Friday, January 4, 2013

No Social Science Among Social Scientists

. Friday, January 4, 2013

Matt Yglesias, one of the most econ literate journalists going, is at the annual flagship conference for economists and notes something odd:
I'm in San Diego for the American Economics Association's annual meeting, and so naturally I wanted to grab a cup of coffee in the hotel lobby before the 8AM sessions started. Imagine my surprise to find that as of 7:45 AM the lines were punishingly long and there was no way I'd be able to get to the session on high-skill immigration if I waited around.  
Sad. And a result of a shocking lack of economics. Clearly the price charged should have been much, much higher. You only have the logistical capacity to serve so many people between 7:30 and 8:00 AM, so you ought to serve the people with the most willingness to pay. Let folks who don't care about being on time to an 8AM session just wait around and buy their coffee later after prices fall. Let those who place a strong premium on both coffee and punctuality pay through the nose. It seems so simple and yet even at a conference of economics nobody wants to apply economic ideas.
I find the same thing is true in political science. For example, when Jeff Flake launched a campaign to cut federal funding of political science research what did political scientists do? Did we utilize our theories of politics to form an effective lobbying organization? Did we use our professional organization to overcome the collective action problem and secure our rents? No. APSA released an outraged statement on its website and encouraged members to... write their Congressperson. How imaginative, how theory-driven, how efficacious. The Monkey Cage reviewed a bunch of studies which had received NSF funding. That's about the sum total of the response from political scientists, excepting snarky posts on Facebook and Twitter.

Similarly, it is a cliche that political science faculty departments are often governed, shall we say, sub-optimally. While I'm not yet a faculty member, and thus don't yet have much experience in this area, I hear stories all the time (not just from my department) about how weird and screwed up things frequently get in faculty meetings. Why not use our theories to improve this in Pareto-improving ways? We supposedly know how to do that. While we're at it, why don't political scientists control governance at the university level? Don't we know how insurgencies succeed?

And why do most of us vote, contribute to campaigns, and even volunteer to work for particular candidates? Leaving aside whether voting is "rational" for instrumental reasons, most of our theories suggest that actual policy differences between candidates will be minimal and that most of politics occurs in a bureaucratic setting anyway. Why not direct our efforts towards influencing that process instead? For that matter, why are the successful politicians a bunch of lawyers rather than political scientists?

I could go on but you get the point: all too often social scientists tend to not take their theories seriously enough to actually make use of them in the real world. That says something. Not sure what, but something.


No Social Science Among Social Scientists




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