generalize? I know (think?) he's only being half-serious, but Sullivan has an opportunity to say something constructive and spurns it in favor of name-calling. That's annoying.

I'll ignore the dig on "quant-wonks" (what?) for now and focus on what little resembles a substantive point: Is political science science or "science". In other words, is it a serious discipline or just a group of people playing with regressions and being creepy in Starbucks? I think I know exactly what Sullivan is claiming; I also think I know exactly why his insinuation is wrong.

Sullivan has made the common error of mistaking science for results. What do I mean by that? I have a (non-scientific) belief that when people hear the word "science" the first association is Laws: of Thermodynamics, Motion, Gravitation, Relativity, etc. In other words, the association of science is with old theories that have never been refuted. This is a mistake, in my view, and confuses results with method. I'm not a philosopher of science and I'm generally bored by those kinds of arguments, but I think there is near-universal agreement that what defines science is not findings but method: scientists examine the world in systematic ways, deriving hypotheses to explain observable phenomena, and testing those hypotheses against empirical evidence. If that definition is operable then modern political science, however flawed, qualifies easily. No scare quotes necessary, and no need to run for the hills at the first sight of someone with Stata installed on their laptop.

Judged by the standard of science as method rather than science as results the criticism that political scientists (or social scientists more generally) have discovered no Laws is a non sequitur. Laws are hard to come by in any discipline, which is why there are so few of them, but they are even harder to come by when the objects under study are not controllable. This does not condemn a systematic examination of the social world, however, especially when 90% of the variation of at least some political outcomes is pretty well pinned down (to use Sager's example).

The irony of course is that by citing Sager's piece Sullivan is implicating himself and nearly everyone he links to every day. But rather than acknowledging it and trying to incorporate more systematic approaches into his work he resorts to making fun of the nerds. (To be fair, Sullivan does sometimes link to research in a variety of fields. But not enough, and not nearly as much as other sources.) Well fine. But by denigrating method in favor of God knows what -- let's be generous and say Laws -- Sullivan is actually attacking science itself. I'm sure it's not his intention, but then... it's really hard to discern what his intention is. Other than snobbery, of course.


Unknown said...


I'm sure you know my views on Political Science already, and the problems I had for two glorious semesters in trying to articulate them. Thankfully, John Lewis Gaddis appears to have done it quite nicely in "The Landscape of History," a short book on historical methodology that lays out some of the competing approaches within the social sciences. As I said, it's a short read and I highly recommend it, if only to more clearly understand the problems other disciplines have with reductive methodology and predictive theorizing about human behavior.

Thomas Oatley said...

Employing the scientific method does not make a discipline a science. It makes it a discipline that uses the scientific method.

Results are the only point of method. That's why it's called the scientific method, rather than science. The point of method is to (a) be systematic in evaluating and (b) enable others to replicate and verify.

Kindred Winecoff said...

Josiah -

Nice to hear from you. I'm somewhat familiar with Gaddis but haven't read that one. I'll add it to the pile.

Thomas -

That's like saying "being a store that sells electronics does not make it an electronics store. It has to have sales too. And not just any sales... HUGE sales. 1000" 3-D tv sales. On a regular basis. Otherwise it's just a store that sells some electronics, not an electronics store."

On the one hand I agree: results are the goal. But results are meaningless out of the context in which they were discovered. As you said, if results are gained using a process that is non-systematic and not subject to verification and replication then they are not science. But if they are... then what else can we call it but science? "Results gained using the scientific method but do not scientific findings" isn't very catchy, nor does it make much sense.

Thomas Oatley said...

Kind of a weird metaphor, but yes I guess it is kind of like saying that. If the store's business model (it's method) didn't produce results (sales), it wouldn't be an electronics store for very long.

Fighting Science with Snobbery




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