My Graduate Advisor Explains Political Science

From the Fall 2010 University of Oregon Political Science Department newsletter, featuring my graduate advisor, John Orbell, an excerpt from his essay, “Reflections on a Privileged Life.”

I don’t see [political science] as a discipline in the sense of, say, economics, where scholars frequently agree on theory and methodology; political science is more of a holding company for people interested in subjects that, by some stretch of the imagination, can be called “politics.” Understandably, this cacophony can sometimes lead to departmental conflict, but it can also disappear if one side wins all the hiring battles.* More happily, though, it often allows scholars to follow their noses wherever they sniff out interesting problems. After all, contemporary disciplinary boundaries were spelled out in the early twentieth century, and many problems that are interesting and important today require those boundaries to be crossed if they are to be adequately addressed.

If this rationalizes diletttantism, so be it; but it has worked for me…**

Beyond the great privilege of being an academic, my point is this: Disciplinary boundaries are an unfortunate barrier to pursuing problems that do not belong to any one discipline–and none actually do. The major charm of political science as a “nondiscipline” is the freedom it gives scholars to follow such problems, provided they can (1) wriggle past the question often posed by department heads of whether it is “really political science”; (2) find appropriately skilled collaborators when moving into an unknown discipline; and (3) build from a basis of skills developed for prior projects to address new ones.

Few people have been as successful at successfully navigating those three potential obstacles as Orbell has been. He would be the first to tell you that he’s not a genius, but he has a particular talent for spotting linkages between disciplines–those places where disciplinary boundaries slice right across intellectual problems, just as colonial boundaries slice across indigenous populations–and for managing research collaborations with patience, good humor, and gentle nudging.

He, more than anyone, shaped my way of thinking about my “nondiscipline” and about how to approach the intellectual life, which is why I bristle when I hear that political science is about studying government, or some such other pigeonhole that doesn’t do it justice. In fact my considered view is that properly understood, political science is a subset of biology, along with all the social sciences (at least psychology and economics–I am dubious about whether sociology has any value worthy of being recognized), because we are studying the behavior of a particular species of animal in its interactions with the environment and with others of its kind.*** That doesn’t mean we ought to be reorganized into the biology department, but that we should keep in mind, always, that we are studying a species that is biological and that has an evolutionary history that has shaped it.

[Special note to JamesK. John Orbell is a New Zealander, and an ideal type of all the Kiwis I have ever met, which I mean as a great compliment.]

* This is a sly shot at the current makeup of UO’s political science department. For many years, there was an uneasy truce, with John Orbell as one of the leading brokers, that allowed two opposing sides in the department’s culture to effectively alternate hires. After the retirement of Orbell and the Marxist professor who helped broker the truce on the other side, this system broke down, and now the non-Orbell side has won most of the hiring battles.
**Orbell has published in journals devoted to political science, sociology, psychology, economics and decision sciences, and perhaps others that I don’t know about.
***One of my best friends is an entomologist who specializes in social insects–I like to turn this formulation around and tell him his discipline is a subset of political science. Although I say that mostly to bug him, if Harold Lasswell’s definition of politics as “who gets what, when, and how” is taken as the starting point, then he is indeed something of a political scientist. And, I would add, an economist, as his dissertation research involved cost-benefit analysis of foraging strategies among imported red fire ants, and he did cite directly to the economic literature on cost-benefit analysis.


About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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41 Responses to My Graduate Advisor Explains Political Science

  1. AMW says:

    I agree that social scientists should think of themselves as a sort of messy assembly of biologists. There is clearly a lot of overlap, and I think the biologists have actually done a better job of incorporating our material than we have of incorporating theirs. Dawkins’ Selfish Gene, for instance, could be more accurately retitled “The Economics of Biology.” Sales would probably suffer, though.

    I recently heard a talk by a psychologist studying the hot hand fallacy. He pointed out that the fallacy is based on the assumption that payoffs are positively autocorrelated, i.e., they tend come in clumps. He then pointed out that in nature, payoffs like food and water sources, potential mates and the like, tend to come in clusters, whereas truly randomly distributed payoffs are relatively scarce. So what we tend to think of as a cognitive bias, or weakness, may very well simply reflect humans’ adaptive history.

