Archive | Political Science News

Risky political science

Via Kevin Drum a story about the political costs of certain kinds of political science research.

When a pair of graduate students from little-known Brandman University dug out the salaries of top administrators at all 34 cities in Orange County and made them public, they were showered with praise. Cindy Smith and Janet Voshall testified before the state Legislature, were honored by the county board of supervisors and rode limousines to TV news shows. … But then the gold turned to lead. Smith and Voshall said the fallout from their work so rankled public officials that they had to move out of the county to find work, and their academic advisor, a 30-year political science professor, resigned his post in protest.

Not long after the report was released, Laguna Hills Councilman Allan Songstad and Tustin Councilman Jerry Amante, officers in the Orange County Division of the League of California Cities, proposed that the group respond to the report, but the league took no action. The Orange County chapter later broke away from the parent group, saying the league was too liberal, and formed the Assn. of California Cities-Orange County. Along with the chief executive of the breakaway group, Amante and Songstad met with James Doti, the president of Chapman University. Smoller said they refused to meet with him. Songstad said he and Amante made it clear to Doti that Kogerman’s report would make it difficult for Brandman public administration students to get hired in the county. “It just seemed self evident,” Songstad said.

… In fall 2011, Brandman’s chancellor, Gary Brahm, met with the Assn. of California Cities-Orange County over a proposal that the university sponsor a training program for newly elected council members. The group decided not to go through with it. That October, Smoller said, Brahm told him that his days as the public face of the program were over and that a nonacademic was being brought in as the liaison with local governments. Smoller resigned as head of the public administration program the next day but continued working as a professor. The day he resigned, a photo of Smith and Voshall was taken off the Brandman website — a coincidence, university officials said. … Unable to find jobs in Orange County, Smith and Voshall moved. Smith is selling insurance in Phoenix. Voshall works in Los Angeles for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.Smoller is at Chapman, hoping to start a public administration program there.

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NSF cancels funding round

As Nature reports, the NSF has cancelled its target dates for this round of political science funding. As best as we currently know, the NSF is planning to go ahead with its January 2014 funding round. Presumably, this is linked to uncertainties surrounding the Coburn amendment. The Nature story quotes me as saying that this is somewhere between devastating and crippling to political science funding as a whole – what I had meant to refer to was the fallout that would happen if NSF were to cancel political science funding altogether (which is not currently on the cards). Obviously, if you care about this issue and are a political science academic, you should talk to your university president, and your local Congressman/woman/Senator’s office.

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Robert Putnam on funding the social sciences

In Politico

This week, I was one of 12 Americans to receive a National Humanities Medal, based in part on research I began more than 40 years ago on civil society and democracy. Making Democracy Work has become one of the most cited works of social science in the past half-century, because it offered hard scientific evidence for the classic idea that grass-roots civic engagement — what the English conservative Edmund Burke called “the little platoons” of society — is the crucial ingredient in successful democracies. … Because my findings resonated broadly, American leaders from Bill Clinton to Jeb Bush and from Mike Huckabee to Al Gore have discussed the implications of this work for the challenges facing our country today. One of the harshest critics of National Science Foundation funding of political science has even praised my study as “one of the most influential pieces of practical research in the last half-century.”
Ironically, however, if the recent amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) that restricts NSF funding for political science had been in effect when I began this research, it never would have gotten off the ground since the foundational grant that made this project possible came from the NSF Political Science Program. The NSF is now grappling with what Coburn’s narrow criteria mean for the $10 million of political science research it supports each year.
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APSA Has Hired Lobbyists

Political scientists are about to test some of their research in the field. The American Political Science Association has hired Barbara Kennelly Associates and Maria Freese. The association will lobby on “appropriations for State, Justice, Commerce — to eliminate restrictions on political science funding through the National Science Foundation.”

From Politico, with my link added.  Via Matt Corley.

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Jane Austen, Game Theorist

The popular reception to political scientist Michael Chwe’s book Jane Austen, Game Theorist has been striking.  Here is the New York Times story and Chelsea Clinton’s gushy tweet.  A video Michael made about the book is above.  Michael wrote to me with his own reaction to the book’s reception.

