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The Irrelevance of Modern Political Science

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The problem with academic political science is its insistence on attempting to emulate the empiricism of economics.

In Sunday's Washington Post, Ezra Klein remarked that the annual gathering of most of America's leading academic political scientists, the American Political Science Association (APSA), came and went last week without making much of an impression on the town:

Most conventions in Washington are able to attract at least a bit of the city's star power. Obscure trade associations get House members. Larger groups get senators, or maybe, if they're lucky, a member of the White House's senior staff . . . There were no political luminaries in attendance at the American Political Science Association's convention last week, however. The fact that the country's brightest political scholars had all gathered at the Marriott Wardman Park barely seemed to register on the rest of the town. Worse, you got the feeling that the political scientists knew it. One of the conference's highlights, according to its Web site, was a panel titled "Is Political Science Relevant?”

Klein goes on to argue that Beltway politicos are negligent in ignoring academic political scientists, and cites four useful but contrarian points supposedly established by research shared on APSA panels last week.

Well, maybe, but then the ratio of useful political insight to sheer nonsense or turgid number-torturing is pretty poor at the APSA. Who can resist panels or paper topics such as these:

Among policy makers in Washington, are you more likely to find academic economic journals in their offices, or academic political science journals?

—"Gender and Political Ambition," featuring a paper entitled, "Gendered Perceptions and Political Candidates: A Central Barrier to Women's Equality in Electoral Politics."

—"Digesting Nature," featuring the papers, "The Meat We Don't Eat: Cannibalism and the Animal Question" and "The Politics and Desire of Eating Animals."

—"Mad Men: Democracy, Economics, and Gender as Seen Through the Prism of the 1960s Television Drama." This sounds like it might be interesting, until you see the paper titles and realize yet more academics are choking the life out of interesting subjects, like the dreary "Lebowski Studies" books that turn Dudism into Dadaism. Take this paper: "'Sometimes a Woman Is Needed for a Man's Job: Femininity, Domesticity, and Modernity in Mad Men."

Of course, this is just the silly stuff. The real problem with academic political science is its insistence on attempting to emulate the empiricism of economics and other social sciences, such that the multiple regression analysis is considered about the only legitimate tool of the trade. Some regressions surely illuminate, or more often confound, a popular perception of the political world, and it is these findings Klein rightly points out. But, on the other hand, I have often taken a random article from the American Political Science Review, which resembles a mathematical journal on most of its pages, and asked students if they can envision this method providing the mathematical formula that will deliver peace in the Middle East. Even the dullest students usually grasp the point without difficulty.

‘Scholars are paying less attention to how their work relates to the policy world, and in many departments a focus on policy can hurt one's career.’

Ask yourself this question: Among policy makers in Washington, are you more likely to find academic economic journals in their offices, or academic political science journals? Why do economists not face the same kind of worry about their "relevance," even though their mathematical approaches to the subject matter can be even more esoteric and forbidding?

Klein's is not the first time the Post has noticed this odd phenomenon. Joseph Nye Jr. wrote about it last year, noting:

Scholars are paying less attention to questions about how their work relates to the policy world, and in many departments a focus on policy can hurt one's career. Advancement comes faster for those who develop mathematical models, new methodologies or theories expressed in jargon that is unintelligible to policymakers. A survey of articles published over the lifetime of the American Political Science Review found that about one in five dealt with policy prescription or criticism in the first half of the century, while only a handful did so after 1967. Editor Lee Sigelman observed in the journal's centennial issue that "if 'speaking truth to power' and contributing directly to public dialogue about the merits and demerits of various courses of action were still numbered among the functions of the profession, one would not have known it from leafing through its leading journal.”

As my late friend Tom Silver once wrote: "Imagine yourself marooned on a desert island with only ten books to read, but in this case ten books not of your choosing. Suppose them all to be books written by behavior political scientists during the past twenty years. Question: Do you think that you would die first of boredom, or of self-inflicted wounds?"

This is why political practitioners in Washington avoid the APSA.

Steven F. Hayward is the F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Hayward recently depicted “Environmentalists as Battered Spouses,” discussed “Trying to Capture that Old Earth Day Magic,” and detailed temperature problems with climate change in “Unsettling the Settled Science.” He offers “A Cool Look at the Cold War,” explains “How to Think about Oil Spills,” and outlines “The Churchill Test.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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