Archive | Political science

The Science of Hotness

As John notes below, hotness science has made some remarkable theoretical and empirical advances since my 2009 post. Nonetheless, the claim that political scientists are unusually smart given how hot we are seems to me to smack of special pleading. After all, even if we’re on the right side of the regression line, we’re still collectively subject to the ironclad law that physical hotness is associated with mental notness. Furthermore, using the precepts of Sound Social Scientific Reasoning1, we can surely draw inferences at the individual level too. And, as a complete aside, it might be interesting to inquire into the implications of the fact that Sides rates a sizzling pepper (the highest possible hotness rating) on Rate My Professor

1 A term of art, covering the axiomatic statements “ecological problems, schmecological problems,” and “g, a statistical myth except and unless it’s rhetorically convenient.”

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What Has the NSF Wrought, Part II

This week we will be featuring several posts on political science research projects funded by the National Science Foundation.  Each of these projects led to an article that was published in the American Journal of Political ScienceAJPS Editor Rick Wilson identified these projects and solicited a short description of the project’s findings and broader implications from the authors.  We’re glad to feature this research and thank Rick and the authors for their assistance.  Here, by way of introduction, is Rick’s prologue:

On April 17 I watched the U.S. House Subcommittee on Research hold hearings on the National Science Foundation.  The statements by members and the various witnesses were instructive.  Majority members pressed the case that in times of austerity difficult decisions will have to be made about what is relevant to the American taxpayers.  Minority members made their case for the importance of basic research and the difficulty in predicting what scientific research will have future payoffs.  Both sides are in agreement about the need for basic research, but in disagreement over the extent to which public funds should be extended to all of the sciences.

In opening statements, Cora Marrett, Acting Director of the NSF, presented an overview of the Budget and made the President’s case for the importance of science.  Dan Arvizu, Chair of the National Science Board which helps direct NSF’s long term goals, also made an eloquent plea for basic research.  Surprisingly, Arvizu spent a significant amount of his allotted five minutes to also defend the peer review system and political science in particular.  He argued that the Coburn Amendment, embedded in the Continuing Resolution for the U.S. budget (CR 933), shackled a particular scientific discipline, limiting what could be studied.  He went on to hold up Elinor Ostrom’s work as an example of basic research that demonstrates that devolved local groups often resolve common pool resource problems more effectively – a point that both sides of the aisle should appreciate. (You can read his statement here.)

In questions by the committee it was clear that some members were having a difficult time understanding what it is that the social, behavioral and economics sciences contribute.  After all we do not build huge telescopes, cure diseases or invent new widgets.  Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who is the Chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, pressed for NSF to make clear what the social, behavioral and economic sciences do for American society.  He was searching for a broader statement of what it is that the social sciences contribute. Also see the broader discussion here.

I have no doubt that the social sciences are important.  Most of the problems confronting the US and the world are a result of human behavior.  This is true for global climate change, for pandemics and for wars.  Yet, as postings in many blogs have pointed out, we can do better communicating our basic findings to the mass public.  As with the natural and biological sciences, it is critical that we engage with the broader community.

A year ago I wrote a guest post here at The Monkey Cage concerning NSF-funded work that made its way into the journal that I edit, the American Journal of Political Science.  At that point I wrote a short blurb describing why the work was important.  I decided to do so again, looking at articles that have been published in the past year.  Instead of me writing about the articles, I asked each author to write a short blurb.  I was delighted by how quickly authors responded and how easy it was to make their findings clear to a general audience.  I was also impressed by how much of the research AJPS publishes is directly tied to NSF funding.  What I did not include is the huge number of studies that make use of NSF funded data collection efforts.

All of these articles have been made freely available for the next six months.

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Why the Public Should Fund Political Science Research

Our public officials are certainly free to make decisions about the best use of the public’s money. But to single out one discipline out of the many that receive federal support seems pernicious, especially when that discipline is focused on such basic questions about the quality of our government and its abilities to improve people’s lives. The answers to these questions are neither cheap nor obvious; they require support and expertise to answer.