  2. James K says:

    We do get around don’t we 🙂

  3. Chris says:

    AMW, was the psychologist named David Gilden?

  4. Chris says:

    p.s. I consider all science to be branches of psychology, since not only all human behavior, but all science in particular, goes through the brain-body. Psychology is the foundational science ;).

  5. James Hanley says:


    I’m tempted to agree with you, but then I remember that the lower level organisms from which we evolved don’t have brains. Sorry, hypothesis nullified. *grin* I do think psychology has a tremendous amount to offer political science, though, and I know a political scientist at UCSD doing fMRI research. But I once went to a political psychology conference, and it quickly became clear to me that almost nobody there had ever picked up a psychology journal at all. I’ve little doubt you would have been torn between laughing your ass off and moaning in agony.

  6. James Hanley says:


    As a basketball fan, I’ve always thought the research “rebutting” the hot-hand “fallacy” was ill-founded because it mis-stated the hot-hand theory. I forget who wrote that famous paper rebutting it, but he identified the theory as stating that a person was more likely to hit their next shot if they’d hit their last shot. But in my experience, fans didn’t see it that precisely–just that some games a player had a hot-hand, so they should shoot more in that game because they were hot on that particular night. From that perspective, it’s not a fallacy and it doesn’t conflict with the inevitable reversion to the mean, because they don’t assume it will happen again in the following game.

    It’s not that the analysis in that paper was wrong. It was an accurate analysis, based on its particular definition of the hot-hand theory. But it’s definition of the hot-hand theory was, in my view, inaccurate.

    Still, a reference to scoring in basketball is a good technique for teaching students about the concepts of means and reversion to the mean.

  7. Chris says:

    James, the reason I asked AMW if the psychologist in question was David Gilden was because he’s a friend of mine who does research on the hot-hand fallacy (using his earlier work on 1/f noise in human cognition), and in his research, he’s been able to mathematically demonstrate the fallacy in each of the myriad tasks he’s used except one: free throw shooting. He doesn’t really have a well-tested explanation for the basketball exception, but his hypothesis is that it has something to do with how bouncy the balls are. They throw a bunch of (a more difficult to track form of) noise into the equation, making the hot-hand fallacy likely inapplicable to basketball (it works great in golf and baseball, though).

  8. James Hanley says:


    Interesting. If it’s an equipment issue that’s causing problems, he’d also need to account for the differing bounciness of the rim, too. Some are soft, some are hard. Once you have two unrelated equipment problems to deal with, that you can’t expect to reliably balance each other out, and each of which can change over time at any given venue….that’s a difficult problem to analyze, isn’t it?

    On an only slightly related note, at the old University of Oregon basketball arena, the fans could make the floor bounce, causing the rim to visibly move, creating yet another factor. That one could be accounted for by the refs, though, who could award another free throw if they saw the rim bouncing, or delay the shot until the crowd settled down a bit.

    But I still don’t think the hot-hand theory they’re analyzing is the same as the hot-hand theory fans actually hold. Which isn’t to say the hot-hand theory as they define it isn’t itself a legitimate hypothesis.

  9. AMW says:


    It wasn’t David Gilden. It was Andreas Wilke; an assistant prof at Clarkson University. He does experimental work there.

    James H.,

    To my knowledge, “hot hand” doesn’t have to refer to basketball; just any series of independent random draws that are perceived to be dependent (specifically, positively autocorrelated). Wilke and his co-authors have shown, in experimental settings, that subjects do indeed exhibit the hot hand “fallacy.” Though they prefer the term “phenomenon” rather than “fallacy,” because they think it probably has some ecological rationality to it.

    As for basketball, let me see if I understand you correctly. A player has an underlying probability, p, of hitting a given shot. The value of p is independent for each shot. That is, it remains constant. Hot hand implies that fans think that if a player hits a given shot, he’s more likely to hit the next (mutatis mutandis if he misses a given shot). So if I see a player hit a shot, my estimate of p goes up for the next shot; if I see a player miss a shot, my estimate of p goes down for the next.

