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Is Political Science a Science?

Well, it depends on what you mean by science.

There was a panel at the meeting of the American Political Science Association on the (alleged?) outrage of the “Coburn Amendment.”  Sen. Coburn successfully proposed that funding for political science from the National Science Foundation be limited to projects that demonstrably contribute to economic prosperity or natural security.

The panel was composed of a dozen members of the political science establishment—all of who were about strategizing on how to get the more expansive funding back—and ME. I was brought in as the token representative of the (allegedly?) small minority of political scientists who thought that Coburn had a point.

Well, Coburn thinks political science in America is too partisan. I disputed that. But I did tend to agree that it’s at least very questionable that political science does or should fit under the NSF’s understanding of science. My heretical comments were duly reported in places like The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed.

But here’s what they didn’t report. I actually proposed that political science be funded in a different way. My complete remarks with a little editorializing can be found at Law and LibertyMy most innovative and disruptive comments are below:

I would widen our understanding of what political science is to include Aristotle, The Federalist, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Machiavelli, and the reflections of our most astute political leaders. I wouldn’t deny that there’s something irreducibly partisan about political inquiry, as well as something, perhaps, irreducibly technological and methodical. But political inquiry is also about a devotion to the truth about who we are as other than the other animals and God.

There’s no way what political science is can be captured by the standards of either the National Science Foundation or the National Endowment for the Humanities. So I would propose a third government foundation for distinctively political inquiry. There, perhaps, we political scientists would feel less vulnerable to being misunderstood and just more at home.

Here are two purposes among many of this new foundation: It would criticize projects from the NSF when they lapse into scientism—when they claim to explain everything with a reductionist theory that has no place for political science. And, of course, it would criticize the NEH for its relativism.


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