Charles Lane and the Market for Political Science

by Henry Farrell on June 5, 2012 · 10 comments

in Blogs,Political Science and Journalism,Political Science News

Charles Lane writes an opinion piece for the Washington Post today, taking issue with posts at the Monkey Cage, and arguing that the NSF should not fund political science (or the social sciences more generally). My take (other Monkey Cagers may differ) is that his argument starts in the right place, but ends up in the wrong one.

Perhaps it was frivolous to spend $301,000 on a study of gender and political ambition among students, as Flake charges. Or perhaps a report on economic sanctions was a good taxpayer investment, as McCarty and his fellow department chairs insist. The relevant question, however, is whether society could have reaped equal or greater benefits through other uses of the money — and how unreasonable it would be to ask the political scientists to rely on non-federal support. If this research is as valuable as its proponents say, someone other than the U.S. Treasury will pay for it. If anything, Flake’s amendment does not go far enough: the NSF shouldn’t fund any social science. The private sector chronically underinvests in basic scientific research; the costs and risks are relatively high, and the benefits relatively hard to commercialize. Government support compensates for this “market failure,” enabling society to reap “positive externalities” — economic, environmental or military. Federal funding for mathematics, engineering and other “hard” sciences is appropriate. In these fields, researchers can test their hypotheses under controlled conditions; then those experiments can be repeated by others.Though quantitative methods may rule economics, political science and psychology, these disciplines can never achieve the objectivity of the natural sciences. Those who study social behavior — or fund studies of it — are inevitably influenced by value judgments, left, right and center. And unlike hypotheses in the hard sciences, hypotheses about society usually can’t be proven or disproven by experimentation. Society is not a laboratory.

Lane’s argument has three parts. First – that we should think about the opportunity costs of funding political science, as opposed to funding other kinds of research. Second, that if the research is “valuable”, then someone else than the government will pay for it. Third, that there is no “market failure” in the social sciences because there is no way to test social science propositions.

Lane is right to say that we should think about funding allocation in terms of opportunity costs. However, as Seth Masket has observed, he is wrong to suggest that social science findings are no better than value-judgments gussied up with pretty numbers.1 Indeed, if you think about it for a bit, Lane’s apparent belief that there’s no way to establish reliable truths about politics and society is a radically postmodern one. But what’s most interesting, perhaps, is Lane’s suggestion that we should think about market and market failure in the social sciences.

As it happens, there is a market for ‘political science,’ even if it’s one that many political scientists don’t usually compare to their own research. It’s mostly supplied by think tanks, on the right, left and center of the political spectrum, as well as for-profit consultancy firms. These think tanks, to a greater or lesser extent, are market oriented (albeit towards a quite idiosyncratic ‘market’). If there isn’t obvious funding for research on a particular issue, think-tanks will avoid it. If funding dries up for an issue, then think tanks will drop it. Finally, the arguments and findings of think-tank sponsored research usually have to fit into some range acceptable to the sponsor. This is not to say that think tank fellows are hacks, or cut their opinions to suit their sponsor’s measures. It is to say that some kinds of opinions (those which can attract substantial funding) tend to be over-represented in think-tank research, while others are systematically under-represented.

If think tank funding reflected voters’ best interests, this wouldn’t be a problem. Sadly, it doesn’t. Businesses are responsible to their shareholders rather than to the general public, and their funding decisions are likely to reflect this. Unions are responsible to their members – not to society as a whole. Foundations have their own politics and priorities, and individual funders are pretty quirky. Research by think tanks reflects the priorities of this disparate bunch of funders, not the broader priorities of the US public. Again – this is not to dump on think tanks. Much of their work is good; some of what is not good is at least interesting and provocative. Furthermore, there is a lot that the profession of political science can, and should learn from them (e.g. how better to engage in public debate). But we shouldn’t rely on think tank sponsored research alone, since it usually indirectly reflects funders’ priorities. Still less should we rely on research emanating from professional research consultancies, which are typically purely market driven, and hence prepared to find more or less what their sponsors want them to find.

In short, there is a market for political science – but one that’s imperfect in at least two ways. First, some kinds of research will be systematically underprovided, as per Mancur Olson’s arguments about collective action. For example, large scale social science research, which is of benefit to US society as a whole, but not to individual groups or tendencies within it, will be provided suboptimally, or not provided at all by the ‘market.’

