Silly Science: Aquarium Democracy Edition

Whenever I am tempted to despair of political science, I pause to consider what very smart people who can’t be bothered are apt to get up to. Today’s example comes from the august interdisciplinary journal Science, where biologists are busy drawing conclusions about uninformed citizens and democratic consensus from the behavior of golden shiners.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, to its credit, found a couple political scientists, Lynn Vavreck and Larry Sabato, to register demurrals. Science, apparently not.

6 Responses to Silly Science: Aquarium Democracy Edition

  1. Simon Jackman December 15, 2011 at 10:42 pm #

    So long and thanks for all the fish…

  2. Talleyrand December 16, 2011 at 10:04 am #

    This really is ridiculous. It is a good reminder that the breathless veneration of natural scientists that is common to political scientists is not really based on a familiarity with what they actually do. From the article, when the author is defending himself from criticism he says: “To apply this idea to specific systems,” Mr. Couzin said, “one would have to make specific models.” Indeed.

  3. Miles Townes December 16, 2011 at 10:12 am #

    I saw Iain Couzin lecture on his shiners at the Santa Fe Institute’s graduate summer school last June. The research on how the fish schools form and move is really interesting, and solves some important problems in natural sciences, but the leap he makes to human behavior is staggering. I was one of two or three political science grad students in the audience, and two of us told him afterwards: voters don’t behave like that. My colleague was more familiar with the literature, and laid it out for him. He nodded, thanked us, and then — apparently — ignored us.

  4. Andrew Gelman December 18, 2011 at 1:45 pm #


    Based on the above evidence, I’d have to guess that, while these people may be “smart,” I doubt they are “very smart.” I wonder if we’re seeing a bit of a Bork effect here. Robert Bork, you may recall, was famous for being brilliant—but a more accurate characterization may be that he was the smartest person to believe a particularly dumb set of ideas.

  5. Iain D. Couzin December 22, 2011 at 9:48 am #

    It’s worth noting that our study, as emphasized by the title, is regarding democratic consensus decision making in animal groups. This is very different to the behavior of democratic societies. In the paper we make no claims regarding human politics/voting etc. although it may be interesting to note that we do show how animals which have no capacity to enumerate votes can exhibit what is effectively a type of ‘voting’. Note also our discussion of uninformed and those who may be well informed but lack a preference. In our only reference to humans, outside introducing the topic of democratic consensus in the introductory paragraphs, we write “Furthermore, these results suggest a principle that may extend to self-organized decisions among human agents.”. That is all. It is not that our results *do* relate to humans. We encourage those interested to read the paper and the supplement – and of course we would be delighted if this work inspires new studies and interest in consensus decision-making more broadly.

    • Andrew Gelman December 22, 2011 at 4:32 pm #


      Yes, it was the professor of mathematics and economics quoted in the press release who made the claims of direct applicability to politics. So neither biologists nor political scientists are to blame here!

      And I certainly agree with you that animal decision making is an interesting problem in itself and should have some relevance to analogous processes in humans.