Michael Heath asks my thoughts on this video mocking political science that Andrew Sullivan posted on his blog. Sullivan says;
A lovely rip-off of the moronic quantification and irrelevance of what now passes for political science. It’s why I escaped from this faux-bullshit-science that has no grasp of history, philosophy, or politics:
I respect Andrew Sullivan, but I heard this kind of argument all through grad school, and I was never remotely convinced by it. To simplify, there are two types of people in political science–those who go into it because they care about issues and want to save the world, and those who go into it because they actually want to analyze how things work. Turns out, it takes math to analyze how things work. It takes formal, or at least positive, theory to properly make sense of the world. Why do those who don’t take that approach have such a visceral hatred of those who do? I’ve never really been sure, except perhaps they’re so emotionally wrapped up in issues that they’re simply offended by those who aren’t. Certainly that was the case with some of the Marxists I knew in grad school. They were adamant that merely analyzing how things were was in fact participating in maintaining the status quo, when what is needed is radical change. (Those who’ve read Marx will recognize that sentiment.)
But contra Sullivan, my experience is that if you talk to most of the quantitative political scientists they tend to have very good grasps of at least two of those three fields–history, philosophy, or politics–Sullivan listed. My undergraduate mentor is the first one who taught me that political science needs clear theoretical concepts guiding its research; he also taught me political philosophy. My graduate mentor taught me that there’s an important distinction between political advocacy and political analysis; he had a master’s degree in history.
I suppose I could as easily mock Sullivan for not understanding math or biology, both of which I think are critical to understanding human behavior, and I’d probably question his knowledge of economics, too. But where does that get us? In Sullivan’s case, I think I’d peg him as just something of a classical humanities scholar. I don’t have any problem with that. But that he’d think that’s the end-all, be-all of the social sciences? That’s rather shallow, and it diminishes him in my eyes.
First, Sullivan obviously has a regrettably narrow definition of politics. (Compare to that of my graduate advisor.) Second, as at least a single data point showing that mathematical analyses really do relate to politics as narrowly defined, here’s a recent report on a quantitative analysis showing that early voting depresses turnout. Third, if we don’t do rigorous analyses of how the world really works, how people really behave, and how policies are really functioning, then all the passionate concern in the world won’t help us get to effective solutions. Philosophy and history are valuable (and I personally think history is crucial), but they’re not sufficient in and of themselves to give us guidance for the future.