Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Continuing the Argument with Ricks

Tom Ricks has responded to my response to his original post.  Lovely.  He keeps putting quotes around political science, which is quite the troll-y thing to do.  I had an immediate rant on twitter which has been storifed by the master of the master of the form--Kelsey Atherton.  I will not repeat all of it or respond to everything that Tom says.  His readers already complained about previous post which they considered to be too long.

So, let me focus on the key points:
  • no, many policy-makers do not pay that much attention to political scientists.  Part of this is the fault of political scientists for not making their work as accessible as they can and part of it is policy-makers aren't listening. I am not disagreeing with the findings of the Avey and Desch piece of social science but with Tom's selective reading and interpretation.
  • Or when they do read, they read the wrong stuff--neither Robert Kaplan nor Clash of Civilizations are respected by social scientists.  Not because they are widely read but because they are not social science.  Breezy narratives they might be (especially Kaplan), but they are also tend to be just a bit racist (all Romanians are thieves according to Balkan Ghosts, Latin American Catholics are different from West European Catholics because ... maybe the latter are brown?). 
  • Is my list representative?  No.  It was stuff that I found interesting that I thought he would find interesting (since his original post was about how boring political science is).  So, how do dictators use the threat of forcing their citizens to flee as an asymmetric response to powerful democracies?  That is some interesting social science (Kelly Greenhill).  Jason Lyall is doing much work on how violence affects hearts and minds in Afghanistan.... it would be interesting if it were not for those pesky numbers.  I am in the middle of a book that uses formal models, case studies and quantitative methods to understand the formation of alliances within civil wars--Bosnia and Afghanistan (Fotini Christia).  How is that not both fun and relevant?
  • What we do is not good history.  The historians hate how we use history.  What makes poli sci history detestable is that we use it to test theories.  And we do it, if we do it well, methodically.
  • "Favoring methods over facts and narrative"  Yes, we want to tell our stuff in ways that sing.  But Method is not in conflict with Facts.  Indeed, what is a fact?  How do we know what we think we know?  The key to the aspiration to political science is being explicit about the choices we make, so that the reader can evaluate our argument--do we really know what we think we know or is it based on flimsy evidence?
  • Rothkopf, who has done much to ruin, is cited in Rick's post, thinking that a feature is a bug: "Political science typically applies limited variable analysis to situations with an almost unlimited number of variables."  Anyone and everyone, except those who think that every bit of reality is a unique context, looks at reality and focuses on a few key parts and considers them more important than others.  Ricks, in his most recent book, argues that firing generals is a key to success (I have only read excerpts), but he is basically focusing on a key relationship--that accountability of some sort is related to military success.  They may or may not be true, but he is simplifying and focusing on one potential relationship when there are an infinite number of variables.
  • Desch's take on security studies is one person who has a particular angle.  There are many folks who are upset with where security studies has been going, yet they seem to be on the editorial boards of International Security and Security Studies and control powerful positions in the profession.  So, yes, there is a greater degree of diversity in what counts as good security studies and a greater diversity of people doing it (far more women these days doing terrific stuff), but if you do not fall asleep reading International Security (Tom finds it boring), there is plenty of old school stuff in there.  We are not asking Tom to read Journal of Conflict Research or Journal of Peace Research, both which have been shaping major debates about the causes and consequences of civil and international war even if last I checked war is a "Security Studies" topic.
  • But those two journals tend to have far too much math.  That is, they collect a lot of those "facts" and see what relationships exist.  My fave is that ethnic group concentration is associated with more ethnic violence, which means that incentivizing intermixing of groups is probably a better way to reduce ethnic conflict.  Is that boring?  No.  Is it policy relevant?  Hell, yes.  Especially in the 1990s when people were advocating partition.
  • As Dan Drezner has pointed out, policy-makers are adverse to quantitative methods and formal modeling in Poli Sci, but seem fine in digesting it when it is presented on economic issues.  Something to think about.  But policy-makers do listen to other folks who may get their ideas from social science, found in such places as think tanks (where many fully trained and operational political scientists produce good work--again, look around at CNAS), newspapers and magazines (notice all of the folks doing data stuff these days--reading/imitating Nate Silver) and other media outlets, and so on.
  • "Most of the useful writing is done by practitioners or journalists." Most of the stuff that is used, sure.  But actually useful?  Based on serious investigation?  Subjected to skeptical analysis?  Sometimes.  Often not so much.  Where do they get their ideas?
The reality is that not all political scientists agree about what it is we do and should do.  Some hate the label.  But for many of us, it is an indeed an aspiration--to study politics (domestic or international or both) as carefully as possible so that we can discern that which is general from that which is specific to a unique situation, so that we can suggest what are the more important factors.  Not everything is equally important, not even in the world of the Incredibles.  Not all of us aspire to be policy relevant nor should we expect all of our work to be policy relevant.  Some of our work is akin to the basic science that helps to informed the practical stuff but not so directly.

We are making greater strides in trying to reach out to the policy world.  Yesterday, Carnegie handed out big bags of cash to scholars and programs seeking to bridge the two worlds.  And this is not new.  There are many efforts out there to do that.  Alas, Tom is trying to burn those bridges by claiming that what we do is just a scam.  That what we do is "science."  That is too bad. We live in difficult times, and we need more knowledge, not less.  We need not just to reach out but to be heard.  We write blogs to convey our complex, methods heavy stuff into that which is more easily digestible: the Monkey Cage (which put out many great posts on Russia-Ukraine for instance), Dan Drezner, Marc Lynch, Political Violence at a Glance, and others do a great job of communicating.  And some people are listening.

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