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Pop culture punditry and the “science” of politics: A comment on Stevens’ OpEd

Jacqueline Stevens most certainly stirred up things a bit in the political science community with her OpEd in the New York Times today (Sunday, 6/24/12), and it was refreshing to see someone make explicit what many in the field already knew — as a discipline we are poor at predictions and even worse at prescriptions. In those two respects we are no better or worse (well, perhaps a bit better) than the pundits who engage in political predictions and prescriptions on a 24/7 basis.


Personally, I find the calls from journalists seeking my “expert opinion” on some matter related to my teaching or research extremely annoying, primarily because they are often doing little more than fishing for a quote that will support the pre-formed thesis of their article. In response I typically launch into an explanation of how complicated the political world is, and how they ought to step back and reexamine the situation. You can imagine such insight is unwelcome, particularly if they are under deadline….


But in fact, that is what we political scientists do best — we step back and try to understand the political world and develop the theories and models and methodologies that can help all of us “make sense” of that complicated universe. Stevens’ simplistic view of the discipline is just that — simplistic; stating that “accurate political predictions” are “the field’s benchmark for what counts as science” perhaps says more about her own circumstances than about the field. It amounts to a myopic caricature that reflects reaction rather than thought. Had she given some thought to her critique, she might have noted how diverse and rich the field is — and how it really can AND HAS contributed to the sciences of the social.


Case in point is the little acknowledged fact that there have been two Nobel prizes in economics awarded to political scientists who were in fact often funded by the NSF and other sources who do not take the concept of “science” lightly. What these two individuals (Herbert Simon in 1976 and Elinor Ostrom in 2009) had in common was a commitment to challenging conventional wisdom used by the “predictors” in economics and related fields — and in the process they developed alternative approaches to human behavior that have altered our thinking about social life in general.


For Simon, his views on the limits of human rationality not only reoriented economics, but led to significant changes in how we think about organized life in general. (And while he was at it, along the way he and Allan Newell founded the field of artificial intelligence). As for Elinor Ostrom, by insisting that theoretical assumptions underpinning policy options be put to the test empirically, she was able to break through the government-or-market debate and foster a greater appreciation of the human capacity to develop alternative governing arrangements.


The major point is that neither Simon nor Ostrom were predictors or prescribers; rather, they were political scientists who took the “science” part of their job seriously. The support they received from NSF and related funders was justifiable as investments in the science of human behavior. It is too bad that so many — Professor Stevens obviously among them — fail to appreciate the difference between pop culture punditry and what really takes place in those parts of our discipline where science trumps “expertise”.

June 24th, 2012 Posted by | American Political Science Association, Herbert Simon, New York Times, political science | no comments

On the "desk": Sunstein on group polarization (1)

In addition to my “nightstand” reading, I am constantly looking for material for my classes and relevant to my research. There are certain “go to” writers who often provide interesting books or articles that I immediately give a “look see.” Two of the most notable on my list are Richard Posner and Cass Sunstein. Both are highly regarded “public intellectuals” as well as legal scholars with substantial identities in other fields: Posner (who happens to be a judge on the US 7th Circuit Court of Appeals) is well known among economists, and Sunstein (who currently works at the White House for his former colleague) has an established reputation among political scientists and philosophers.

I have been reading Posner’s A Failure of Capitalism (more on that at some point in the future), but yesterday I received copies of Sunstein’s latest — among them Going to Extremes in which he offers his take on the propensity of group dynamics to generate extreme forms of behavior. What Sunstein accomplishes here is to put in readable form an empircially-based thesis about the a phenomenon (group polarization) that has some real world implications.

In the first chapter he reviews examples drawn from studies that he had participated in, and immediately I was taken by his ability to explain the logic and methodology of the research without having that overwhelm the topic — which already makes this a candidate for adoption in a number of class where such details are often a “turn-off” and distraction for students. But even as important, the range of applications — to US political, to judicial decisionmaking, to market behavior, to genocide (he happens to be married to Samantha Power of “Hillary is a monster” fame, an authority on genocide to whom the book is dedicated), to internet behavior, etc. — is impressive.

More thoughts to follow as I explore another couple of Sunstein’s latest titles….

August 26th, 2009 Posted by | books, political science | no comments

Accountability and democracy (I)

And now for something completely different — some thoughts on accountability….

Getting back on track seems to be a constant theme of the few blogs I have posted over the past several months, so it is time once again to try doing so.

This time my focus is on the relationship between democracy and accountability — a topic that is actually newsworthy given the elections coming up this Tuesday. But instead of the mid-year vote, my thoughts are in reaction to an award-winning book by political philosopher Henry S. Richardson (son of Elliot, by the way) titled Democratic Autonomy: Public Reasoning About the Ends of Policy.

I am only at the beginning of this work, but the problem Richardson addresses is the possibility of democratic governance in the context of the modern administrative state (my phrasing, not his). He sets the stage by noting that most discussions of modern democracy focus on two issues: how to constitute a democratic system that builds upon and protects individual rights (liberal democracy) and how to establish a democracy that does not foster tyranny of the majority (republican democracy). What neither of these traditions directly confront is the necessity of administrative discretion and the accompanying potential for bureaucratic domination.

While this may be a refreshing reconfiguration of the current debate among democratic theorists, it is hardly a new topic for students of American public administration or administrative law. For the mainstream scholars in American PA, Dwight Waldo‘s articulation of the problem in The Administrative State and later publications has been a preoccupation since at least the mid-1940s, with notables such as David H. Rosenbloom (e.g., here) and John A. Rohr (e.g., here) leading the way to finding some rationale for “retrofitting” constitutional democracy into the administrative state. For those who study US administrative law, the constitutional problem of how to deal with delegation of authority issues reached its peak in the 1930s and has been circumvented rather than resolved for all these decades (e.g., here).

My own take on the issue places accountable governance at the center of the “democracy in the administrative state” question — with equal stress on both accountability and governance. Despite the conventional wisdom that assumes and inherent tension between democracy and bureaucracy (e.g., here), the two are linked by a fundamental and necessary reliance on mechanisms of accountability. But while accountability is a necessary condition of each, it is far from a sufficient condition for either. That said, almost all contemporary reforms (and related discussions) that attempt to address or resolve the problematic relationship between democracy and bureaucracy either over invest in the enhancement of accountability or fail to appreciate the complex role it plays in both.

More to come as I plod ahead into Richardson’s work….

November 4th, 2006 Posted by | accountable governance, political science | no comments