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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