Political science

Is Marc Ambinder a Hater?

John Sides Jan 9 '10

After digesting a few of the juicier tidbits of _Game Change_ (“the long-awaited and very gossipy chronicle of the 2008 campaign by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin”), Marc Ambinder tosses this out:

bq. Political scientists aren’t going to like this book, because it portrays politics as it is actually lived by the candidates, their staff and the press, which is to say — a messy, sweaty, ugly, arduous competition between flawed human beings — a universe away from numbers and probabilities and theories.

Jon Bernstein calls it a “cheap shot.” Seth Masket says that Ambinder is “hatin’ on poli sci.”

I don’t think Ambinder’s motives are that bad. He’s shown some love for poli sci in the past. But he’s wrong here, on three counts.

The first is to think of “theories” as something that only political scientists have or care about. As social scientists, political scientists are in the business of explaining human behavior. But everyone has theories: politicians, journalists, laypersons of every stripe. Anyone that who says, “The reason Barack Obama did X is ______” has a theory. In political journalism, the theories are sometimes implicit. But they are there.

The difference between journalists and political scientists is that we test theories. Does this make our theories better? Not necessarily. It just means that we know more about whether those theories are right or wrong. This is where methods comes in, and the second problem with Ambinder’s comment. Jon and Seth note it as well: political science is not just about numbers and probabilities. To be sure, quantitative methods have become much more prevalent; indeed, some political scientists would say too prevalent. But it’s a caricature to imply that political scientists care only about what can be quantified. For starters, I would point Ambinder to the Organized Section on Qualitative and Multi-method Research of the American Political Science Association. Jon and Seth suggest some seminal research, and some current research, that relies at least in part, if not primarily, on qualitative data.

The third problem is the casual generalization that “political scientists aren’t going to like” this book, apparently because we don’t like “messy” or “sweaty” or “ugly” or “flawed human beings.” I haven’t read the book. I don’t know whether I like it or not. But I have read similar books about the 2008 election. I read them for the same reason that I read Marc Ambinder. Jon puts it well:

bq. If, however, the reporter is reporting claims that are believed by political actors, then it’s good reporting (and definitely interesting to many political scientists) even if we have excellent evidence that those claims aren’t true.

I read these books to learn facts, particularly about the beliefs and actions of political actors. That’s why my reviews on this blog (linked above) of the two campaign books center on the tidbits that I simply didn’t know. As Jon notes, it’s not that I expect to agree with everything politicians believe, or with journalists’ explanations of their behavior, election outcomes, or anything else. Reporters and journalists are hugely valuable nonetheless, because they have access to information that I never will.

The reason that I care about learning these facts is because — like Seth and Jon — politics-as-it’s-lived actually interests me. If Ambinder’s comment descends to the level of “hatin,'” it’s in this implication that political scientists hate politics. To quote Seth:

bq. If we only cared about numbers and probabilities and theories, we’d have become mathematicians.

Any implication that political scientists hate politics is a little like assuming that public health researchers hate sick people just because they don’t all sit by hospital bedsides.

I’m struck by the similarities between Ambinder’s comment and Matt Bai’s, which I discussed a while back. Again, here is Ambinder:

bq. Political scientists aren’t going to like this book, because it portrays politics as it is actually lived by the candidates, their staff and the press, which is to say — a messy, sweaty, ugly, arduous competition between flawed human beings — a universe away from numbers and probabilities and theories.

And here is Bai:

bq. Generally speaking, political writers don’t think so much of political scientists, either, mostly because anyone who has ever actually worked in or covered politics can tell you that, whatever else it may be, a science isn’t one of them. Politics is, after all, the business of humans attempting to triumph over their own disorder, insecurity, competitiveness, arrogance, and infidelity; make all the equations you want, but a lot of politics is simply tactile and visual, rather than empirical. My dinnertime conversation with three Iowans may not add up to a reliable portrait of the national consensus, but it’s often more illuminating than the dissertations of academics whose idea of seeing America is a trip to the local Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Bai is clearly more dismissive than Ambinder. But I’m struck by the similar notions that permeate their definitions of politics: imperfection, disorder, ugliness. There is then this belief that somehow political science denies these things. I certainly don’t. Politicians are imperfect. They do ugly things. Their actions can amount to disorder. But this doesn’t mean that politicians, or voters, or other political actors are completely unpredictable, or never behave in ways that can be systematically (if only partially) explained.

Back to Ambinder. If anything, I just find his comment, well, sort of lazy. Can’t we move beyond these stereotypes of academia? I read Ambinder every day, and take his reporting and commentary seriously. I don’t think it’s asking too much of him to look for a little value in political science.