Second, there is a broader problem of truth on the market. If Lane got his druthers, and all social science was privately sponsored, some points of view (on the right, left or center) would be over-represented, and some under-represented. People interested e.g. in sponsoring research on the cost-effectiveness of economic sanctions are likely to have strong interests, whether they be in loosening sanctions (so as to get market access), or strengthening them (because they have strong political objections to the regime being targeted). These interests are likely to be reflected in their choices over who they fund, and to what end.

This would hurt US democracy. First and most obviously, it would limit the information available to policy makers. All that they would know about on important social questions was whatever was provided by interested (and often self-interested) private actors. Second, and more subtly, this information would be even less useful than it is in the current system. NSF funded research does two important things. First, it provides widely available datasets on many issues of public importance, which are not systematically skewed to support one interest or another (the NSF likes projects that have social and political relevance – it does not like projects that seem designed to support pre-cooked conclusions). Secondly, it provides funding to expert researchers to work with this data. This not only provides valuable findings, but it helps keep others honest. If someone wants to do sponsored research e.g. on why there aren’t more women involved in politics, and they use their own idiosyncratic data, rather than broadly available datasets, without good reason, they’re likely to get serious criticism from other researchers. If someone uses commonly available datasets (such as those sponsored by the NSF), but skews their techniques so as to reach a predetermined conclusion, then it’s much easier for others to identify the flaws, and to show how better specifications would lead to different results. In short, if we didn’t have a disinterested body, such as the NSF, meeting the public need for objective research on important social questions, then interested actors would (a) have the field to themselves, and (b) would have much greater incentive to cook the books.

Lane is right to think that we should look at the marketplace for the social sciences. He is quite wrong, however, in arguing that social science can’t aspire to objectivity, and hence is blind to the actual market failures that we would see in the absence of NSF funding. The opportunity costs of abolishing funding for the social sciences are very, very high, precisely because the social sciences provide the best and least biased (albeit still imperfect) knowledge we have about the functioning of politics, markets and society. If we didn’t have this funding, we would see other actors rushing in to fill the gap – the problem is that what would fill this gap would be far, far worse, than what we have already. This doesn’t let political science off scot-free – as John and I have argued elsewhere, the discipline needs to do a much better job in communicating its findings to a broader public than it does at the moment. More attention to reproducibility, along the lines that Victoria Stodden is pushing, would be nice too. Even so, I’m pretty sure that Charles Lane would miss publicly funded social science much more than he realizes, if it suddenly weren’t there any more.

1 Lane’s claim that “society is not a laboratory” runs directly against my favorite quote from notorious self-interest serving special-interest-flunky David Hume. “Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature, by showing men in all varieties of circumstances and situations, and furnishing us with materials from which we may form our observations and become acquainted with the regular springs of human action and behaviour. These records of wars, intrigues, factions, and revolutions, are so many collections of experiments, by which the politician or moral philosopher fixes the principles of his science, in the same manner as the physician or natural philosopher becomes acquainted with the nature of plants, minerals, and other external objects, by the experiments which he forms concerning them.”

{ 10 comments }

PBR June 5, 2012 at 5:08 pm

But how do you address what is perhaps Charles Lane’s strongest point?! He writes, “Sorry, guys. I’m just not feeling it.”

Genius op-ed writing right there.

Henry Farrell June 5, 2012 at 5:15 pm

PBR – while I obviously disagree very strongly with the op-ed, it does have an argument, and one that’s helped me in the sense that I feel better able to articulate the counter-case than I did before reading it.

Tracy Lightcap June 5, 2012 at 5:27 pm

I agree with what Henry (and Hume) say on this, but it skips around Lane’s strongest point (pace PBR): that the social sciences can’t be as beneficial to society as the “hard” sciences because they are non-experimental and, consequently, less likely to generate law-like conclusions. (I’m putting words in his mouth, of course.)

I run into this occasionally and I have a stock answer: “Ever seen a true experiment done by a weather-man?” There are a bunch of sciences – geology, astro-physics, meteorology, most of medicine – that aren’t any more based on experimental data then political science is. Yet we hear not word one about how they should be excluded from the necessary, but, as pointed out above, usually unprovided funding needed to actually do the work. The answer here is obvious; there are a lot of people who don’t really think about these issues in a scientific way, who don’t know much about science, but who do know what they like ideologically and don’t want their ideas challenged. They’re authoritarians, of course, and, like most countries, the US has been afflicted by having enough of them around to get their leaders elected to office. Where they make silly, but comforting to their followers, proposals like the Flake amendment. Too bad, that.

