Put down that broad brush, Steve!: I remain unpersuaded by Saideman’s valiant defense of political science
- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Looking over Professor Saideman’s list in defense of political "science," I see there are indeed some good and interesting books mentioned. I loved Stephen Peter Rosen’s book Winning the Next War. But is it poli sci, or simply good history?
Overall, I wonder if Saideman’s list is really representative of works of contemporary political science, or rather just a list of books done by people who happen to be in poli-sci departments but managed to write good history or military analysis. Indeed, Professor Saideman includes in his second paragraph Thucydides and Aristotle. One was a historian, the other a philosopher. They studied politics in different forms. Neither could be tarred as a political scientist, except by the broadest of brushes.
So I stand by my view is that the more something looks like contemporary political science (that is, written by the few for the fewer, and favoring numbers and methods over facts and narrative) the less useful it tends to be. Or, as David Rothkopf, the CEO of FP, recently put it to me, "Political science typically applies limited variable analysis to situations with an almost unlimited number of variables."
But why listen to a couple of cranks having a medium IPA in Washington? As several union card-carrying political scientists pointed out, I am a mere journalist. So let’s ask the chair of the poli-sci department at a major university what he thinks.
Michael Desch fits that bill at Notre Dame. Hmm. What does he think? Nutshell: Says that the emphasis on method is marginalizing security studies.
But wait! There’s more. Teaming up with Paul Avey, then at MIT, another well-known institution (albeit one with not as good a football team), he has written an essay that is scheduled to appear later this year in International Studies Quarterly. They went and asked a bunch of top Washington officials about the relevance of academic work to the making and implementation of policymaking. The answer: Academic works are "nearly irrelevant except as a general influence over time." As one respondent put it, "I take the occasional idea or fact from social science research, but find most of it divorced from reality and so lagging events as to be unhelpful."
And it gets worse. "The higher the respondent’s government rank, the less likely an individual was to rank political science positively." These officials — people such as a secretary of state, a secretary of dfense, a CIA director, a chairman and a vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and so on — were particularly averse to formal models and quantitative analysis. One respondent wrote that, "The time spent on computer modeling of international systems or conflict resolution is a complete waste." (To be fair, some also mentioned that they liked the works of Mansfield and Snyder and of Feaver and Gelpi.)
In fact, wrote one respondent, "Most of the useful writing is done by practitioners or journalists."
So I would say it is time for political science to put away the champagne and schedule some time for sober reflection about what it is studying, and even more what it is teaching. Or continue on the road to phrenology.
And an IPA to Professor Desch, please.