Is There “Science” in “Political Science”?

The first problem with the phrase “political science” is that “science” is a god-term in the United States. Perhaps not as much as it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but many folks still hear “science” and think it’s a claim to a settled body of True Knowledge. (This is the regrettable way science is still often taught to students in elementary school and above; that, or as a cook-book approach to investigating the physical world, which is almost as sad.) Plus natural scientists and engineers held extremely high standing in America from the late 19th century through most of the 20th century. So in choosing to name the discipline “political science” over a century ago, disciplinary scholars were no doubt aiming to crib some of the divine aura of “Science!” for themselves.

Further, during this time, “Science!” was tied up with the Whig narrative of ever-increasing Progress, human achievement, and human liberty; with the expectation of extending human control over the very forces of nature itself. “Social science” and “political science” aspired to share in this scientistic teleology, with disciplines purporting to develop scientific expertise regarding the human subject with the goal of improving (and controlling) human life and humanity itself.

We tend to forget how much pull terming something as “Science!” had during this period. Indeed, one of the real pulls of Marxism for American intellectuals in the first half of the 2oth century, as the Coen Brothers’ recent movie, Hail Caesar, hilariously reminds us, was its claim to be a scientific theory.

Political science, along with other of the social sciences, subsequently morphed in the last half of the 20th century. It still gets accused of being a scientistic wannbe by trying to ape the use of mathematical and quantitative methods applied in the physical sciences. Indeed, the musical satirist (and mathematician) Tom Lehrer wrote a song about mathematical wannabeism in political science. (The song is named “Sociology” to fit with the music. But Lehrer is clear in commentary on the song that it’s about political science.)

As a political scientist, I’ve never liked the name of the discipline. I wished it were different (although what would be the alternative?), and am just fine with those who don’t want to think of me and my ilk as “real” scientists. I certainly don’t think of myself as a “scientist.”

That said, within appropriately modest limits and language, and avoiding past pretensions (except for some of the math part, which I’ll discuss later), we can appropriately talk about political “science” and social “science” more generally.

First, there are predictable patterns in much of human political behavior (and social behavior more generally). This is not to say that there isn’t a lot of human behavior that is not predictable. And any social science worth its name must accommodate the fact that humans act intentionally and freely, and can alter their actions in light of being aware that other people are acting, and acting in expectation of their actions, including people being able to change their behavior in the light of being aware they’re being observed by a social scientist.

But even given all of this qualification, at least some human behavior remains predictable. And if it is, then that part can be amenable to study with an aim to understand that behavior (assuming the associated behavior is of interest).

I hasten to add that one need not seek to understand in order to control. To analogize to a natural science, astronomers studying far-off stars don’t seek to exercise control over those objects; they just consider them intellectually interesting phenomena. Human phenomena can be interesting in the same way, with no intention or desire ultimately to control it. In my own case, I found natural phenomena boring, but from a young age found myself drawn to understanding political phenomena. To be sure, political phenomena aren’t as immune to attempts at control as the far-off stars are, but a part of my interest stemmed simply from the intellectual puzzles in governance and politics.

Let me share a personal anecdote. A year or so ago someone asked me what I was working on. I answered that one project I had just started with a coauthor dealt with the puzzle of why (some) authoritarian governments created and sustained judiciaries vested with a measure of judicial independence. The person kindly responded that the topic sounded interesting, and that he supposed part of my project was to try to foster that sort of judicial power in authoritarian countries. I think I probably furrowed my brow when I replied that, no, I was really only interested in explaining the phenomenon as an intellectual puzzle: Why would any authoritarian government ever create and sustain anything like an independent judiciary?

In seeing a look of disbelief, if not disappointment (in me), on the face of my interlocutor, I quickly added that maybe some of our findings might be useful to advocate changes in some countries—although I didn’t really know how that might come about, or why it would. And I added for good measure that I personally favored more judicial protections rather than fewer in authoritarian polities. Both are true. At the same time, as my coauthor can testify, it was in truth only the intellectual puzzle that attracted me to the question. And it interested me with no more expectation of influencing the phenomenon than an astronomer had of influencing the orbital wobble observed in a planet going around a distant star.

The irony in light of the course of political science as a “science” was that my interlocutor was disappointed with the modest range of my scientific curiosity. He expected a political scientist to desire to channel and control, to desire to advance the path of human progress. He was disappointed with a desire simply to understand and explain an intellectual puzzle, even if that puzzle was a political one.

To be sure, I seek, after a fashion, to influence. I wouldn’t be writing for Law and Liberty were it otherwise. Still, I insist that even when limited to the modest level of indulging the intellectual itch to understand and no more, a focus on politics—“political science,” if you will, however cabined away from the pretensions of scientism and power—can be as thrilling an intellectual field of inquiry as any. Puzzles abound inviting examination and explanation.