RobW June 5, 2012 at 8:56 pm

Actually, it would appear that Lane’s strongest argument is in fact the following:

I can only assume [an NSF-backed study exploring the political factors that lead to excessive spending by state or national governments] was a paper about dubious programs in the federal budget, and the special interest groups that defend them with self-serving arguments — like these professors themselves.

It is reasonable to assume that “the market” will under-provide funding for certain types of research. These of course are primarily those whose results are not easily monetized. However, an equally strong claim can be made that the NFS model will also under-fund certain types of research, namely that which is considered outside of the discipline’s dominant paradigm. Thus, each system contains imperfections as far as equality in funding allocation goes.

The real issue appears to be this: federal money for political science is simply one more instance of Smith taking from Jones in order to support Richards. Given the current financial state of the country and Congress’ inability to do anything about it, it seems shameful for political scientists of all people to be indignant that their time at the trough may be coming to an end. Regrettably, most of the commentary on the Cage and elsewhere is exactly what Lane describes, the mere instance of a special interest trying not to reveal itself for that which it is.

John Sides June 5, 2012 at 9:25 pm

RobW: Insults — “shameful,” “trough,” “special interest” — don’t amount to an argument here. And it doesn’t even offend me to be called a “special interest.” So is every single other group that has some skin in the game in politics: unions, businesses, farmers, gays and lesbians, evangelical Christians, retired people, you name it. The less loaded term is simply “interest group.”

Moreover, every single bit of federal spending is “Smith taking from Jones in order to support Richard.” That is, the government collects tax revenue from us and gives it to various programs, some of which you or I support and some of which we do not. That is just Government 101. It’s not an argument for defunding any particular government program, including NSF support of political science research.

If your principled position is just “the government needs to spend less money,” and you think that every little bit counts, then, fine, you should support cuts to every single category of funding in the federal budget.

But if that is not your principled position, and you think that some parts of government should be cut while others should not — or at least that some parts should be cut more than others — then the question is “which parts?” That is, what programs are more important than others? The various posts on this blog make an argument in favor of the value of political science research. Indeed, the entire existence of this blog is an argument in favor of the value of political science research.

If you think such research does not provide sufficient value to deserve any public funding, then you are welcome to say why, although I would ask you to do me the favor of engaging arguments in our earlier posts on the value of political science, like this one for example.

RobW June 5, 2012 at 10:20 pm

@John Sides: Saying that my point is just “government 101″ is no more of an argument. Accusing me of cowering behind insults and not wishing to engage on substance but then only offering the fact that the current state of affairs is what it is because that’s the way it is, is itself insulting. Moreover, requesting Smith take more from Richards to give to Sides is not “skin in the game.” Real skin in the game would involve loosing your own money when research does not pan out. Perhaps we can envision such a model whereby say the APSA pooled money from individuals willing to contribute to potentially worthy research and then granted that money while requiring partial financing from the researcher or, if you like, the researcher’s institution (the latter arrangement to be worked out in private hiring contracts).

If my comments offended you then I sincerely beg your pardon; however, I absolutely resent your contention that my goal was merely to sling insults. The status quo is not a sustainable policy option and it is better to realize this sooner rather than later.

John Sides June 5, 2012 at 10:34 pm

RobW: No, I specifically said that I wasn’t offended. But you’ve left at least a couple comments in this vein on our NSF-related posts, and I’m still unsure why you think that there is not enough value in political science to warrant public funding for it. What I have gleaned is that you think the government spends too much money, period. But unless you favor having no taxes or government at all, then the question is: what is worth spending tax revenue on? We’ve tried to defend the value of spending tax revenue on political science research in various posts. You’re welcome to tell me why you disagree.

rhonda June 6, 2012 at 7:05 pm

RobW: What are your criteria for determining which government programs should be cut? After this, give us some examples of which specific government programs should be cut and which should be funded. Without doing this, your argument seems to be driven by a political ideology (i.e. cut everything that Liberals like because you don’t like them, regardless of how they match up to your criteria). Be scientific: explicitly lay out your criteria and then systematically apply the criteria to a set of programs.

David Law June 11, 2012 at 10:46 pm

I e-mailed Lane with similiar criticisms to the effect that he’s wrong about social science methodology and should have actually tried talking to social scientists before publishing some fairly ignorant statements in the Washington Post.

This was his entire response to me:

“This email really might be the most pompous thing I have ever read.”

Yes, I kept the e-mail; and yes, I forwarded it to the Post’s ombudsman.

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