Sunday, March 28, 2010

Theory and Reality: Political Science Today.

Surprisingly, Saturday came to be a day where political science was challenged in two fronts: online and in person, a blog and by a general.  I expect my Saturdays to be far less political science-y.

First, an interesting post sought explain the irrelevance of political scientists.  Ryan Sager argues that political scientists have been ignored, rather than consulted, about the impact of the health care bill.  Political scientists would argue that the midterm elections will turn on the economy more than the latest storms about health care.  The essential argument is that political scientists tend to argue that structural things tend to matter more than personalities or crises du jour.  And that is bad news for journalists who want to tell an interesting story or politicians who want to appear to be relevant:

The point is, we need to believe we’re in control. Political science tells everyone in politics the opposite: You’re not in control. The economy rules your fate — the rest is just pissing in the wind. No wonder they prefer to keep their eyes closed and their fingers in their ears.
 Well, that is what political science says about elections.  Not about everything else.  But yes, we tend to argue that things like institutions, economic trends, power imbalances and the like matter more than personalities or individual tactics.  It is far easier to generalize about the former than the latter, and that is what we are in the business of doing--generalizing.  Developing understandings that can apply to more than just one specific event but that can be applied broadly to a class of events, like war or alliances or elections or development. 

There is, of course, something to this.  After living a year in Rumsfeld's Pentagon and spending the past several years interviewing military officers in a bunch of different countries, I firmly believe that individuals and their personalities do matter.  We need to think about how they might impact events, and my current work tries to do that.  It is hard because it is avoid tautology when we use individuals in our analyses.  How do we know someone is risk averse before they act?  If we know it from their act, then we cannot explain their act using their risk aversion.  Oy.  

Second, I was at a talk by a Canadian general who started off his explanation of dynamics in Kandahar by asserting that theory is not very helpful.  Probably that was his starting point because he had attended a series of panels by aspiring political scientists--graduate students.  Anyhow, the talk focused on some of the micro-dynamics where one event on the ground led to a response and that led to a counter-response with the overall lesson that numbers really matter.  That is, that until this year, we really didn't have the numbers in Kandahar to hold that which we had cleared.  In the process, he was fairly dismissive of theories of conflict.  But the funny thing is that his point that you need a ratio of about 20 counter-insurgents (outsiders, indigenous army and police) to 1000 people is actually a product of .... social science. 

Ok, it may have been militaries as well as social scientists who come up with this.  How?  They studied many COIN campaigns and generalized about the common ingredients of success and shed attention away from the particularities of individual conflicts, and focused attention on a single variable.  If that is not theory--where one suggests that there is a causal relationship between a couple of variables (cause and effect) with some logic relating the two, then I don't know what is.

The general went on to compare the trends of violence in Iraq to those in Afghanistan, suggesting that the surge in Afghanistan is likely to lead to a significant increase in violence this summer and then a rapid and large decrease afterwards.  He is comparing two cases, focusing on a single independent variable (numbers of troops) and predicting an outcome (the dependent variable) by extrapolating from one case to the other.  It was a beautifully (pretty slides, both of the numbers and of the maps of the stuff on the ground) illustrated application of theory to reality.

So, it was kind of funny to read and then experience two popular views of my enterprise.  And there was some truth to both claims, but the reality is that political scientists do have some impact as they not only infest various government agencies and serve as advisers, but also because most of the folks who inhabit key positions have had more than a few classes taught by us.  During my work in Canada, Europe and now Australia and New Zealand, the information flow has not been in one direction.  I have been asked and I have offered my views, and they seem interested.  Moreover, they read the stuff we write (really!).  Well, not all of it, but enough that it shapes some of their beliefs and their behavior.

And that, of course, is the real challenge of political science--we are observing folks who know they are being observed.  So, they may lie or deceive or anticipate.  That makes it harder but more fun as well.

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