    What you’re arguing is that fans are comfortable with the idea that p is constant within a given game. It’s just that they think p is higher in some games than in others. So if a player hits a lot of early shots, they think p is high for this game, and he should get the ball. If he misses a lot of early shots, they think p is low for this game, and his teammates should avoid giving him the ball.

    Is that more or less accurate?

  10. AMW says:

    We do get around don’t we 🙂

    James K, what does that say about Kiwis’ assessment of their homeland? Do they want to get out, or do wage differentials make them leave during their working years so they can retire in paradise with more comfortable means?

  11. James Hanley says:


    Yes, that’s my assessment of what fans think. Although I would add a specification that I didn’t before, which is that fans often accept that p is constant within a discrete portion of a game. I don’t watch pro basketball, which has quarters, but college ball, which has two 20 minute halves, which at least has the appearance of being a long enough time to talk about a constant p, and with a long enough break between halves to treat the two halves as discrete time periods that may not necessarily be correlated.

    Now that you’ve said it, I follow the extension of the hot-hand phenomenon. I’d just not read anything about it beyond the original paper. It is in fact interesting if people exhibit that belief. And I have to admit that a survey of college basketball fans could conceivably demonstrate that they view the hot hand in the way its specifically defined for research purposes. I don’t think it would, but to be intellectually honest, I can only speak anecdotally to what fans are thinking.

  12. Scott Hanley says:

    I think James might be thinking of a definition of “hot hand” that goes more like this: normally, a player has a probability p of hitting a shot, but if he shoots more – is less selective – p will go down. There could be a hot hand where a player can increase the number of shots, being more aggressive and less selective, while still hitting the same percentage of shots. That might qualify as a hot hand, but would be invisible to the methodology under discussion.

    James may correct me if I’m mistaken.

  13. James Hanley says:

    You’re mistaken. AMW had it right. A player has a certain p, their overall shooting percentage, but in a given game or half, their p for that period is higher.

    Of course mathematically it would be very bizarre if they never did have a hot hand, but shot precisely the same p each game of a season. But just speaking generally, my definition is that players tend to have good games and bad games.

  14. James K says:


    James K, what does that say about Kiwis’ assessment of their homeland? Do they want to get out, or do wage differentials make them leave during their working years so they can retire in paradise with more comfortable means?

    It’s a combination of economics and culture. On the economics front, we’re moderately poor for a Western country (our GDP per capita is in the bottom half of the OECD), so a lot of Kiwis go overseas (Australia mostly, but Canada, the UK and the US are also popular) to make their fortune and/or provide a better life for their families. On the cultural front, it’s quite common for kiwi youth to go on “The Big OE” (OE stands for Overseas Experience), and spend a few years living in another country, either just before or just after university. Most return, but many do not. On top of that we’re just a naturally outward looking people, with a country as small as ours you pretty much have to be.

  15. Michael Enquist says:


    You describe the characters of a story I wrote many years ago. The youth were required to leave the space station and earn their fortune on Earth, Mars or wherever to buy their way back into the station -Which was such a libertarian “eu”-topia that anyone who lived their would only want to go back. The hook was that my protagonist met some people who didn’t, in fact, want to return.

    The real life experience of a smiliar situation for me was working in Singapore, whose government worked hard to convince its citizens that Singapore was heaven on Earth. Then I read a little book called, “Singapore: My Home Too,” by a fellow who traveled overseas and learned that maybe what the gov’t was selling the citizenry wasn’t really all that great.

  16. James Hanley says:

    Hmm, to go off on a tangent, maybe all Texas youths should be required to leave the state for a few years.

    If that doesn’t make sense to you, then you’ve never met the type of Texan who was raised from birth being indoctrinated into the idea that Texas is indisputably the greatest place on earth and all other people are really envious of Texas. I have met some young Texans who were honestly astounded when I told them that I didn’t think Texas was all that great–they couldn’t quite wrap their minds around that concept.

    Of course not all Texans are that way. Just too damn many, from my perspective. When Governor Goodhair Perry started talking about secession, I got a little bit hopeful. But encouraging travel outside the state is probably a better solution.

  17. Chris says:

    James, I often joke that Texans love Texas so much because they’ve never been anywhere else. I think your idea should be instituted as a matter of law.

