15 Responses to More Reactions to the Stephens Op-Ed

  1. hmmm June 24, 2012 at 4:56 pm #

    Stevens, even.

  2. Paul Gronke June 24, 2012 at 5:52 pm #

    The limited list of sources relied up by Stephens is pretty damning:

    1) We failed to predict the Arab Spring and the end of the Cold War. (Does anyone really think world-shattering events like these can be predicted?)

    2) One scholar, Mo Fiorina, wrote about an “era of divided government” in 1992. Somehow Stephens has decided that the two year hiatus in divided government, from 1993-1994, shows how badly Fiorina “predicted.” You can review the “forecast” here: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/deficit-ezra.jpg. Sorry to be snarky, but tell me why Fiorina was wrong again?

    3) Nate Silver on political science forecasting models, which has been debunked on this blog, among other places.

    That’s it for the fact check.

  3. RobW June 24, 2012 at 5:57 pm #

    Phil Arena really needs to be added this this list!

    • John Sides June 24, 2012 at 7:13 pm #

      See especially the updates and comments to his post, where he amends his argument thusly: “there is a sense in which at least some poli sci research constitutes a pure public good. I wrote my post under the assumption that it does not, which really isn’t quite fair.”

      • RobW June 24, 2012 at 9:34 pm #

        @ John Sides….I see that he backpedaled a bit but in addition to the quote you provide he elsewhere continues to maintain that, “Yes, I was assuming that our research is not a public good. And I do think that, by and large, that’s right.”

        I accept his point that trying to balance the budget on the back of $11 million is silly. Nevertheless, the other argument Arena makes about the defense of NSF funding for political science relying largely on impossible to prove statements like “we’re sooo valuable, don’t you get it!?” is well merited. Most of the defense thus far has relied upon asserting that there is a public good associated with political science research. However, as both Arena and others accept, finding evidence to support this assertion is extremely difficult to do. When we expect the government to forcibly transfer money from others on our behalf, I think we owe it to provide some justification above and beyond “well, $11 million just isn’t that much money.”

        • John Sides June 24, 2012 at 10:00 pm #

          RobW: The last time we had this discussion in comments, the ball was in your court, but I heard nothing further from you. As I made clear then, and will repeat now, I think the “evidence” for the public value of political science has been produced multiple times on this blog.


          At this point, I think it’s really incumbent on you, Arena, or anyone who doubts its public value to say *why* you think that evidence isn’t persuasive, rather than asserting (incorrectly) that none has been provided and that advocates of NSF polisci simply fall back on the relatively small size of its budget.

          • RobW June 24, 2012 at 11:31 pm #

            @John Sides…I am fully aware of how I left our last discussion.

            I would like you to consider that the posts you provide do not “prove” the value of political science research. They merely provide a listing of prominent projects and a set of assertions as to why each may be important and socially usefully. Edwards: “The purpose of this project is to better understand International Monetary Fund surveillance.” Socially useful? How could we know? How do we adjudicate any future returns to this project? Howell: “that during times of war presidential power takes precedence over the power of Congress and the courts.” Does this constitute a sufficient public good to warrant the forcible transfer of Smith’s income to Jones? Has it, for example, stopped wars or strengthened Congress via-a-vis the Executive? How do we know? In the interest of brevity, I will not continue.

            So if the “ball is in my court,” by which I assume you mean that it is up to me to justify why I think continued NSF-funding is not warranted, I offer increased economic liberty and freedom from arbitrary government intrusion. I feel no shame in admitting my hesitancy to answer this before as I suspected where you might choose to go. Namely, you were looking for me to concede that government is necessary for some functions thereby it is a matter of choice where to draw the line of too much government. So this brings us exactly to where are now: how do we decide? You and others clearly favor more government funding. I am far more concerned about the reach of government and the deterioration of our fiscal situation. Arena is right that $11 million is nothing in the overall debate but my desire to look for alternatives to tax-payer financing of political science research does not, in any way, limit my ability to also resolutely oppose other government boondoggles such as continued economic “stimulus.” It is not a choice between spending $11 million on one versus the other but of simply not spending that $11 million and a whole lot more to boot.