What surprises me most about the public reception of “Jane Austen, Game Theorist” is how many people know and like game theory.  I knew that Austen had many fans, but I didn’t know that game theory did also.  Is it just good marketing?  Ariel Rubinstein writes, “Whoever invented the name ‘game theory’ was also a genius in public relations.  Who would be interested in this theory if it were called ‘A Collection of Models of Rational Decision-Making in Interactive Situations’? ”  Steffen Huck, who has a paper with Ilias Chrissochoidis in the Cambridge Opera Journal about Wagner’s Lohengrin, has told me that when he talks to humanists, they are strongly turned off by the term “rational choice theory” but like the term “game theory,” so maybe Rubinstein has a point.  Everyone likes “games.”

Still, I wonder how game theory has reached the popular imagination, and unless you count the “A Beautiful Mind” book and movie (which undoubtedly did help), I am left with the explanation that undergraduate teaching is actually quite powerful.  At UCLA, just in the political science department, Kathy Bawn, Barry O’Neill, and I teach game theory to 500 students a year.  If you count all the people teaching game theory throughout the world, I suppose it adds up after a while.  When Chelsea Clinton tweeted last week that Austen and game theory were two of her favorite topics, I was so glad that the person who taught her game theory (who is most likely reading this blog!) did such a great job.  The essence of teaching is to like a subject so much that other people start liking it too.

After the New York Times article about my book came out, Ali Valenzuela, assistant professor of politics at Princeton, tweeted that as a UCLA undergraduate, he had been introduced to game theory by my course.  The fact that he feels sufficiently untraumatized by his experience to tweet about it pleases me to no end.


I haven’t yet read this book, but I am glad that it’s gotten this much attention already.  Political science could benefit from the occasional crossover project like this.

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The Coburn Amendment Aftermath

I have a piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education on the consequences of the Coburn amendment.

Contrary to Coburn, Flake, and Rep. Darrell E. Issa of California, the U.S. Congress could use more good social science, not less. Take any urgent policy question—school choice, taxation, global warming—and you will find a multitude of quarreling voices, each trying to shout down the others. Many of those voices belong to lobbyists paid to defend their clients’ interests or to people whose political commitments trump their commitment to the facts. It is very difficult to figure out who is telling the truth and who is not.
Publicly financed social science imposes a tax on dishonest arguments. The NSF requires good research methods and hard results, which can puncture inflated claims. It pushes for well-documented and accessible research, making it easier to figure out who is dealing from the bottom of the deck. Among those recognizing the benefits of NSF-backed research is … none other than Tom Coburn himself, who turned to NSF-supported data gathered by the political scientists Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones when he wanted to defend the Government Accountability Office.

Other pieces from around the WWW.

The Economist – “Research into the effectiveness of American policies can only improve them. Going after researchers is a way of shooting the messenger.”

Tim Noah at the New Republic – “As the author of a book on income inequality, my thoughts turn to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, whose “major funding source” is NSF. … Most of what we know about intergenerational trends in income mobility—i.e., how much people move up and down the income ladder—comes from the PSID. … Solving America’s problems is hard enough when you can identify what those problems are. When you can’t, it’s impossible.”

Abby Rapoport at The American Prospect ” If you care about scientific process generally, it’s not hard to see why the amendment is an ominous portent for other NSF programs. ”

Dave Weigel at Slate – “The new amendment, which passed via a voice vote, saved $13 million. I[n] return, it might cripple the American National Election Study.”

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones – “Sen. Tom Coburn has been on an anti-political science kick for years for no real discernible reason. “Theories on political behavior,” he said a few years ago, “are best left to CNN, pollsters, pundits, historians, candidates, political parties, and the voters, rather than being funded out of taxpayers’ wallets.”

Dan Drezner at Foreign Policy – “Now, from a pure material interest perspective, this should make me happy. I’ve never received a dime in NSF funding, and I’m sitting on a pretty good grant for the next 5-10 years, so from a strictly relative gains perspective, I acquire more influence in the discipline. Furthermore, the national security exemption means that whatever scraps the NSF throws to political science will go to my preferred subfields like international relations and comparative politics.The thing is, though, that I love political science. I want to see more quality research being done, and the NSF cutoff pushes things in the opposite direction.”

Seth Masket at Mischiefs of Faction -”Couldn’t APSA put together some sort of party for all the political science BAs working on Capitol Hill? Do they inform members of Congress about the scholars in their districts who’ve received federal grants and published with them? ”

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Elitism in the Political Science Job Market?

…eleven schools contribute 50 percent of the political science academics to research-intensive universities in the United States. Over 100 political science PhD programs are graduating students that will contest the remaining 50 percent of openings.

