Political Scientists: the New Pariahs?

With Stephen Colbert on vacation this week, Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona seems to have jumped into the role of the laughable conservative who makes ridiculous arguments with a straight face — or, in this case, who tries to make worthwhile political science research sound ridiculous. 

I’m not aware of any polls tracking Americans’ attitudes toward scholars of political science, but if last week’s vote in the U.S. House of Representatives is any sign, we’d better watch our backs.

On Thursday, Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona proposed an amendment to a 2013 spending bill that would axe all National Science Foundation funding for political science research. The House approved the bill by a vote of 218-208.  

Why defund the political science program? Flake argued that the $11 million spent on political science in 2012 went predominantly to over-rich universities and undeserving research projects. Here is an excerpt from his speech on the floor of the House:


So what kind of research is NSF charging to our credit card? $700,000 to develop a new model for international climate change analysis; $600,000 to try to figure out if policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do.

Let me say that again: $600,000 here spent trying to figure out if policymakers actually do what citizens want them to do. I think we can answer that question in about 5 minutes when we vote on this amendment because I can tell you, people out there want us to quit funding projects like this.

$301,000 to study gender and political ambition among high school and college students; $200,000 to study to determine why political candidates make vague statements. $200,000 to study why political candidates make vague statements. That’s what we’re paying for here.

These studies might satisfy the curiosities of a few academics, but I seriously doubt society will benefit from them. How can we justify this outcome?

With Stephen Colbert on vacation this week, Rep. Flake seems to have jumped into the role of the laughable conservative who makes ridiculous arguments with a straight face — or, in this case, who tries to make worthwhile research projects sound ridiculous.

The difference is that Flake is apparently being sincere. He really thinks it is a waste of government money to invest in international climate change research, and he can’t imagine anything crazier than investigating the empirical link or disjuncture between public opinion and legislators’ votes — an idea some would say is at the heart of representative government.

A few hours ago, fellow Big Thinker Robert de Neufville astutely pointed out the politicized character of the attack on political science. But it has been a little embarrassing watching other political scientists respond to Flake’s critique. Blog pieces touting the relevance of the blogger’s NSF-funded research to the world or heralding other scholars’ work as having “clear benefits” all sound unnecessarily defensive. Flake has piqued scholars’ greatest anxiety — that maybe, at the end of the day, all this research we do is just blather — with one fabulously poorly reasoned speech on the floor of the House of Representatives.

I won’t join the apologia for specific political science projects here. We’re already protesting too much. You can peruse recently funded political science proposals and judge for yourself. (Full disclosure: I received a modest NSF grant for my doctoral research in 2000, with my advisor, Don Herzog, as principal investigator. I’m not sure my dissertation made the earth stand still, but the grant did enable me to conduct several months of archive research and in-depth interviews on questions of religion and state in Israel.)

A broader perspective on the state of scholarship outside of the natural sciences appears in a recent New Republic article by Philip Kitcher. In “The Trouble With Scientism” Kitcher identifies five reasons why the humanities and “soft” sciences are often held in suspicion:

First, there is the sense that the humanities and social sciences are doomed to deliver a seemingly directionless sequence of theories and explanations, with no promise of additive progress. Second, there is the contrasting record of extraordinary success in some areas of natural science. Third, there is the explicit articulation of technique and method in the natural sciences, which fosters the conviction that natural scientists are able to acquire and combine evidence in particularly rigorous ways. Fourth, there is the perception that humanists and social scientists are only able to reason cogently when they confine themselves to conclusions of limited generality: insofar as they aim at significant — general — conclusions, their methods and their evidence are unrigorous. Finally, there is the commonplace perception that the humanities and social sciences have been dominated, for long periods of their histories, by spectacularly false theories, grand doctrines that enjoy enormous popularity until fashion changes, as their glaring shortcomings are disclosed.

Congressman Flake’s beef with political science is not explicitly grounded in these observations, but it seems that what Kitcher identifies as an “enthusiasm for natural scientific imperialism” quietly motivates Flake’s view. For Flake, and for the other 217 legislators who supported his amendment, political science just isn’t science, and political scientists are, well, flakes.

Kitcher’s critique of scientism rescues the humanities and social sciences by puncturing the five stereotypes and showing the similarities uniting research in these fields. Methods in the social sciences are just as rigorous as those in the natural sciences; accuracy, precision and generality are impossible to achieve at the same time, even in the best “hard” science studies; and like the social sciences, natural science is not immune to the influence of “spectacularly false theories.”   

The closing point in Kitcher’s article helps to expand the terms of the woeful congressional debate over the merits of social scientific research:

We are finite beings, and so our investigations have to be selective, and the broadest frameworks of today’s science reflect the selections of the past. What we discover depends on the questions taken to be significant, and the selection of those questions, as well as the decision of which factors to set aside in seeking answers to them, presupposes judgments about what is valuable. Those are not only, or mainly, scientific judgments....If they are made, as they should be, in light of the broadest and deepest reflections on human life and its possibilities, then good science depends on contributions from the humanities and the arts. Perhaps there is even a place for philosophy.

Ezra Klein argues that publicly funded research in the social sciences should be more accessible to the public and could be more engaged in the issues of the day. These are legitimate concerns. But the same admonitions apply to research projects in the natural sciences. With too pinched a view of what counts as knowledge worth cultivating, the U.S. Congress is on a path to defunding projects that might contribute to understanding and eventually healing a political system that — if this sad episode is any evidence — is in need of repair.

Photo Credit: Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock.com

Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Where do atoms come from? Billions of years of cosmic fireworks.

The periodic table was a lot simpler at the beginning of the universe.

10 excerpts from Marcus Aurelius' 'Meditations' to unlock your inner Stoic

Great ideas in philosophy often come in dense packages. Then there is where the work of Marcus Aurelius.

(Getty Images)
Personal Growth
  • Meditations is a collection of the philosophical ideas of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
  • Written as a series of notes to himself, the book is much more readable than the dry philosophy most people are used to.
  • The advice he gave to himself 2,000 years ago is increasingly applicable in our hectic, stressed-out lives.
Keep reading Show less

An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.