            I respect that you disagree with this view and I also respect if you disagree with my negative views towards government in general. I do not respect however, the demands that Jones continue to “fork it over” for causes Smith cannot concretely demonstrate actually provided more return than the investments Jones would have willingly funded in addition to the loss of Jones’ freedoms to be secure in her rightfully earned income. It seems wholly unreasonable to suggest that no other possible funding scheme exists that would protect both research funding and economic freedoms.

            • John Sides June 24, 2012 at 11:58 pm #

              RobW: Okay, then we’re clear. This was all anticipated in the earlier thread, where I suggested that your opposition to NSF funding of political science was motivated mainly by concerns about the size of government and its possible intrusion on our liberties. If those are your concerns, then they certainly constitute a principled basis to oppose government spending on the NSF, and nothing I do to argue for the value of NSF funding is likely to be persuasive — much as I presume that that the various defenses one sees of many other government programs (you note the stimulus) would be similarly unpersuasive to you. So there’s no point in my making any further defense of the public value of political science specifically. I won’t bother you with any more arguments in comments. Thanks for clarifying.

              • RobW June 25, 2012 at 12:07 am #

                @John Sides: Fair enough though I do hope to continue to comment and debate about other issues in due time as, I am sure you will agree, such discourses are a healthy and productive part of any free society. FWIW, I make no claim to being impervious to change on any issue (including this one). I will continue to mull over the discussion and I respect and appreciate your willingness to engage.

          • Phil Arena June 24, 2012 at 11:42 pm #

            Hi John,

            I agree that you and your colleagues have devoted enough effort to making the case that political science is of value to the public that it is incumbent upon me and any other skeptic to state our case more clearly than I did in my post.

            For what it’s worth, the reasons I believe that the public value is often (though I won’t say always) insufficient to justify public financing is that many of the examples you and others provided in those links are examples of projects that:

            1) while answering questions that might be of interest to the broader public, have not necessarily been noticed by anyone outside the academy;

            2) have been asserted to have had an impact on policy makers, though no attempt to rigorously or systematically support such an assertion is provided;

            3) advance arguments that remain contested;

            4) produce data sets that allow political scientists to do their jobs.

            That’s not to say that I, as a fellow scholar, find no value in this work. I do. I’m very glad that the major data sets like CoW and ANES exist. And this is of course an iterative process, so there’s undeniably value in provisional results, even if later work ultimately reveals significant shortcomings therein. We, as scholars, derive great benefit from such work. And, as I confessed in the corrected version of my blog post, I do believe there are projects in political science that generate real value for the public.

            But please forgive me if I would like to see stronger evidence that the public has benefited from our research than what has been provided in some of these posts. I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but when I say that I question whether most political science research qualifies as a pure public good, it’s not because I think it is worthless. It’s because I think it is primarily (though not exclusively) consumed by political scientists, and often (though not always) has no more than a modest impact on anyone outside the academy.

            Again, to be clear, I am more than happy to grant that there are exceptions. And the reasonable expectation that any given project could be one of the exceptions is enough to invoke the standard argument about underprovision under voluntary contributions. I have backed away from my initial position, as you rightly noted above. I just want to clarify that the reason I remain skeptical of the exact *size* of the contribution we have provided to the US public is not that I have failed to read the many posts the Monkey Cage has offered on the topic. It is that, when I read such posts, I mostly see a list of projects that scholars find real value in and would like to believe that others find value in (which I’m sure they *sometimes* do), but I don’t see a great deal of evidence that these projects have benefited society.



  4. Paul Gronke June 24, 2012 at 5:58 pm #

    By the way, love this document and use it in many of my classes. It is from a conference on qualitative research, funded by the NSF. I thought they never funded this stuff …


  5. John Sides June 24, 2012 at 8:53 pm #

    Also Hans Noel:

    “That we sometimes disagree on what makes for good work does not mean that there is no good work, or that a roll of the dice is the way to determine which work gets done.”