These numbers likely understate the impact of prestigious universities; the present study does not include the many liberal arts colleges and regional universities that also hire graduates of these programs and increase the network of advocates for graduates from highly ranked universities. Of course, this is somewhat expected given that the most prestigious programs are often also the ones that have the highest numbers of students. As we move forward with this project, we will control for institution size and output.


The study, by Robert Oprisko, is here, via Inside Higher Ed. From the IHE interview:

Oprisko said that he isn’t suggesting that places such as Harvard shouldn’t have good placement records, only that institutions should not rule out those from elsewhere. “There are students graduating from school No. 50 who are no worse than those at school No. 1,” he said. It’s too easy, he said, to exclude people who didn’t earn their Ph.D.s at elite places.
And Oprisko freely admits that the issue is one with which he identifies. He earned a Ph.D. in political theory last year from Purdue University, and he’s on the job market because he’s in a visiting slot this year.
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New “Polisci Perspective” Feature at Wonkblog

Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog now includes a weekly feature called “Polisci Perspective.”  In it, Danny Hayes, Dan Hopkins, and I will do our best to bring new and interesting political science research to bear on current events, much as does The Monkey Cage. (We are migrating our contributions to Wonkblog from the Post’s polling blog Behind the Numbers, which is now part of The Fix.)

Here is the first post, written by Dan, on a surprising consensus among Americans about immigration.  Stay tuned for more posts, most likely to appear on Sundays.

And if anyone has a better idea about what to call this feature, please leave it in comments. We were hopelessly unimaginative.

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Michael Gerson’s Latest

Gerson’s latest column contains a strange critique of quantitative approaches to elections and political science more generally.  Talking about election forecasting and polling aggregation, Gerson writes:

The main problem with this approach to politics is not that it is pseudo-scientific but that it is trivial. An election is not a mathematical equation; it is a nation making a decision. People are weighing the priorities of their society and the quality of their leaders. Those views, at any given moment, can be roughly measured. But spreadsheets don’t add up to a political community. In a democracy, the convictions of the public ultimately depend on persuasion, which resists quantification.
Put another way: The most interesting and important thing about politics is not the measurement of opinion but the formation of opinion. Public opinion is the product — the outcome — of politics; it is not the substance of politics. If political punditry has any value in a democracy, it is in clarifying large policy issues and ethical debates, not in “scientific” assessments of public views.

There are two false dichotomies here.  One is the measurement of opinion vs. the formation of opinion.  In political science, we do the former so we can do the latter.  Indeed, although forecasting models and polling aggregators take centerstage in an election year, far more political science research actually focuses on the formation of opinion.  In fact, far more political science research about elections is about how voters make decisions—you know, in books like How Voters Decide—and not about averaging polls.  And it’s about how voters may or may not be persuaded by the arguments of candidates—you know, in books like The Message Matters.  (And, yes, persuasion can be quantified.  It’s attitude change in the face of new information.  You can measure attitude change and information with quantitative data!  I don’t know why Gerson thinks otherwise.)

The second false dichotomy is between empirical inquiry and normative argument.  Gerson says that political science, like the rest of social science, cares only about empirical inquiry—it has “precision envy”—and not about values.  Gerson wants pundits to avoid this mistake:

Over the past decade, there has been a revolt among political scientists against a mathematical methodology that excludes substantive political debates about justice and equality. A similar revolution is increasingly needed in political commentary. The problem with the current fashion for polls and statistics is that it changes what it purports to study. Instead of making political analysis more “objective,” it has driven the entire political class — pundits, reporters, campaigns, the public — toward an obsessive emphasis on data and technique. Quantification has also resulted in miniaturization. In politics, unlike physics, you can only measure what matters least.

That’s funny, because when I read political science, I see a lot of interest in topics like justice and equality.  Here’s a book that’s primarily quantitative, about the formation of opinion, and about justice: Jon Hurwitz and Mark Peffley’s Justice in America: The Separate Realities of Blacks and Whites.  Here’s Larry’s Bartel’s book about (in)equality.  And Martin Gilen’s. And Nathan Kelly’s.  Shoot, the American Political Science Association commission a whole report about “Inequality and American Democracy.”  All of these are empirical.  All engage normative arguments.

I’m not suggesting that every work of political science qualifies, including many of my own.  But I’m not cherry-picking either.  It is easy to find political science research that marries objective analysis—even mathematics!—with “substantive political debates.”

Gerson purportedly “crack(s) open most political science journals” and “find(s) a profusion of numbers and formulas more suited to the study of physics.” He should read a little more, because he doesn’t really know what he’s missing.

[UPDATE: See also Greg Weeks.]

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