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Politics & Current Affairs

In Defense of Political Science

As one of my professors used to joke, any field with the word “science” in its name is probably not a science. If you have to explain that what you’re doing is science, it probably isn’t. The so-called social sciences, in other words, may not in a certain sense be sciences at all. Because we are constantly adapting, thinking beings, there may never be fixed laws of human behavior the way there are laws of physics.

That’s why—ostensibly at least—Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) tried to prevent the National Science Foundation (NSF) from “wasting” any more money on political science projects. As he put it in his official statement (pdf), “When Americans think of the National Science Foundation, they think of cross-cutting science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Most would be surprised to hear that the agency spent $91.3 million over the last 10 years on political ‘science’ and $325 million last year alone on social studies and economics.”

What Coburn doesn’t mention is that while NSF money makes up a substantial portion of the field’s funding, it isn’t—as any political scientist will tell you—a whole lot of money. The approximately $10 million in grants the NSF gives to political scientists is a tiny fraction—just a quarter of a percent—of the $5 billion the NSF gives out every year. As Robert Lowry put it, “You could wipe out all of the political-science research and I doubt you could fund a chemistry lab for two years. So the notion that this is holding back progress somewhere else is pretty far-fetched.”

So what, in any case, if political science is not a science in the sense that quantum physics is? If political science isn’t much like physics, it isn’t so different from some of the some of the life sciences. It isn’t that different, for example, from a field like evolutionary ecology, which generally searches for broad patterns in the development of biological communities rather than looking for immutable laws. Nor is there any reason that political science can’t be held to rigorous standards. As Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) pointed out in her argument against the Coburn Amendment, one of this year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Elinor Ostrom, is a political scientist whose work was largely funded by the NSF. Significantly, as I’ve argued, Ostrom’s work is an invaluable corrective to the often unrealistic formalism of academic economics.

Sen. Coburn’s move was a political stunt—which was quickly defeated by a wide margin—but it’s worth mentioning because it plays on the common perception that there isn’t much value in academic political science. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) threatened to do the same thing a few years ago. Their attacks on political science are part of a broader, politically motivated attack on academic experts. As Daniel Drezner points out, Coburn particularly targeted the Human Rights Data Project for concluding “that the United States has been ‘increasingly willing to torture “enemy combatants” and imprison suspected terrorists,’ leading to a worldwide increase in ‘human rights violations’ as others followed-suit.” In other words, Coburn didn’t like what the study found. He was likewise outraged by the fact that the NSF once gave a grant to Paul Krugman, who is not only a Nobel-Prize-winning economist, but is also a liberal commentator. The grant, of course, was not given to Krugman for his commentary—which he started producing years later—but for research that even economists who disagree with his political views regard highly.

The truth is that politicians looking to score cheap political points are not the best judges of the value of research. It was easy, for example, for Sarah Palin to ridicule “fruit fly research” in last year’s presidential campaign. Never mind that such research is a central part of genetics and developmental biology, or that it has provided invaluable insight into human disorders like autism—”fruit fly research” sounds silly. But academic expertise should not be cast aside so lightly, and certainly should not be evaluated by whether it happens to fit our political purposes.


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