Harsh words from Erik Gartzke on the relevance of political science

by Andrew Gelman on June 20, 2011 · 2 comments

in Political science

Daniel Drezner posts some reflections by political scientist Erik Gartzke on the irrelevance of political science to policy:

We really want to be “useful.” I [Gartzke] know of no other discipline that is so angst-ridden about mattering, even those that don’t matter in any concrete, “real world” sense. Obviously, what makes us different from poets, particle physicists, or Professors of Pediatric Oncology is that we study politics and occasionally imagine that this gives us some special salience to that subject. Policy makers, too, want us to be “relevant,” though I think what they have in mind differs in important respects. . . .

Gartzke’s main message seems to be that it’s ok to not be useful: if we’re just addressing in-house debates within political science, that’s ok but we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

Gartzke is a bit too pessimistic for my own taste. I’d actually like to think that my political science research findings on incumbency, redistricting, campaign effects, voting power, and public opinion are relevant to policy (perhaps sometimes in indirect ways). But perhaps his perspective is more relevant for international relations and security studies, where the policy choices are sometimes so clear that there can be a huge feeling of frustration when policymakers pick and choose research findings to support the positions they already want to take.

I don’t know, really, but I’m putting this out there in case some of you have thoughts on the matter.


PJR June 20, 2011 at 9:50 pm

Political scientists often are adept at analyzing policy questions using a multidisciplinary approach within which politics plays an appropriately central role. When academics in other disciplines approach policy questions, they too often do not grasp the political concepts and dynamics driving the outcomes, and consequently they either over simplify them or they give them too little attention. Some superb policy-relevant analysis is done by political scientists working with experts in other disciplines.

G3 June 23, 2011 at 12:56 am

Like economics, political science doesn’t have (doesn’t want to have?) the undecidability theorems that follow from a system having to express the truths of its conclusions in its premises. That is, the hypothesis is that political theories can either be true and irrelevant, or relevant but not true, and never both true and relevant at the same time. More metaphorically, there’s a Heisenberg-like principle that the act of performing a sufficiently good measurement to be useful affects the phenomenon enough to invalidate the results of the measurement.

In physics, this kind of influence has its own theory, called “decoherence”, and certain well-defined kinds of measurements (“quantum non-demolition”) that appear to bypass the constraint, but don’t really.

Gartzke’s comments are simply the pretheoretical complaints of someone who, like Einstein and quantum theory, could never accept that reality is stranger than he wanted to imagine. Einstein, though was brilliant enough and tough-minded enough to create experimental tests that proved that he was wrong.

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