Politics and Political Science

It would be nice if people who make authoritative decisions had some idea what they are talking about.

An editorial at Nature is spot-on regarding the Flake amendment that passed the House of Representatives which strikes National Science Foundation funding for political science research:

Because they deal with systems that are highly complex, adaptive and not rigorously rule-bound, the social sciences are among the most difficult of disciplines, both methodologically and intellectually. They suffer because their findings do sometimes seem obvious. Yet, equally, the common-sense answer can prove to be false when subjected to scrutiny. There are countless examples of this, from economics to traffic planning. This is one reason that the social sciences probably unnerve some politicians, some of whom are used to making decisions based not on evidence but on intuition, wishful thinking and with an eye on the polls.

[…]

The idea that politicians should decide what is worthy of research is perilous. The proper function of democracy is to establish impartial bodies of experts and leave it to them. But Flake’s amendment does more than just disparage a culture of expertise. The research he selected for ridicule included studies of gender disparity in politics and models for international analysis of climate change — issues that are unpopular with right-wingers. In other words, his interference is not just about cost-cutting: it has a political agenda. The fact that he and his political allies seem to feel threatened by evidence-based studies of politics and society does not speak highly of their confidence in the objective case for their policies. Flake’s amendment is no different in principle to the ideological infringements of academic freedom in Turkey or Iran. It has nothing to do with democracy.

Emphases mine.

First: no, I have not been, and am unlikely to be, a recipient of an NSF grant.

Second: yes, I understand that resources are scarce and that politicians have to make choices concerning the budget.

However, the Flake amendment does not save any money, i.e., it does not cut funding to the NSF, it simply denies any of the funds to political science. This, as the editorial note above, far more about a political agenda than anything else.

There is also, it would seem, a great deal of misunderstanding about what political science is. Flake, it would seem, mostly doesn’t like specific research topics:

So what kind of research is NSF charging to our credit card? $700,000 to develop a new model for international climate change analysis; $600,000 to try to figure out if policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do.

[…]

$301,000 to study gender and political ambition among high school and college students; $200,000 to study to determine why political candidates make vague statements. $200,000 to study why political candidates make vague statements. That’s what we’re paying for here.

Well, climate change is no small issue and believe it or not, there is a need to understand the linkages between voters and policymakers (if we actually value democracy).  Beyond that, there are good reasons to wonder why we see ongoing gender disparities in politics.  Further, I would note that it is incredibly easy to make fun of research based on a one-sentence précis and that any attempt to do so has to be taken with a grain of salt.

Flake’s lack of understanding is made all the more annoying, since he has two degrees in the field.

Now, I hold a graduate degree in political science myself. I agree that such research has its benefits. The work of political scientists advances the knowledge and understanding of citizenship and government, politics, and this shouldn’t be minimized.

Except, of course, that he is actively seeking to minimize it.  Further, he seems to think that all the field is is glorified civics.

All of this reminds me of Senator Tom Coburn’s (R-OK) attempt to cut polisci funding a few years ago:

Theories on political behavior are best left to CNN, pollsters, pundits, historians, candidates, political parties, and the voters, rather than being funded out of taxpayers’ wallets…

First, pollsters are often political scientists, and history is a whole other field. Second, pundits, candidates, and political parties? As a source of actual, rigorous, and empirical understanding? It makes me wonder if he ever actually watches TV. Plus, that formulation seems to indicate that he thinks that polisci is just focused on commenting on US elections.

The Coburn team also said in the same timeframe:

“The irony of this complaint is that real-world political science practitioners employed by media outlets – [George] Stephanopoulos, [Peggy] Noonan, James Carville, Karl Rove, Paul Begala, Larry Kudlow, Bill Bennett (the list goes on) – may know more about the subject than any of our premier political science faculties,” Coburn spokesman John Hart said.

There is a rather substantial difference between pundits, speech writers, political consultants and political scientists. Clearly, we need a better marketing effort…

It would be nice if people who make authoritative decisions had some idea what they are talking about…

At any rate, I am not sure at this time when the funding question will be taken up by the Senate.

FILED UNDER: US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. al-Ameda says:

    Steven, these kind of articles depress me, and convince me more than ever that America is in decline, that we are dumbing down. Every time I think that we’ve bottomed out, something like the article you put out here comes up.

    What is your take on the “dumbing down and “America in decline” notion?

