Daniel W. Drezner

The continued hostility to political science

The continued hostility to political science

My last post on the role of political science and political scientists in dealing with Egypt generated some interesting responses via the blogosphere, e-mail, comments, etc.  Let’s deal with all of ‘em. 

First, Apoorva Shah responds with the following:

I’m not blaming what happened in Egypt on political scientists, as the title of his blog post implies. Rather, I’m saying that the methods with which the political scientists in our academy study the world are so rigid that policy makers imbued in such scholasticism did not appropriately react and make immediate policy decisions when our foreign policy was on the line. Simply put, our administration equivocated. I think they were too confused by all the “variables” involved in Egypt: the protesters themselves, Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hosni Mubarak, etc. In other words, their mental multiple variable regressions failed to produce statistical significance, so they sent mixed messages instead….

None of this is to say that we should shut ourselves off from structured thinking about politics and international affairs. In fact, it should be quite the opposite. Our political scientists shouldn’t be hiding themselves behind theoretical models. They should be studying more history, getting on the ground, doing qualitative research. But look at the syllabus of any graduate level “qualitative methods” class, and I guarantee you it will be just as mind-numbing as their quantitative methods courses.

Perhaps a few months or years from now political science will help us clarify what happened in Egypt over this past week, and it may even look back and dictate what should have been the correct U.S. response. But none of the academic work to date helped policy makers make the right decision when it mattered this week. And that’s the crux of this story. In crunch time, the political scientists failed to get the policy right.

On Shah’s first point — that "policy makers imbued in such scholasticism did not appropriately react" — well, to get all political science-y, I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about.  What evidence, if any, is there to suggest that Obama administration policymakers were paralyzed by rigid adherence to political science paradigms?  Looking at the policy principals, what’s striking about the Obama administration is that most of the key actors don’t have much academic background per se.  Tom Donilon is a politico, for example.  Hillary Clinton is a politico’s politico.  I could go on, but you get the idea.   

One thing all social scientists want to see is evidence to support an assertion.  So, I’m calling out Shah to back up his point:  what evidence is there that the U.S. government was slow to react because of adherence to "scholasticism"?  Simply responding "but the response was slow!" doesn’t cut it, either.  There are lots of possible causal explanations for a slow policy response — bureaucratic inertia, conflicting policy priorities, interest group capture, poor intelligence gathering, etc.  Why is "scholasticism" to blame? 

Shah’s last two paragraphs are also confusing.  Encouraging "structured thinking" requires an acceptance that theories are a key guide to understanding a ridiculously complex world.  Area knowledge and deep historical backgrounds are useful too — oh, and so are statistical techniques.  The judgment to assess when to apply which area of knowledge, however, is extremely hard to teach and extremely hard to learn.  And, just to repeat a point from that last post, some political scientists got Egypt right.  Whether policymakers were listening is another question entirely. 

A deeper question is why Shah’s view of political science is so widespread.  A fellow political scientist e-mailed the following on this point: 

I think there is a deeper problem here.  We political scientists/political economists may be aware of all of this, but I sense that  it is too easy for outside observers to come to the conclusions Shah’s post illustrates.  Quick perusal of journal articles and conference papers, some textbooks, and a great deal of current graduate (and some undergraduate) education in the field can easily lead a rational and intelligent observer to conclude that political scientists are indeed only concerned with plugging cases into models, caring mostly about the model and little about actual political dynamics.  (Have you seen conference presentations in which grad students lay out their dissertation models?  Often sounds more like Shah’s description than yours.)  Practitioners may share your understanding of the role of theory, but they often don’t do a good job of making this clear to non-specialist readers…and I think to themselves.  I’m not sure what to do about this, but I suspect that Shah’s kind of reading of the discipline is just too easy to come to and can seem quite reasonable.

Hmmm…. no, I’m not completely buying this explanation, for a few reasons.  First, as I noted in the past, there are good and valid reasons why academic political science seems so inpenetrable to outsiders.  Second, if this was really the reason that the foreign policy community disdains political scuence, then the economic policy community would have started ignoring economics beginning around, oh, 1932.  Economic journals and presentations are far more impenetrable, and yet I rarely hear mainstream policymakers or think-tankers bash economists for this fact [Umm….. should they bash economists for this?–ed.  I’ll leave that to the economists to construct clashing formal models debate]. 

Why is this?  This gets to the third reason — the fundamental difference between economic policy and foreign policy is that the former community accepts the idea that economic methodologies and theory-building enterprises have value, and are worth using as a guide to policymaking.  This doesn’t mean economists agree on everything, but it does mean they are all speaking a common language and accept the notion of external validity checks on their arguments. 

That consensus simply does not exist within the foreign policy community, and Shah simply provides another data point to back up that assertion.  Many members of the foreign policy community explicitly reject the notion that social science methodologies and techniques can explain much in world politics.  They therefore are predisposed to reject the kind of scholarship that political scientists of all stripes generate.   This might be for well-founded reasons, it might be simple innumeracy hostility to the academy, or it might be a combination of the two.  I’d love to have a debate about whether that’s a good or bad thing, but my point is that’s the reality we face. 

Am I missing anything?