Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Reality-based political science?

Joseph Nye, a professor of government at Harvard and the former dean of the Kennedy School of Government, acknowledged in an Op-Ed piece in Monday's Washington Post what any honest political scientist should admit, when the microphones are off or, as is more appropriate to academia, when the tenure clock isn't running -- that, as a discipline, political science is an insulated, irrelevant and (yawn!) boring discipline. Nye, of course, is right -- dead right. But I guarantee you that a solid majority of political scientists around the country are muttering under their far less accomplished breaths that Nye is among those "old" political scientists who simply doesn't understand all the high-powered and sophisticated work that his "modern" contemporaries are doing. As I've mentioned before, for "serious" academics, "seriousness" is defined as accepting academic convention, which means, rather than question the underlying assumptions that (falsely) support the (utterly predictable and ultimately not) theoretical foundation of the empirical methodologies (impenetrable mathematics, statistics and other such "tools" rooted in, again, assumptions that are not, in any sense, rooted in empiricism), you wink and nod and accept all this for what I believe are three reasons:

1. You want to advance your career, and there are few better jobs in the entire world than that of a tenured academic. The analogy here is that of a low-level mobster, or, thinking about it a little bit more, a mafia wife who genuinely believes that "the life they have chosen" is no different than working as a tobacco company marketing executive or Congressman or telecommunications lobbyist. You go along to get along. And to do that, you develop a different moral calculus and, most importantly, an extremely aggressive form of cognitive dissonance. Or something that less sophisticated people (and psychiatrists) call denial.

2. You haven't really gotten out much, grown up and maintained friendships with people outside the cloistered walls of academia, worked in the field that you claim to know so much about or actually know anyone who does what you claim your "data" says they do. Think political scientists whose "research" is about campaign politics, lawyers, public interest organizations and legal institutions, Third World development or state legislative "behavior," but have never so much as handed out a yard sign, interviewed a public interest lawyer or a federal judge about what they do or think the Third World is any neighborhood without an organic food co-op or a fair trade coffee shop with three year-old copies of In These Times on the corner tables.

3. You don't have the imagination or creativity to see the world -- or the parts that interest you, anyway -- as it really is. By siphoning off the complicated, messy parts of politics, culture, human relationships, economic complexities, the interaction of forces that seemingly have no relationship, you can model, explain and predict to your heart's content. In the end, no matter how dazzling the statistics and math are, none of these articles are explaining or predicting anything, because what they claim to explain and predict has already happened. You can describe, interpret, analyze . . . do a number of things thoughtfully and systematically touch upon the political world. But explain and predict? If that were the case, a lot more political scientists who study judicial behavior would be on the payrolls of the nation's most prominent appellate law firms that currently have practices in the state and federal courts than the current number, which is somewhere around or at zero.

But you need to make your serious, important work absolutely unintelligible to people who might actually have some interest in the topic, but don't have a Ph.D and teach on a college campus. You know how nutritionists believe that you shouldn't buy any food with more than five ingredients in it? You should be wary of someone who cannot either (1) tell you what they're working on (2) why it matters or (3) what they've accomplished with their sophisticated "methodologies" in less than five sentences.

These three groups, in my naturally unscientific estimate -- no rounding term, no degrees of confidence or freedom -- comprise about 90% of academic political scientists. The remaining 10% consist of either exceptionally accomplished political scientists like Joseph Nye, whose work actually is valued and respected by policy-makers and academics.

Or people like me, who aren't serious, much less influential.

Oh, well. What are you gonna do?


Jeremy said...

What about Nate Silver at He crunched the polls that came in and predicted every state correctly except Indiana, which he missed by a hair. He's doing good work predicting future events.

Gregg Ivers said...

Nate Silver is not an academic political scientist (he is not a university-affiliated professor). I thought 538 was (is) great -- I wrote about it during the campaign and directed people towards the site. You made my point for me!