  2. It all sounds very petty. I assume the burn rate for the House is such that they spent more killing the funding than doing it …

  3. TonyW says:

    Supressing knowledge is not a scalable alternative in any universe – much less politics in the 21st century with easy communication and 24×7 news cycles. A cynical attempt to change reality in people’s minds does not change *actual* reality.

  4. PGlenn says:

    Mr. Taylor, I too strongly believe in the value of the so-called social sciences, but I gather for reasons different than your own.

    First, though, if we’re being realistic about ALL sides involved in the realms of politics and policymaking, when a policy proponent speaks of “evidence-based study/analysis,” he/she means a study that accords with his/her own ideological leanings and/or his/her ideological “team.” Conversely, when he/she accuses others of being “anti-science” or ignorant of “evidence-based” findings, he/she means that the other people disagree with his/her views and/or policy proposals.Isn’t that how it usually goes, or do you live a different, more rarifed world than I do?

    Part of the reason for this problem is that promotion of social scientific expertise has always been a woefully insufficient step toward efforts to solve all variety of socioeconomic problems in our hyper-complex modern world. If it were, during previous eras when social scientific experts were given more support and freer hands, they would have solved quite a lot of social problems. Except they did not. And,too often, they only made things worse.

    Then again, the social sciences might be better served if we abandoned the fantasy that (supposedly impartial) bodies of experts have it within their cognitive powers to design and implement governmental policies that will “fix” hyper-complex socioeconomic problems. Their challenge is made all the greater by all the previous evidence-based and non-evidence-based (“intuitive”) fixes, which no one has ever seriously evaluated for effectiveness (by isolating the key variables) and which are now all tangled up into a labrynthine web of regulations, programs, and other grand experiments.

    Any chance that all the past failures of social scientific experts to promise but fail to do the impossible might also not have been good for the promotion of the social sciences?

  5. One can recognize the value of the social sciences while at the same time believing that precious taxpayer dollars are best spent elsewhere, can one not?

  6. @PGlenn: You post is vague, and I therefore cannot really answer. You seem to be obliquely stating that social science isn’t worth much, even though you start out saying you value it.

  7. Ernieyeball says:

    *actual* reality.

    As opposed to the reality experienced by those who suffer from Scizophrenia for instance.

  8. @Doug Mataconis:

    One can recognize the value of the social sciences while at the same time believing that precious taxpayer dollars are best spent elsewhere, can one not?

    This is possible, although since this isn’t a money saving move, per se, I find it harder to accept.

    Further, it would be nice if the move was made in way that seriously evaluated the pros and cons, rather than simply dismissing an entire field of study.

  9. Well, just for the sake of argument, whether it saves money or not is a different issue from whether it’s a wise use of federal dollars.

  10. @Doug Mataconis: Further, like with voter ID, I could take these decisions a bit more seriously if they didn’t reek of political advantage for the side promoting the change. This does not strike me as an issue of fiscal responsibility. It strikes me as combination of partisan preference and ignorance. Not a good combo.

  11. Latino_in_Boston says:

    @PGlenn:

    This shows just how little you know about political science. The discipline hardly ever proposes specific policies (you’re thinking about public policy schools). It concerns itself much more with why states do what they do, why countries work the way they work, how political behavior affects policies, etc. Academics do speak about their preferred policies as public intellectuals, but a) no one pays attention to them and b) they rarely if ever do this in their academic work.

  12. @Doug Mataconis: Yes, but is that actually the debate here? Is this really a serious discussion of the pros and cons of the research?

  13. @Steven L. Taylor:

    Does Congress ever really seriously debate the value of anything it funds? I think not.

  14. @Doug Mataconis: Not to my satisfaction, no. But this is an especially (to use someone else’s word in this thread) petty example.

  15. PGlenn says:

    Mr. Taylor, my comment made a poor effort at being theoretical. I meant to suggest that one can believe that social sciences have tremendous potential to describe the world and, ideally, achieve verstehen, but that the discovery of both real and perceived social scientific truths rareley enable us to design and implement policy solutions to social scientific problems. Simply speaking, the breakdown often occurs in the translation from social science to policy, although the social sciences also often go astray in other ways, too (a discussion for another time).

    Latino_in_Boston’s reply to me is illustrative. You devoted much of your post to talking about the Flake amendment (policy!) and your big block quote is from an enthusiast of policy expertise, yet he accused ME of getting confused about political science, giving you a pass, even though I’m the one suggesting that political and other social sciences aren’t going to help us figure out the Flake amendment.

    Memo to Latino: social/political scientists do not have to propose, or advocate on behalf of, specific policies in order to promote the value of social scientific policy epxertise.