  18. D.A. Ridgely says:

    Most Texans have been outside the state. But mostly to places like Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arkansas and Mexican boarder towns. So, well, you know.

    Then again, I know quite a few people whose attitudes toward the South are shaped significantly by never having been there.

  19. Chris says:

    Then again, I know quite a few people whose attitudes toward the South are shaped significantly by never having been there.

    True, though Texas isn’t the south, no matter how many chapters of the Junior League they open there.

  20. James Hanley says:

    For the record, my attitudes toward the south were shaped both by having been there and by southerners I’ve met in the north. There are certain qualities of southerners that are truly admirable–southern hospitality is hard to grasp until you’ve been fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of it.

    Beyond that, there’s the matters of politics, red-neckism, humidity, and mayonnaise. Ugh.

  21. Chris says:

    James, whatever the faults of the south, they are more than compensated for by pecan pie, sweet tea, blues, jazz, and football.

  22. James Hanley says:

    Sweet tea? An abomination on the order of 1/2 inch of mayonnaise on every sandwich. And football was created in the north. At least college football was, and what other kind matters? Pecan pie? I can understand the preference, so I’ll give them some credit there.

    Jazz and blues, now that’s where the south really contributed something valuable to our culture. But of course we only have those because the south was so irredeemably racist. They don’t come from the type of southerner I’m bashing, but from the people they bashed.

    But, sweet tea? Really? I’m all for subjective preferences, but some things are just wrong.

    Pecan pie? I can understand the preference.

  23. Chris says:

    I was home recently in Tennessee recently for a wedding. I was only there for a weekend, but I must have had 20 glasses of sweet tea, since I can’t get it where I live, and miss it terribly as a result. It was 2 1/2 days of sweet tea bliss. Well, it was a wedding, so sweet tea and open bar bliss.

  24. D.A. Ridgely says:

    Chris is correct that Texas is not “the South.” Of course, not all of Texas is Texas, either. (Austin, for example.) My point about the South was, in any case, merely a way of saying that provincialism is a fairly universal phenomenon.

    My wife and I lived in Vicenza, Italy for several years, during which time she befriended our landlord’s wife. Their son was engaged to a young lady who seemed very nice but wh0 came, unfortunately, from Verona. “And you know,” she told my wife on more than one occasion, “those people from Verona just aren’t, well, our sort of people.”

    Verona is twenty five miles west of Vicenza.

  25. AMW says:

    Texas isn’t the South. Texas is a shotgun wedding between the South and the West. My brother just moved to Waco, and he claims that the combination is refreshing. (We grew up in Oregon, but he’s also lived in NM, MO and CA.)

    Verona is twenty five miles west of Vicenza.

    I guess when xenophobes are in cramped quarters they just redefine what a foreigner is.

  26. AMW says:

    Of course mathematically it would be very bizarre if they never did have a hot hand, but shot precisely the same p each game of a season. But just speaking generally, my definition is that players tend to have good games and bad games.

    Mathematically, that can happen even if p is constant across games. Randomness is streaky. In fact, a while back I heard on the radio (so take with the appropriate grain of salt) that some guys had run a simulation of all professional baseball games to date using nothing but pre-defined probabilities for strike-outs, walks, doubles, home runs, etc. Their simulation reproduced every major baseball record, including Bonds’ home run record and Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak. (I don’t mean, of course, that they had a little simulated Barry Bonds who hit 73 home runs in their simulated 2001 season. I just mean they had a simulated player who hit 73 home runs in one of their simulated seasons.)

    One of the reasons humans seem to be so bad at randomness is that we expect it to be less streaky than it is. We tend to mistake mild levels of negative autocorrelation for independence, and true independence for positive autocorrelation.

  27. AMW says:

    Or at least, that’s what Andreas Wilke told me last week 🙂

  28. Mark Boggs says:

    Randomness is streaky.

    I may spend all day stuck in a loop trying to properly understand this.

  29. Chris says:

    Mark, this may help.

  30. James K says:

    Michael Enquist et al:
    I should clarify that the big OE is a middle class and up phenomenon, since our lower socio-economic groups couldn’t afford to do it. And there are still plenty of people who don’t do it, I didn’t.

