“Contemporary political science suffers from too much policy relevance, not too little.”

by John Sides on April 30, 2013 · 7 comments

in Academia,Political science

Contemporary political science suffers from too much policy relevance, not too little.  Politicians simply do not like the policies that scholarly research supports, prefer policies (often put forward by charlatans) that better suit their interests, and seek to suppress or ignore evidence-based research that contradicts their own, or their “base” voters’, ideologies.  When these same politicians assert piously that political science offers no policy-relevant research, what they really mean is that it offers no research that supports their own biases.  Politicians accept research from political science, as I shall argue below, only when it assists their own efforts at re-election.

These fightin’ words are from Ronald Rogowski.  Here is an ungated pdf of his article; here is a pre-publication version. They are part of an issue of Political Studies Review on “relevance and impact in political science.”  The entire issue has been ungated, and I thank Wiley for doing so.

{ 7 comments }

Tracy Lightcap April 30, 2013 at 11:27 pm

This is true, but the analysis needs to go a step deeper.

Why do politicians feel that the research done by political scientists could adversely affect their electoral chances? Here I think Rogowski leads us to the mountaintop and leaves us there. But the answer is simple enough. Politicians all over the US and at all levels benefit from a gigantic market failure based on asymmetric information where they are on the winning side. As has been shown over and over again, most Americans are pretty ignorant about policy matters and pay scant attention to them between elections. Given the constellation of interests pushing on them for policy decisions (and offering them campaign funds) it is no surprise that politicians at all levels are eager, nay, desperate, to continue this advantage.

Unfortunately for us, our discipline is – and has been for most of its recent history – dedicated to ripping the veil off of the political process in ways that a) expose the policy-making process and reveal what almost all politicians would just as soon keep secret and b) exposing for public view the actual underpinnings of the electoral process, again something politicians at all levels would – usually – just as soon keep a trade secret. (Hence Senator Coburn’s special animus against the NES.) In short, from the view of most of the pols in the US, we are goo-goos hell-bent on exposing what they are up to. No wonder they are either ready to see political science swing in the wind or aren’t all that upset if it does.

I think this stems from the birth of modern political science in the Progressive Era and its descendant, the New Deal. It really isn’t any surprise that professional politicians only find us useful when they ask for advice during campaigns. I confess that I don’t know a way out of this dilemma shy of a revival of reform politics in the US. That would create the constituency we need and I don’t see anything else that would. And, of course, President Obama’s veto pen.

Anon May 1, 2013 at 12:11 am

I almost stopped reading when I got to footnote 1. Supply side economics a fraud? And that quring the same Krugman who at the time caricatured Robert Mundell for being the intellectual lapdog of the right? Ironic.

A May 1, 2013 at 3:32 am

As somebody who knows Ron Rogowski and think highly of him, I think he makes some great points. Unfortunately, the article loses a little bit of credibility because his political views come through when he talks about politicians. All of his descriptions of delusional politicians seemingly targets the Right. I wish he left his political views out of the article because if we are to engage politicians as a field, we need to approach the Right in a manner that is more unbiased and non-political.

Chris May 1, 2013 at 6:47 am

On the issue of evidence-based policymaking, see this excellent post:

http://www.lispop.ca/blog/2013/04/30/the-limits-of-evidence-based-policymaking/

Anon May 1, 2013 at 8:45 am

Well said. I completely share this sentiment.

JG May 1, 2013 at 11:03 am

I share much of the sentiment.

Scholars and politicians/ideologues have different perspectives on politics. We care about knowing…they care about winning. In other words, politicians and ideologues are people who are more interested in being “right” than correct. They see some version of the ‘truth’ and arguments that are either right or wrong according to their ideology. That is what they care about…defending their beliefs (even in the face of evidence showing the contrary).

We, the scientific community, are more technical. Sure we have ideologies…but we are not supposed to be ideologues. We are supposed to be agnostic. The data tell us if we are correct or not. If we are not correct then we look for alternative explanations or submit the paper to our desk drawer (since we do not have a Journal of Null Findings).

Ideologues do not understand the difference between being correct/incorrect and being right/wrong. It is all synonymous to them. If our analyses show their theories to be incorrect, they think we are saying they are ‘wrong.’ Nobody likes hearing that.

John Dickey May 1, 2013 at 1:26 pm

I believe there may be some issues with his findings based on case selection. Many of the issues that he argues that the government (focusing on the US) does not move on are relatively “new” to Political Science. It take some time for many of the findings to become settled fact in the discipline and for our findings to trickle outside of the discipline. Its hard to argue that politicians should be following advice based upon research that has not yet been published. How many members of Congress did you see at Midwest? The author did mention the recent GOTV research. I would argue that the shared connections between science and practitioners has speeded up the transfer of information. The field experiments were often done with the knowledge and often the assistance of campaigns. While Professor Rogowski may have a point, his cases seem improperly chosen for this analysis.

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