Sunday, October 11, 2009

In defense of Political Science

A minor ruckus has erupted in the US when a Republican Senator from Oklahoma, Tom Coburn proposed an amendment to an appropriations bill that would prohibit the National Science Foundation of the United States (one of the most important sources of research funding in the US) from funding Political Science research. Indeed said gentleman form Oklahoma pretty much called for the dissolution of the NSF division responsible for the Political and Social sciences. The chances of it passing are zero. The American Political Science Association mobilized to gather political support against the bill. Professors, like Daniel Drezner and others, as well as pundits rushed to the defense of political science. The most usual response, cautioned to me also by a friend, was not to care. The man is a nut job they say, the bill will not pass they say, this is just politics they say. Even the defense of political science put forward by bloggers seemed a tad watered down. The amount spent on PoliSci research is small. Yes, political science is not “science” but some good results have come from the research. All this mildness is nice and good, all this brushing away is most civilized. But it is not a defense of one’s life work.

The purpose of this essay is to put forward a polemical defense of political science. Since I have a high stake in the fight, it would be hypocritical not to fight at full force. If Coburn’s case was that the US government is without money and the NSF will have to be more selective between scientific research, or a fiscally libertarian call to end all government support for the sciences, the mild defenses might had been adequate. Indeed I am sure some people who are political scientists would find good reasons to support such moves.

But Corburn’s case was not predicated on fiscal conservatism, or libertarianism. His whole case rested on questioning whether Political Science is a science. No, the NSF shouldn’t restrict funding to a science because of the economic crisis. No, that was not the case. The case was that the NSF was wasting, has been wasting ever since its inception, money on something that doesn’t exist, political “science”. This is a deadly challenge to the life work of thousands of scholars in the US. It is not isolated. It is not the work of a lone madman. It is a flare of a seething, ever present current of thought, not only in society, but in academia as well, indeed sometimes inside departments of political science that refuses the possibility that human interaction can be studied scientifically. And the retort was: it’s only 91million dollars.

No it is not about 91million dollars, or even a penny. No it is not about an old man from Oklahoma. It is about the purpose for which one has decided to offer or has offered 5 to 8 years of his/her life. It is about knowing why one does something, and being able to defend it. No challenge is too small to make us reiterate inside us the reasons that led us to sacrifice some of the best years of our lives learning to be political scientists. Not historians, not philosophers, not pundits, and not politicians, but Political Scientists. And I argue that at the core of being a political scientist is a fundamental belief that the political interactions of human beings can be scientificly analyzed, and that reliable predictions can be made. When I was younger, I thought that something like this is impossible. The wonder of an education is too lay to rest such thoughts, and to fortify the mind for the long arduous task of mastering the scientific method.

Political Science is a science as long as you fundamentally believe that human beings can know themselves. As long as you believe in γνώθις αυτών (know thyself), then human beings should be able not to only know themselves but also others. That they should be able to study their interactions, produce hypotheses about them, test them, and come to reliable predictions. That is the base of any science, the belief that the object of its study can be studied. Many say that is impossible, humans are to complex. Well sorry to say this but there is no simple thing in the whole wide universe. The universe is complex, contingent, and interactive. If science simply means the study of simplicity, then simply put not much interesting there. Science is about making sense of a complex world. Science is about unraveling the contingencies, interactions and yes Bayesian updating that are reality. It is philosophy’s and religion’s sacred duty to make sense of this equations. But it is the duty of science to provide them.

Human beings are creature of this world, they are not leprechauns, fairies or devils or angels. And human beings have the capacity to know themselves, to know others, and to express that. If humanity is a mystery it is because we still are very early at the know-ourselves path. But we are on that path. To be a scientist you need to believe this. Otherwise you have no answer to the post-positivist challenge. And we know a lot of things about human political interactions that are very reliable. Kenneth Arrow proved that proportional representation leads to two party systems. Barring one or two cases, this is the empirical truth of the world. War has become rarer in the international system. This is the empirical truth of the world. Human beings learn from actions and update their beliefs and change actions. This is an empirical truth that even most post-positivists accept (otherwise why spend time trying to change those beliefs). Stable Liberal Democracies do not fight one another. Tangible issues are easier to bargain over then intangible issues. If two states fight each other regularly at low levels of conflict, they will sooner or later fight a war. Sooner or later, but they will fight a war.