As Congress considers its next budget resolutions, we strongly encourage its members to support restoring full funding to the NSF political science program. This represents only a very narrow sliver of the federal budget, but it makes an enormous difference to scholars, their students, and, ultimately, anyone who cares about the functioning of their government.

From a letter written by Seth Masket of the University of Denver, Robert Duffy of Colorado State, and David Brown of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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Social Science Is Losing the War on Social Science

That’s Dave Weigel’s pessimistic conclusion here.  About social scientists, Weigel says:

…it’s difficult for them to justify their own funding in a time of severe government cutbacks. Since March 1, when Congress and the president failed to replace sequestration with anything less idiotic, the human faces of austerity have included children whose Head Start programs are being cut, older people who are going without Meals on Wheels, and—less heart-tugging—business travelers and tourists whose flights were delayed. (We fixed that last one.)

All of those victims have infinitely more marquee value than social science professors.

Weigel has kind words for this blog and links to Greg Koger’s previous post (at the moment, misattributed to me).  The upshot, it seems to me, is that congressional scrutiny is no longer being directed only at political or social science.  All of the programs at the NSF could face restrictions akin to those of the Coburn amendment, depending on what House ultimately does and how the Senate and the White House respond.

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

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.

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The Role of Congress in Funding Social Science, Part II

The folks at Mischiefs of Faction have written up a summary of the last week’s panel on the National Science Foundation political science program, which I mentioned here.  The comments of Rep. Daniel Lipinski (a political scientist) are especially important:

Rep. Lipinski made a particularly useful point about legislative procedure…The NSF funding restriction came in the continuing resolution (CR) that keeps the federal government funded for the rest of this fiscal year (ending Sept. 30, 2013). Congress uses CRs when it has trouble reaching agreement on appropriations bills, which are the traditional legal funding mechanism through which Congress disburses funds to the federal government. The blindsided academic community has therefore been focused on ensuring that the restriction doesn’t get included in the FY 2014 funding legislation, which could be another CR, but might be an appropriations bill or omnibus funding bill.  However, there is another important target: authorization. All federally funded programs must receive authorization from Congress that occurs separately from funding. Authorization doesn’t actually disburse money, but it provides the legal authority for a unit to exist and receive funding.  Authorization must occur before appropriation. Typically, programs receive authorizations for a period of years (NSF’s last authorization was for four years), but appropriations occur annually.

Rep. Lipinski reminded the room that the authorization bill for NSF will soon be brought to the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, and then sent to the Research subcommittee, where Rep. Lipinski is the highest ranking  Democrat. The last time NSF was reauthorized, there was a nearly successful attempt to “zero out” the SBE (Social and Behavior Sciences; the unit where Political Science is housed) unit of NSF. It is reasonable to expect that this might occur again. Without some push back, it could easily go through, since House Republicans (in the majority) have shown a willingness to support it. If this happened, then our efforts to save NSF in the appropriations process this fall wouldn’t matter.  There wouldn’t be a program to fund. The fight (if there is one) over NSF authorization will occur much sooner than the fight over appropriations.

Much more at the post, including ideas about how to take action.

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Here’s One Way to Make Political Science Research More Accessible

Just finished up a very interesting discussion over lunch at the Midwest Political Science Association annual conference about ways we can continue to make political science research more accessible to wider numbers of people (which is of course absolutely in line with the mission statement of The Monkey Cage).

With that in mind, I thought I’d share this animated video that Princeton University put together to promote an article entitled People Power or a One-Shot Deal? A Dynamic Model of Protest co-authored by me and Adam Meirowitz that was just published in the American Journal of Political Science. The voice in the background belongs to Meirowitz…

Maybe not the future of the discipline, but still pretty creative!

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Who Needs Math?







E. O. Wilson has an interesting brief essay (excerpted from a new book entitled Letters to a Young Scientist) on the role of mathematics and mathematical expertise in science. “Most of the stereotypical photographs of scientists studying rows of equations on a blackboard,” he notes, “are instructors explaining discoveries already made.”

