Megan makes some interesting arguments on the distinctions between these mindsets. While I agree with much of her argument, it falls apart in the final analysis. She holds economics up as the epitome of science and contrasts it not only with the study of literature, but with political science and sociology, which she incorrectly lumps in with the humanties.

This is a common argument and one that I often had to engage in when teaching the Intro to PoliSci course. While I agree that political science is in some sense a misnomer, it does employ the scientific methodology much more than Megan and others realize. Her analysis is true of political philosophy/theory, which employs rhetoric and can be rather normative, but it doesn’t apply to much of the rest of the discipline. If all one means by “economics” is econometric analysis then, yes, it is more scientific than most of political science simply because one can isolate far fewer variables. Further, by the standards of, say, quantum physics, economics is hardly a science, as its predictive value is minimal. The reason isn’t so much failure of methodology but, again, because economics is a hell of a lot more complicated than physics–way more variables. I’d argue that political science is more complicated than economics for the same reason. Indeed, economics is, in a sense, a subset of political science since economic variables have to be taken into account in a good deal of political analysis.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jane Galt says:

    I expanded in my comments. Parts of economics are quite scientific, in the sense that one can make valid predictions about things like rent control, interest rates, and minimum wage laws. Others are not so rigorous, which is why anything ever said about tax policy should be taken with a whole shaker of salt. I don’t think that any part of political science has reached the point where it makes valid normative predictions about real-world situations that are regular enough to be called scientific. But I’m open to correction if you can show me, for example, where political science is able to build a model that consistently predicts election outcomes.

  2. James Joyner says:



    We can actually predict election outcomes with a pretty high degree of consistency. Right now, for example, without having done any specific research, I’ll predict that every member of the US House of Representatives that runs for re-election, hasn’t been involved in a major scandal, and has raised more money than his opponent will win. I can guarantee these results within a .05 confidence interval. Presidential elections are harder, of course, because we’re dealing with a small ‘n’ problem and wide temporal variance in conditions.

    But I suspect my predictions are likely to be as precise as any specific predictions as to the impact of, say, a 1/4% increase in interest rates on the US economy.

  3. Jane: the specific example you cite has been done. It didn’t work for the 2000 presidential election (turns out the economy wasn’t that important), but it did in prior elections.

    See e.g. here and here. Note that Fair is an economist, but Tufte (was) a political scientist (before he went off the reservation); not sure about the others.

    However, I would say that the most important thing in the social sciences is explanation rather than prediction. Even in physics, the fact that g=9.8 m/s^2 (32 ft/s^2) is less interesting than the explanation of why g=9.8 m/s^2. That this allows us to normally duck the controversy associated with Lott et al. is merely a beneficial side-effect. 🙂

  4. Jane Galt says:

    Jane by e-mail:

    Ummm. . . I can be pretty precise about a larger change in interest rates in most situations. Political scientists still seem to me to be calling horse races. I speak as the child of one and the niece of several more, though of course none of them are in elections theory. But my friend in elections theory doesn’t seem to be able to predict elections until they’re almost upon us either, which rather leads to the conclusion that they’re guessing.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Sure. I don’t do elections, either, although I did some coursework. Polisci doesn’t really aim at prediction but explanation. I do mainly foreign policy analysis and international security, which really isn’t particularly scientific.

    The social sciences, into which I’d lump polisci and econ, aren’t that good at prediction because there are just too many variables. Economists cop out with “ceteris paribus,” when they know damned well that all other things are never held constant; the world just doesn’t work that way. How often does the Fed change rates by more than 1/4% at a time? Not that often. Sure, I can make a pretty good guess what’s going to happen with, say, a 10% rate hike or a $5 an hour increase in the minimum wage–but how useful is that?

  6. PoliBlogger says:

    One can predict elections with about the same amount of accuracy that one can predict, say, the stock market, or GDP growth over time. In other words, close, but rather imperfectly. Indeed, even complex econometric models are often far from perfect in their capacity to predict.

    Plus, there is a common fallacy that crops up here-that the purpose of theory is to predict. It isn’t–the purpose of theory, whether in physics, biology, economics or political science, is to explain. A good theory may well have predictive qualities, but that is because it well explains the object of study.

    A simple example of a political science theory that is strong in its predictive power (and its explanatory capacity):

    Duverger’s Rule: That single-member district electoral systems in which winners are declared by plurality, will produce two-party systems. This is almost universally true, and the theory can account for the deviations.

    Duverger’s Hypothesis: That electoral systems which use proportional representation formulae to allocate seats in a legislature will produce a multi-party systems. This is also essentially universally true. Indeed, I cannot think of an exception.

    And before anyone jumps on the fact that I qualify the theories, consider how many times in biology, for example, that actual practical outcomes do not fully comport with ideal theory.