  6. John H June 24, 2012 at 9:44 pm #

    Stevens’ critique is low-hanging fruit. The Op-Ed doesn’t even maintain a consistent view of the scientific enterprise in the span of 200 words.

    I think our effort should still be on addressing why we should fund social science with public investment. If for no other reason we should do this to at least convince political scientists of the value of public investment in their own field. (Why there is no consensus here boggles the mind to be honest.)

    In my mind, one of the main justifications for the NSF funding political science research is that the projects chosen usually are those that involve large data collection, and thus have considerable startup, opportunity and transaction costs. These costs mean that without sufficient and concentrated funds (and perhaps prestige rewards as well), these types of projects are less likely to be pursued. And yet, creating new and publicly available data is probably one of the most important collective goods we provide as social scientists. For example, the (non-scholarly) value of the ANES alone has been immense in helping us as a society understand changing political behavior and attitudes in the U.S., not to mention other contributions to survey design, sampling and instrumentation.

    Frankly, I’m skeptical that there are currently enough private sources of money, in sufficient and concentrated supply, to make up the loss in new data projects that would result from gutting the NSF’s political science program. A prediction then would be that a lot of big data projects get scrapped, and we see an increase in much more modest empirical agendas in political science or an increase in the (re)use of existing or cheaply obtained data sources. (One thing we will definitely see is increased competition for existing non-NSF funding, and so qualitative and quantitative folks alike will see tougher battles over fewer dollars.)

    Maybe new non-profit or commercial sources would emerge to make up the losses. But, even if we could replace public funding with private sources on par with the NSF’s investment, it seems plausible that much of this data would no longer be publicly available for other people to use, at least not without proprietary restrictions. Without a public release requirement, my guess is that a lot of scholars would just assume hold on to their hard-begotten data for as long as possible. And private funders may gate research data, charging scholars, journalists, and the public to use it. This adds to overall research costs for everyone AND to greater inequality across universities and departments with limited funds, as well as greater information shortfalls in the public. (This is why Flake’s inequality trope is such obvious bullshit.)

    Finally, relying on an assortment of private sources will almost certainly have systematic influences on research agendas at the selection and funding process, whether these are not-for-profit organizations with particular ideological or social aims or commercial organizations and firms that prefer lower regulation and less taxes, for instance. And it’s not so clear that these organizations will necessarily adhere to best methods and practices when choosing projects, or that they will solicit advice at all from social scientists about what is good science.

    I understand the practical impulse to justify political science funding on the grounds that we make substantively important contributions to major social and political questions that are relevant to our and future societies. I certainly believe this is true. But these grounds can be reasonably challenged by those who are skeptical of social science as a science, or by those who have internal disagreements about what the major contributions of political science are, or how these contributions compare to curing AIDS, for example.

    The argument I think we should be engaging is that we (social scientists broadly) provide valuable public goods that no one else provides at as cheap a cost or as high in quality, namely the collection of new social, economic, and political data. And eliminating the public funding of our research is very likely to curtail the creation and public access of these goods. Surely, this alone is worth the public price of a few million dollars.

    So, we don’t need to cure cancer to be a valued public investment. Our value, at the very least, is in providing more and better information to societies about how they function (or don’t) so that those societies’ leaders and members can make better decisions to influence the direction of their government. This is so regardless of the conclusions we as a discipline may draw from the information we collect and publicize.

  7. Justin July 2, 2012 at 2:05 am #

    The Week, which had the good judgment to name this the Blog of the Year in 2010 has named the Stephens op-ed one of the three best columns of the week.

  8. Clint Ballinger July 18, 2012 at 7:05 am #

    I happen to be developing a website on this issue at the moment that some may find interesting. It links to other similar debates on the utility of the social sciences in general. Cheers, Clint