Defending the Science of Politics: Wait, We Were Trying to Forecast?

I don’t want to dwell for too long on Jacqueline Stevens’s commentary on political science from this weekend’s New York Times Sunday Review. Professor Stevens deserves credit, not scorn, for engaging the public intellectual sphere in a serious manner, an explicit goal of the political scientists of this blog. While I am certain that colleagues of mine will discuss some of the substantive portions of her piece in greater detail, I merely wish to highlight two points of hers that I struggled to comprehend from an ontological perspective.

First, I cannot fully understand Professor Stevens’s own motivations for her support of the proposed bill to end political science funding. She cites the following as the fundamental reason behind her support:

The bill incited a national conversation about a subject that has troubled me for decades: the government — disproportionately — supports research that is amenable to statistical analyses and models even though everyone knows the clean equations mask messy realities that contrived data sets and assumptions don’t, and can’t, capture.

In other words, Professor Stevens wants to cut off all political science funding because she believes that the type of research that receives the majority of NSF-funding–quantitative research–is inherently flawed. Even if we accept her belief that quantitative political science research is inferior, is it worth it to cut off all political science funding? Isn’t Professor Stevens’s proposal the equivalent of cutting off our proverbial noses to spite our faces? While I agree with Professor Stevens’s contention that we should be careful about “clean equations” that purport to explain more than they can, I do not think that cutting off NSF research from all of political science is a productive way to begin such a conversation. Ultimately, Professor Stevens says that

Government can — and should — assist political scientists, especially those who use history and theory to explain shifting political contexts, challenge our intuitions and help us see beyond daily newspaper headlines.

This proposal suggests a serious discussion about funding allocation, not funding elimination. As I stated above, I think that this is a conversation worth having. However, this  conversation does not mean support for the proposed bill that is making its way through Congress. This bill would eliminate political science funding, including such funding that might have gone to political scientists “who use history and theory.”

Second, I am a bit puzzled as to why Professor Stevens seems to believe that political science is fundamentally about prediction. True, positivism lies at the heart of the social scientific enterprise. However, political science, like all science, is about explanation, understanding, and knowledge. After all, the Latin scientia, from which science derives its meaning, translates into “knowledge,” not prediction. Political scientists are human beings and, as such, struggle to predict the future. For this reason, political scientists, more than most journalists and public intellectuals, are usually careful about the extent to which they can claim to predict future events.

Consider James Fearon and David Laitin’s 2003 article that is the principal subject of Professor Stevens’s critique. As Professor Stevens suggests, their contribution is twofold: to dispel the notion that ethnic grievances cause civil wars and to promote the idea that the same conditions that favor insurgency (i.e. as in weak states), favor civil wars. However, let’s look at the exact language that Fearon and Laitin use. Against the grievances argument, they write that

we find little evidence that one can predict where a civil war will break out by looking for where ethnic or other broad political grievances are strongest.

Isn’t this the exact type of language and research for which Professor Stevens advocates? They present a study about the failures of political science prediction. If anything, they caution against arguments, from political scientists or others, that use grievances to predict civil wars. Moreover, they state that

measures of cultural diversity and grievances fail to postdict civil war onset, while measures of conditions that favor insurgency do fairly well.

Again, notice both the language and caution that Fearon and Laitin utilize. “Fail to postdict” suggests that history has not provided any evidence in favor of the argument that grievances predict civil wars. The use of the word “postdict” suggests Fearon and Laitin’s own hesitation about the performance of their own variables.

The Fearon and Laitin article is just one of many examples of political science research executed with due diligence and circumspection. There are countless others. Of course, there are also countless works of political science that are not nearly as well done and fail to resist the urge to predict beyond the limits of social science. We need to have a frank conversation about the place of such research in the world of political science. However, to support the elimination of all political science research, including that which both I and Professor Stevens would consider of top quality, for the sole reason of having this conversation seems ill-advised.

For more of his musings on political science, follow William on Twitter.

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