    But to show that I do know a little about political science: some of the most reliable political science findings (beginning with Converse) have revealed that the public knows very, very little about the policies enacted by their governments. But that’s partly because the “world” of policy data is so bewilderingly massive, thus different policy areas are farmed out to experts, special interests, and yokel politicians (all of whom are mostly, by necessity, ideologues) who end up writing policies that are occasionally “evidence-based” but never understood by the public. Well, us crazy right-wingers could live with the undemocratic aspects of elite policy expertise, informed (or not informed) by the social sciences, if it actually delivered on its promises. But aren’t guys like you supposed to be faithful democrats?

  16. PGlenn says:

    A good example of what I’m talking about, “Poverty Levels on the Rise,” Politico (7/22):

    The ranks of America’s poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century, erasing gains from the war on poverty in the 1960s amid a weak economy and fraying government safety net.

    When did social scientists isolate the key variables long enough to prove that the 1960s “war on poverty” was primarily responsible for the gains since then? I must have missed that.

    Actually, though, many would say that poverty has been quite persistent all along – during the 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s. Why haven’t the experts fixed the Social Problem yet?

    Oh, I know, it’s the greedy bankers, the special interests, and other ill-intentioned parties. But weren’t those greedy parties around when the experts were making poverty-solution policy recommendations in the 1960s? We were told that they’re solutions were specially designed for the express purpose of overcoming such bad people and the obstacles they’d present . . .

  17. @PGlenn: The problem is: despite your claims to about understanding what political science is, what you are describing is a hash of partisan talking points and critiques of policy.

    For example this:

    Oh, I know, it’s the greedy bankers, the special interests, and other ill-intentioned parties. But weren’t those greedy parties around when the experts were making poverty-solution policy recommendations in the 1960s? We were told that they’re solutions were specially designed for the express purpose of overcoming such bad people and the obstacles they’d present . . .

    First, you are confusing what politicians may, or may not, have said about these policies and policy influences.

    Second, to really know the effects of, say, Johnson’s war on poverty, you could turn to political scientists who could tell you what the effects were or were not, and could help us design future policies. What you are doing is simply relying on your own subjective views and, quite honestly, some hackneyed cliches.

    I say this, btw, not as a defense of any set of policies, but rather as a critique to your approach.

  18. @PGlenn:

    But to show that I do know a little about political science: some of the most reliable political science findings (beginning with Converse) have revealed that the public knows very, very little about the policies enacted by their governments. But that’s partly because the “world” of policy data is so bewilderingly massive, thus different policy areas are farmed out to experts, special interests, and yokel politicians (all of whom are mostly, by necessity, ideologues) who end up writing policies that are occasionally “evidence-based” but never understood by the public.

    BTW, isn’t all of that an argument for MORE political science?

  19. PGlenn says:

    I was trying to be polite, but that didn’t work. Hackneyed cliches? Ha! Show me some examples you’ve seen something along the line-of-anlysis of what I roughly outline above, which is consistent with a small minority of libertarian-conservative thought (consequentialist rather than natural rights-based), which in turn libertarianism in general is very much a minority current.I suspect you won’t find many such examples, if any at all. I can live with that, but unfortunately the last thing I can say of my views is that they’re shared by enough people to have become cliches.

    This is a hackneyed cliche if there ever was one: “to really know the effects of, say, Johnson’s war on poverty, you could turn to political scientists who could tell you what the effects were or were not . . .” That is complete balderdash. No, they can’t. Way, way too many variables.But then I suspect that you’ve never done any serious quantative research. I’ve done just enough to realize that what you describe as a straightforward exercise is anything but that. And that you believe political scientists can even halfway trace the effects of Johnson’s war on poverty on 100 diferent, constantly evolving and interacting socioeconomic variables suggests that it is YOUR understanding of political science and policy that are about as facile as someone of your education could possibly be.

  20. PGlenn says:

    Taylor, ughh . . . I was arguing for more political science, so yes, I was making an agument for more political science. Let me state it again: More political science!

    That doesn’t mean that we can unravel all the effects of Johnson’s War on Poverty and then fix ’em. Yeehaw!

    If we could do that, maybe they would have won the 140+ year old war on poverty about 80 years ago . . .

  21. @PGlenn:

    Taylor, ughh . . . I was arguing for more political science, so yes, I was making an agument for more political science. Let me state it again: More political science!

    My apologies. I clearly misunderstood your point. I will confess to being a bit confused as to your point, I guess.