Political Science is science because human beings can study themselves (γνώθις αυτών-know thyslef), and study their interactions. For political science not be a science, humans must be incapable of studying themselves, incapable of introspective thought and incapable of studying there interactions. This logical antithesis is unavoidable. And if one holds the second view, why is such a person choosing to stay in a political science department. Belief – action instability is not a very promising indicator for any human.

A retort to the above polemical statement would be: so where is your Corpus Christi? Where are the laws of human behavior? Where are the propositions and theorems like those of Mathematics or Biology or Physics? Where are you laws of gravity? Well first of all we are studying one of the more complex parts of the universe. So expectations should be tempered with some humility. Secondly is this a failure of science? Or is it of methodology? A field can fail to procure scientific laws for two reasons. One reason is that the object of study cannot be studied. Astrology or the study of Fate suffer from that malaise. The other is that while the object can be studied, the tools at our disposal, the methods, are inadequate to give us higher levels of predictability. Kinda like astronomy and physics in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Political Science faces this problem. Our object of study can be studied. The tools are to an extent inadequate. Here is a secret. We are humans. Humans create tools, find new and better methods. That in a way is part of the essence of being human. In the past political scientists had the hubris of thinking that inadequate tools would provide perfect information. Post-positivism rightfully punished them. But that does not mean that new tools, new methods will not come and upgrade our ability to study better our object of study. Indeed we are at the cusp of an era where the life and social sciences are slowly connecting and piecing together parts of that complex puzzle called human interaction. And even with our problematic tools, if we keep some humility, we have made important discoveries, some of which I referred to above. And the fact that post-positivists still enter political science departments, and struggle to learn the scientific methods in itself says something. If the problem of political science is one of methods, then in the long view of human knowledge, it is a small problem indeed. And what better way to spend NSF research funds the on finding and creating new methods of study!

But another retort might be that science is not just an object of study that can be studied. It is not methods. It is the experiment. Political science cannot possibly conduct the controlled experiments of biology, or physics. If you cannot conduct an experiment, then you cannot be a science. Poor astronomy, geology, and most of biology. Or not. Let us leave to the side the question if a controlled experiment is even possible in the complex world we live in. Let us leave to the side whether a controlled experiment is even good when studying complexity. Why can’t political science conduct experiments? Can’t we just grab a bunch of people, put them in an island and see what happens? We can put another bunch of people on a different climatologically island, and see if the same thing happens? I know I am simplifying the process. But the point is if we wanted we could do it. But we don’t because it is not moral. And it is good, and proper that it is not moral. Science without dignity and morality is no different then life without meaning, action without purpose, a body without a soul. It is giving up to “necessity”, when such a thing is antithetical to human activity, indeed I would say human nature. But it is also something that is imposed on Political Science from without its epistemological border. To strip Political Science of it’s stature as a science for that reason, is to strip astronomy of it’s stature as a science because it cannot experiment on Andromeda. A thing cannot be stripped of its meaning because of reasons emanating outside its meaning. And anyhow in the end this is just a different form of the methods question. Mayhaps we should fund alternatives to experimentation for the Social Sciences.

Another retort would be that the NSF should only fund applied sciences. Applied engineering, mathematics, medical biology. The research must have an objective application for the betterment of human life. A worthy goal ,I do not disagree. But I would ask, aren’t constitutions applied science? Aren’t electoral systems applied science? Aren’t educational systems applied sciences? Aren’t counter terrorism measures applied science? Are not these thinks important for the well-being of humans? Are not these things capable of human life better? Reading some of the comments on the blogs, some of them from people claiming to be hard scientists, some of them claiming to be political scientists, a lot of people do not think so. These are art. You know them or you don’t. Which begs the question why we ever left absolute monarchy? Obviously vulgar interpretations of Platonism are hot among certain sections of the hard sciences and political sciences.

