Daniel W. Drezner

Why political scientists are screwed, redux [UPDATED]

Why political scientists are screwed, redux [UPDATED]

Six weeks ago I discussed — as a dispassionate political scientist — why the field of political science was good and truly f**ked when it came to Congress. Yesterday, Dave Weigel blogged about this at more length. The depressing parts version:

Attacking government-funded social science is popular, especially on the right. Last week, Texas Republican Rep. Ted Poe and Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul introduced a bill that would change the American Community Survey, sent annually to a random selection of 3.2 million people, from mandatory to optional. If Americans didn’t want to fill it out, even if that would render it mostly useless as data, the private sector would do just fine.

When I asked Poe to explain how that information would be collected without the Community Survey, he said, “There are other ways to get the same information about the dynamics of business, and where to locate a business. You can do it through polling. You don’t have to force people to participate.”

Social scientists don’t agree, but it’s difficult for them to justify their own funding in a time of severe government cutbacks….

The new attempts to claw away at research have gone on for months, and the academics haven’t put up a compelling defense beyond one event on the Hill and the yeoman blogging of some professors like John Sides. “Going forward,” Sides wrote after Coburn’s win, “a coordinated lobbying effort is needed not only to roll back the restrictions on political science but to defend the NSF’s core mission as a promoter of scientific research in the public good, broadly defined.”

So far that lobbying effort doesn’t exist. Instead, Republicans are able to challenge NSF funding in order to pursue long-term political goals without too many people noticing.

To understand further why this will be so difficult, let’s go to the video clip of the week, which right now is probably the revenge fantasy of every political scientist out there. Via the Military Times, this is General Ray Odierno chewing out House Representative Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), with the bemused permission of Armed Services Committee Chair Buck McKeon. The chewing out part starts at around 3:30.  

Now, watching that clip, it’s hard not to conclude that Hunter was taken to the woodshed by Odierno for being an ignorant jackass. That’s certainly the conclusion that Gawker, Mediaite, and others came to in promoting the clip. 

Now, here’s a fun exercise  — what if Odierno had been an irate political scientist rather than a four-star general? I guarantee you that the exchange would have been framed and interpreted differently. Because of the high public respect for the military, when Odierno goes off, people will listen. Not so with academics. Instead of "General smacks down House representative," the headline would have looked more like "Snotty academic preens at elected official." 

In fact, we don’t need to imagine. Remember this little exchange between House Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) and historian Douglas Brinkley from about 18 months ago? 

Now, Don Young has all the charisma and grace of a three-month old carton of milk. He’s far more insulting and contemptuous of Brinkley in that clip than Duncan Hunter was in trying to walk away from Odierno. The overall effect, however, is different. First, Young’s chairman, Doc Hastings, protected Young in a way that McKeon did not protect Hunter, thereby preventing Brinkley from going on a rant. 

Second, however, as bad as Young looks in that video, Brinkley doesn’t look that much better. He comes off too much like a preening, stuffed-shirt academic. 

Unfortunately, that’s an occupational hazard. We’re trained in graduate school to eviscerate counterarguments and the people who make them. It might be the one sector in the world where Aaron Sorkin-rules of debate hold up. But it only works because everyone in the seminar room or lecture hall understands the context of the debate. That rarely happens when the public peeks in at a YouTube clip of a congressional hearing. 

Are there some political scientists who could pull off an Odierno-level smackdown? I suppose it’s possible, but I confess to being dubious about its likelihood (suggestions welcomed in the comments section please).   

Now, as a political scientist, I should warn you that viral-video-friendly exchanges like the ones linked above rarely shift public opinion. They are one way to frame the stupidity of a particular Congressional jihad, however. And as much as I might fantasize about a Beth Simmons or a Scott Sagan sticking it to Tom Coburn, I’m not confident that it will ever happen. 

Am I missing anything? Please tell me I’m missing something…

UPDATE:  I received a call in the last hour from Representative Duncan Hunter’s deputy chief of staff, who lodged a polite protest over the descriptive term "ignorant jackass," referencing this Politico story.  Which is fair enough, but this exchange suggests two things: 

1)  The staffer didn’t read the blog post carefully, because I was using that term to describe how the video made Hunter look — not whether that depiction was accurate or not. 

2)  Maybe political scientists blogging/writing for the press actually do have an effect on member of Congress.