    I think, by the way, that you misunderstand my point on the war on poverty. I am not claiming that we can fix poverty by enough polisci or study (indeed, I think that the notion on a war on poverty is misguided). However, I do think that proper analysis of social welfare policy can lead to better understanding of that policy, as well as ways to make better policy.

  22. Ron Beasley says:

    Let’s just be honest here – politicians are tribal political hacks who are on the take from the highest bidder. Bruce Bartlett. had a good example last week. While conservatives claim that the government cannot create jobs when defense spending is threatened they start talking about jobs that will be lost.

    It stands to reason that if cuts in defense spending cost jobs, then cuts in nondefense spending also cost jobs. And if spending cuts cost jobs, then spending increases must be able to create them.

    So I guess police, fire, teachers and infrastructure jobs aren’t “real jobs”. So much for swords to plows I guess.
    Nearly everything that is wrong with the United States can be found in Washington DC.

  23. george says:

    The idea that politicians should decide what is worthy of research is perilous. The proper function of democracy is to establish impartial bodies of experts and leave it to them.

    As an engineer with a graduate degree in physics, you had me at the above quote. That applies to political science as much as any science. Politicians should be, as the population’s chosen representatives, responsible for setting the budget for science research – how much money gets allocated. And should stop there.

  24. Ben Wolf says:

    @PGlenn: The fact you can’t recognize the intense bias in your own comments is the problem here, not Steven Taylor. You’ve hardly posted a single sentence which does not contain a value judgement of some sort, making any exchange unlikely to be productive. Furthermore you should always “try to be polite” whether someone agrees with you or not. Suggesting that someone no longer deserves to be treated civilly because they fail to adopt your positions speaks volumes about your good faith when engaging in a discussion. Try to avoid poorly disguised sarcasm, contempt, smug superiority and outright anger in your posts. You’ll get a better response.

  25. Latino_in_Boston says:

    Clarity might help. I think Pglenn is saying that there’s value in the social sciences as long as the don’t try to propose policies, because the right policy is impossible to design given the amount of variables.

  26. PGlenn says:

    Ben Wolf, I was engaging (above) in what was essentially a political theoretical discussion, which by its nature, will usually involve mostly value judgments. Unless a political theorist is trying to engage in something like “positive political theory,” yet I’ve been tacitly suggesting that such positivistic/economistic approaches are not as productive as their proponents claim. Btw, Joyner was making value judgments, too.

    If I was poorly disguising sarcasm, contempt, smug superiority and outright anger, I apologize. However, Joyner was the first to do an overt putdown and I felt that he was being willfully oblivious toward what I was trying to say, which really isn’t that complicated. What’s very, very complicated is trying to perfect policy instruments like the Flake Amendment. Doing that’s so complicated that social scientific expertise isn’t that much help.

    On the other hand, social science is quite helpful in promoting verstehen or in describing modern realities. In a nutshell, I say more Weber, Hayek, and Converse, less Rochester and Chicago schools (and the latter two have at times been considered “right wing”).

    Yes, absolutely, I’m biased. But who isn’t? And that’s kind of my point. Because the modern world is hyper-complicated and we are overwhelmed by political, policy, social scientific data, when it comes to designing/implementing public policy, we are forced to take shortcuts in making sense out of that profusion of data. One shortcut we use is (political) ideology.Most people in a democracy are highly ignorant of politics and policy; the more knowledgeable one is, however, the more likely he is to be an ideologue because the more he/she will have to rely on ideological filters to make sense out of the myriad of data. It’s kind of pick your poison, but I’m not the one who places great faith in the transformative potential of government/policy. All I’m saying is that social scientfic expertise is much, much better at analyzing conditions than designing solutions. Maybe you disagree – fine.

  27. PGlenn says:

    Latino_in_Boston: yes, I see tremendous value in the social sciences and it’s not that I believe social scientists should be discouraged from making social policy pronouncements, or that they’re especially bad at doing so – rather, that we’re all pretty bad at designing policy instruments that will improve socioeconomic conditions (although governments/policies are often very effective in numerous other areas).

    Also, it’s not simply that we are unable to design perfect social policies, but that most of our attempts to “fix” socioeconomic problems cause more harm than good. This problem is just as insurmountable to political scientists and public policy experts/researchers/analysts as it is to “machine politicians,” special interest group representatives, or John Q. Public. The expert might have much more sophisticated understandings of the conditions/problems at stake, but when they go to “fix” them, all their expertise does not enable them to achieve what’s practically impossible. That we often expect them to do so is a disservice to social sciences and public policy.