A different retort to all of the above would be that yours is a modernist view. That progress is illusory. That there is no meaning to this world. That all knowledge is but an illusion created by another illusion, to comfort it’s illusion of illusionary safety. Others would say that all meaning to the world is divine meaning. God or gods are the only who know truth and that we cannot know God even if we know ourselves. Thus we can never know the truth; we can never learn anything about the world. All of these objections are valid to a point. But they are not scientific objections. These are normative statements, and science in the end is a normative statement itself. And one normative statement cannot objectively decide the validity of another normative statement. The study of normative statements if Philosophy and Theology. And both are important parts of the human strive for knowledge (for in the end accepting that nothing can be learned is a truth itself). And they should be funded. And scientists ignore them at there peril. Especially now that the life and social sciences are at the cusp of a new era, with huge normative implications. But the NSF doesn’t fund the debate of normative positions. That is the NEH (National Endowment of the Humanities). The NSF funds a specific normative statement-> science. So if Coburn, or all the Coburn’s say Political Science is not science, either because there is no reality, or reality is divine, they can say it but that should be irrelevant to the NSF.

And here I am going to become weird dear reader (yes probably weirder then before). I like to think I am pious person. I believe in the divine. And one of the reasons I believe that Political Science is science is because of the divine. Religions that separate the human and divine are far and few between. Gnosticism, that tried hard to do so, failed. Almost all of the religions in the world (to my incomplete and non-specialist knowledge) mix the human and the divine. So if you believe that humans can know themselves, and that humans and the divine are mixed, then humans can and will know the divine. I believe rationality is divine. And thus by the rational study of ourselves and the cosmos, we are essentially using the divine to study the divine. But see, there is a problem. You need to believe to a divinity that creates, that is knowledge, a divinity whose actions are complex and interrelated. If you believe in a thug for God, obviously knowledge is not a priority or an option. How can one know the world, when one fears it’s creator. All in the end is science, as long as we believe that human and divine are mixed, and that the divine and human can know thyself.

To summarize if you believe that humans can know thyself

If you believe that they and their interactions can be studied either for reasons of being parts of the natural world or because of divine intervention…

If you believe that the problems of political science are problems of methodology and not of subject matter…

If science is not exhausted in experimentation…

If politics is an application of science….

And that we leave in a complex world that requires careful study…

And that normative questions are the rightful purview of philosophy and theology…

Then political science is science. And you cannot defend it by referring to the cost of pennies.

I will end my polemic here. And I thank you reader if you decided to give me your time. We do live in a world were everyone has an opinion and demands your time. But I hope the fact that this opinion is important for giving meaning to my actions, and that those against whom this opinion is formed question that very meaning, gives you the reader a validation for sitting here and reading these ill-formed and eye-hurting words. Also if you could, please fill up this survey which is part of an NSF grant for the research of why people read Facebook Notes. Kidding.

With Repsect

Konstnatinos Travlos

PS: all of the above views are views held only by the writer and re in no way a representation of the view of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, and the Department of Political Science.

1 comment:

Nikos Vouchiounis said...

1o σχόλιο ! Γιούπι !! Ωραίο κείμενο φίλε Κώστα . Εδώ στην Ελλάδα δεν έχουμε τέτοιο πρόβλημα γιατί όλα υπο-χρηματοδοτούνται , οπότε επικρατεί ισότητα . Έχεις ακούσει για πανεπιστημιακά μαθήματα σε πολυκατοικία ? Άσε ... Τουλάχιστον εσύ γλίτωσες . Άντε , πολλούς χαιρετισμούς και ειλικρινά με εξέπληξε ευχάριστα που επανήλθες .