  7. Jane Galt says:

    Jane by e-mail:

    I’m really not trying to piss all over poli-sci (sociology, yes, but it’s generally held in contempt by most social scientists.) I think what they do is interesting and valuable, and I think it potentially can be fairly scientific. I think that economics is farther down that road than poli-sci, largely because monetary behavior is easier to measure, but I’d never argue that it’s all the way there. That part of the post came out of a conversation with a friend who studied poli-sci undergrad & is considering returning for graduate studies. I think the tragedy of political science is that, even more than economics, it got hijacked by the social agendas of the fifties and sixties, a dark ages from which it only now seems to be emerging; the Marxists make interesting observers, but they tend to shy away from rigor, since rigor tends to make them look like idiots.

  8. James Joyner says:

    Jane: I certainly share the general contempt for sociology as a discipline. Unfortunately, the breaking away of criminology has left us with two very weak disciplines rather than one mediocre one.

    And I do think economics is further down the road, simply because it is more inherently quantifiable. There has been a huge movement in polisci to use quantitative analysis, and it has largely taken over the “prestige” side of the discipline. APSR, the flagship journal of discipline, is virtually unreadable because of this.

  9. I’ll assume that’s James on the last post 🙂

    Funnily, I find all the theory articles in the APSR to be unreadable. But maybe that’s because I don’t understand them. In all seriousness, I do think there’s a point where The Discipline got carried away with big tables with lots of stars in them; sometimes parsimony is the best policy.

    In particular, I was pleasantly surprised by my skim of the first issue of Perspectives on Politics. While there was a healthy dollop of ideological tripe, there was also some good political science in it. Beats the heck out of APSR of late, which has been half theory and half incomprehensible data analysis.

  10. PoliBlogger says:

    James hits the nail on the head: economics has a leg up on political science, as their object of study is imminently more quantifiable than is that of polisci.

    And I agree with Chris regarding APSR. In general, most of those quantitative articles simply use complex formulae to explain what could more clearly be explained without the numbers.

    And we can all agree about sociology 🙂

  11. Jane Galt says:

    I recall an argument I was having with friend at dinner about some sociology professor he’d had who did a study arguing that crack gangs behave like businesses — well, not so much a study as following around the head of a gang. I was arguing that while that may be true, it’s not a social science because you don’t really know it — all you know is how that gang leader behaved when the sociology professor was in the room. As it happens, my best friend is an economist who evaluates outcomes of educational programs. She hadn’t heard the conversation, but upon hearing the words “observer problem” turned around and started to go into ways you could try to control for observer bias.

    “It was a single sociologist following around a drug dealer,” I said.

    “Well,” she said “that’s because sociology is crap.”

  12. James Joyner says:

    Heh. Sounds a lot like journalism to me.

    But is the plural of anecdote data? I can never get that straight.

  13. We political scientists call that a “case study.” 🙂

    That being said, there are good ways to do participant observation. Dick Fenno’s done some great stuff on Congress that way.

  14. Kieran Healy says:
  15. dsquared says:

    >>Political scientists still seem to me to be calling horse races.

    A practice which is carried out in an entirely scientific manner, which accounts for the fact that you will typically get better odds on some horses than on others 🙂

  16. dsquared says:

    (note to the above: I jest, of course. Bookmakers never set odds based on the probability of a horse winning, and the reason why they don’t is one of the deepest things in economics. It *is* possible to scientifically predict the winner of a horse race, it’s just not possible to make any money out of it. Unless you believe Burton Fabricand)

  17. Tiger says:

    I did enjoy Jane’s comment: “Sociology I think is interesting, but 99% of what I’ve read in the field relies on either qualitative observations or surveys, which I don’t regard as rigorous data. People lie, they have poor memories, or they don’t care, and their responses are far too variable.” I agree with such, as surveys are so full of wholes they have no basis or foundation to support any scientific conclusion. Although I have a BA in Poli-Sci, I do not remember it being really scientific, and I did not get a BS but got a BA. Science is based upon quantitative data. While there are trends in social situations that both Poli-Sci and Sociologists can look at, such are only trends, not constants which can be used as foundations for scientific study. Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics and Geology are sciences. Theology, Political Science, Philosophy and Sociology are not Science, but can properly be labeled as behavioral sciences, as there is some evidence upon which theories can be based, but as such behaviors are constantly subject to being modified by unknown forces that appear spontaneously in day-to-day life. Psychiatry is somewhere in the middle, as some of it is based upon knowledge of Biology and some of it is based upon behaviors. Psychology is less so because more of it depends upon behavior than with biology. The study of Economics does have some known constants, has some empirical data upon which some theories can be based. It is similar to Psychiatry in that it uses a great deal of mathematics with some known constants to derive some verifiable conclusions. But then, of course, what do I know. 😉