Real progress comes in the field writing notes, at the office amid a litter of doodled paper, in the hallway struggling to explain something to a friend, or eating lunch alone. . . . Ideas in science emerge most readily when some part of the world is studied for its own sake. They follow from thorough, well-organized knowledge of all that is known or can be imagined of real entities and processes within that fragment of existence.

Wilson acknowledges that “When something new is encountered, the follow-up steps usually require mathematical and statistical methods to move the analysis forward.” At that point, he suggests finding a collaborator. But technical expertise in itself is of little avail: ”The annals of theoretical biology are clogged with mathematical models that either can be safely ignored or, when tested, fail. Possibly no more than 10% have any lasting value. Only those linked solidly to knowledge of real living systems have much chance of being used.”

Paul Krugman concurs, but with a caveat:

[A]t least in the areas I work in, you do need some mathematical intuition, even if you don’t necessarily need to know a lot of formal theorems. . . . [T]he intuition is crucial, and not just for writing academic papers. If you’re going to talk about economics at all, you need some sense of how magnitudes play off against each other, which is the only way to have a chance of seeing how the pieces fit together. . . . [M]aybe the thing to say is that higher math isn’t usually essential; arithmetic is.

My own work has become rather less mathematical over the course of my career. When people ask why, I usually say that as I have come to learn more about politics, the “sophisticated” wrinkles have seemed to distract more than they added. Krugman’s comment seems to me to help illuminate why that might be the case. “Seeing how the pieces fit together” requires “some sense of how magnitudes play off against each other.” But, paradoxically, ”higher math” can get in the way of “mathematical intuition” about magnitudes. Formal theory is often couched in purely qualitative terms: under such and such conditions, more X should produce more Y. And quantitative analysis—which ought to focus squarely on magnitudes—is less likely to do so the more it is justified and valued on technical rather than substantive grounds.

I recently spent some time doing an informal meta-analysis of studies of the impact of campaign advertising. At the heart of that literature is a pretty simple question: how much does one more ad contribute to the sponsoring candidate’s vote share? Alas, most of the studies I reviewed provided no intelligible answer to that question; and the correlation between methodological “sophistication” (logarithmic transformations, multinomial logits, fixed effects, distributed lag models) and intelligibility was decidedly negative. The authors of these studies rarely seemed to know or care what their results implied about the magnitude of the effect, as long as those results could be billed as “statistically significant.” Competing estimates differ (once their implications are unpacked) by orders of magnitude, with no indication from anyone that anything might be amiss. Of course, there is no reason why mathematically sophisticated analyses cannot be sensibly interpreted. Nevertheless, it seems clear that this is one corner of political science—and I believe there are many others—in which “higher math” is much less urgently needed than “arithmetic.”

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Wake-Up Call: Coburn Amendment and the Minority Pipeline in Political Science

We are delighted to welcome back Karthick Ramakrishnan.


As is widely known in the political science community, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) failed to get the Senate to eliminate NSF funding in political science, but succeeded in placing severe limits to its use, limiting funding only to projects that “promote national security or the economic interests of the United States.”  In the days following the passage of the amendment, many began to wonder how it would affect existing programs, with some speculating the waiver might be interpreted broadly and would leave most funding efforts intact.

Now, we seem to have a clearer answer, and the implications for political science are troubling in ways that were not even appreciated or foreseen in the run-up to the Coburn amendment.

One of the first major casualties of the Coburn amendment, perhaps even the first known casualty of any size, is the cancellation of APSA’s Ralph Bunche Summer Institute (hereafter RBSI), “an annual five-week program designed to introduce minority students to the world of graduate study and to encourage application to Ph.D. programs.”

This development is deeply concerning, and will hurt the future of political science in a country that is moving inexorably towards majority-minority status by 2050.  In October 2011, APSA released a report on racial and gender diversity among political science faculty and graduate students.   While some may disagree with the diagnosis of the pipeline problem, the magnitude of the problem is indisputable, as African American, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans currently account for only 11% of the professoriate in political science (see page 40 of the report), and the primary beneficiaries of RBSI (African Americans and Latinos) account for only 14% of recent Ph.D.’s in political science (see page 65 of the report).

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