  31. Mark Boggs says:


    I don’t normally like to admit my complete inability to comprehend things, but I’m doing it here. I think I need a specialized degree in stastistics to understand the wikipedia article you referenced.

    But mostly I was struck by the sentence “randomness is streaky”. It seems almost to be a reflexive axiom.

  32. Chris says:

    Mark, basically, the randomness in human behavior isn’t really all that random, because humans have representations that they hold onto over time (that is memory, and this isn’t just in the brain). So while our behavior appears random over time, it is predictably structured, because those representations cause our behaviors to exhibit a specific kind of noise, pink noise, which is usually contrasted with (not really, but sorta) completely random white noise. The clear sign of this noise is that seemingly random human behaviors are streaky, because we (our bodies) remember previous trials. So randomness isn’t streaky, but humans are.

  33. Mark Boggs says:


    Suffice to say, we’ve now reached a point significantly beyond my pay grade and mental acuity. Your explanation has helped to clarify a bit however.

    In other words, our randomness is rather well organized?

  34. AMW says:

    So randomness isn’t streaky, but humans are.

    Actually, that’s not what I’m trying to imply. I mean that true, white-noise randomness is also streaky.

    The probability of flipping heads ten times in a row is about 0.1% (i.e., the odds are 1 in 1024). But flip a coin a million times, and it would be surprising not to see at least one case where heads was flipped ten times in a row.

    By the same token, take two people, and tell the first to flip a coin 100 times, and write “T” on a chalkboard each time tails comes up, and “H” each time heads comes up. Tell the second person to just write H’s and T’s on a different chalkboard as if they were being generated by a random process like a coin flip. Leave the room, and wait for both to write up their strings of letters. When you come back in, it should be pretty easy to tell which was flipping the coin and which was just coming up with outcomes off the top of his head. The coin flipper will have several long streaks of H’s or T’s, maybe 6 or 7 in a row. The guy just writing up H’s and T’s will tend not to have any long streaks like that.

    Randomness is streaky. But when we see a streak of like outcomes, we tend to discount the possibility that they are the result of chance.

  35. AMW says:

    On a related note, I think this may have some implications for the recent string of (I think 5) gay teen suicides. Public reaction has been to assume that despair is on the rise among gay teens, a la the “It Gets Better” campaign. In no way do I want to imply that gay teens don’t face a tougher road than straight teens in school. I’m sure they do.

    But there are on the order of 20,000,000+ teenagers in the United States, and they have about the highest suicide rate of any age group. If homosexuals make up around 5% of the population, that gives us roughly a million gay teens. Five of them committing suicide in a short time frame does not necessarily mean that gay teens are facing a suicide crisis, or even an uptick in the suicide rate. It could very easily be a fluke.

  36. Michael Enquist says:

    “Randomness is streaky. But when we see a streak of like outcomes, we tend to discount the possibility that they are the result of chance.”

    Probablity In One Lesson, by AMW

  37. D. C. Sessions says:

    If that doesn’t make sense to you, then you’ve never met the type of Texan who was raised from birth being indoctrinated into the idea that Texas is indisputably the greatest place on earth and all other people are really envious of Texas.

    Some things don’t change. Texas may not be the South, but some aspects of Texan culture are certainly Southern and this is one of them. Right along with contempt for education, a conviction that the only good tax is one that you get to collect and keep, and a few other conceits.

    Reference Walter Page’s “Forgotten Man” and the proud ignorance of the South. Cite
    pp 75-77 for starts.

  38. D.A. Ridgely says:

    Imagine my proud Southern ignorance! I thought William Powell was the forgotten man!

  39. Heidegger says:

    Mark, don’t for a second sell yourself short–you are as intelligent as anyone else at this joint.

  40. James Hanley says:


    I was out of town, so didn’t get a chance to respond. Yes, you’re exactly right that randomness is streaky, and I should have thought about that in relation to the hot hand theory. On the other hand, anyone who’s played sports, even just very casually, knows that some days you have energy and just have that special “touch,” and other days you don’t. So there are some external factors that confound the pure white noise streakiness. But I suppose there are days when athletes feel good and the balls still don’t go into the net, or they still strike out, and that’s probably the consequence of true randomness.

  41. Pingback: On Political Science | The One Best Way

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