Just Don’t Call It Political Science

I am not a huge fan of the disciplinary moniker “political science.” It breathes too much of the goofy scientism of the late 19th and 20th Centuries, when science was “Science!” Even today “science” is taught in K-12 as a body of indisputable content – because, after all, it’s “Science!” – rather than as an epistemologically humble process of puzzle solving, one that revolves around answering the child-like question, “why?” regarding patterned, observable phenomena.

On observing the apple falling to the ground, Newton wondered why the apple fell down, as opposed to falling up. I’ve joked that if Newton had been into “qualitative methods” (as they are now called), rather than ultimately positing the theory of gravity as a solution to the puzzle, he instead would have generated a monograph titled, “The Apple Falls: A Case Study, ” and would have been promptly forgotten. Deservedly so.

In any event, “political science” always sounded of desperate wannabeism to me: “I am too a scientist, and it’s ‘Doctor,’ dammit, even if it is only a Ph.D!” The plaintive whine becomes more concerning, however, when paired with the reverent, if somewhat old-fashioned, deference demanded of “Science!” and the cult of expertise.

Shed the pretense, however, and I accept there is a set of political phenomena that can be studied “scientifically.” That is only to say there is puzzling, yet observable, patterned human political behavior that can be understood and explained as such. Corollary to this is that I’m perfectly willing to grant there is a lot of observable human political behavior – important human political behavior – that is not patterned, and therefore cannot be explained “scientifically.”

Additionally, there is also a set of extremely important questions of “how we should then live” that is a subset of moral philosophy. While patterned (and unpatterned) human behavior certainly informs our philosophizing on these matters – particularly by way of setting agendas on what we philosophize about as well as identifying observable consequences of what we choose – normative issues, while critically important, are “other than” scientific questions.

Part and parcel with the part of human political behavior that can be studied “scientifically” is that its study holds intrinsic integrity. That is, in asking and seeking to answer “why” questions related to patterned human political behavior, the integrity of the intellectual process rests not one whit on subsequent application, manipulation, or modification of those results or of that behavior.

In affirming that, I am entirely willing to accept the assessment that many people will find the “scientific” study of politics – properly understood – as something quite boring relative to politics itself. But one can concede that point without agreeing the domain does not have its own scientific integrity. To take an example from the physical sciences (which I know critics of political-science-properly-understood hate), astronomers seeking to unlock, say, puzzling wobbles in distant stars seek to explain the puzzles independent of the possibility of application, manipulation, or modification. And that’s just fine.

To be sure, some, or even much, of these political studies might have subsequent application. In the physical sciences, however, we call this application “engineering.” And so, too, we can have political engineering. Indeed, a lot of what goes as “political science” these days, would be better described as “political engineering.” And I don’t mean that as an insult.

But the inculcation of the humble spirit of true science in the study of politics is a good thing. There are many interesting puzzles in politics independent of whether one desires to manipulate or modify the subject of study.

And it’s a good thing for a political scientist, when asked to recommend an optimal path of action or policy, to respond, “I can explain likely outcomes that result from different policy choices, but when it comes to identifying the optimal policy outcome, your opinion is just as good as mine.” (When I occasionally use that line in interviews with journalists, I’ve had more than one reporter respond with something like “Well, yeah, but I can’t quote myself.” I don’t think they realize just how revealing their answer is.)

In a recent column in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Notre Dame political science Professor Micheal C. Desch, laments “How Political Science Became Irrelevant: The field turned its back on the Beltway.” There is the usual tongue lashing about quantitative methods. And that’s o.k. as well. Even, or especially, quantitative social scientists believe quantitative social science can be done poorly. But what Desch laments most is that so many political scientists no longer aspire also to be political engineers. I think that’s a good thing, however, not a bad thing.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have no doubt that it’s hugely helpful to have people who devote their lives to studying things not amenable to being studied “scientifically.” Scholars who understand the ins and outs of particular countries and regions, or particular states and institutions. It is not insult to admit what one does is not science. At least when “science” is understood properly.

But let’s not pretend we don’t know why the discipline originally called itself “political science.” And it wasn’t because of the old way the phrase was used, as, say, in The Federalist. It’s because so many people thought – and still think – science is “Science!” and that scientists – political scientists or otherwise – know what they’re talking about just because they’re “Scientists!” I’d be happy to get aboard the Desch express if he’d be willing to stop calling political engineering and the application of prudential wisdom “political science.” It’s only untoward legerdemain, however, to get oneself through the door as a “scientist,” then serve up uncabined speculation and surmise as “science.”

Reader Discussion

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on April 04, 2019 at 11:39:25 am

I do think it's true that Political Science "turned its back on the Beltway,” but they did so a long, long time ago; maybe it even goes back to the beginning (think of Woodrow Wilson- he wrote a dissertation on Congress as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, and never even took the time to visit DC before publishing it!). The last time the American Political Science Association had its annual meeting in DC, I asked one of my colleagues who attended whether he spotted any interested politicians or staffers there. "Heck no" he said, they don't even know what the APSA is. I mainly place the blame on ourselves, we "political scientists" who write such irrelevant and condescending studies toward the American democratic system. The APSA meeting is in Washington again this year, and I'll ask the same question to the other people who go; I'm expecting the same answer.

There are exceptions of course; the best of those, in my experience, are the APSA Congressional fellows

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CJ Wolfe
on April 04, 2019 at 11:39:50 am

Rogers hints at more than he illustrates. Indeed, the early political *scientists* ( not to mention social, psychological, etc) not only wanted to be viewed as members of a discipline on par with the chemists, physicists, etc of that era BUT, inspired by the German School and the "august" presence and influence of Woodrow Wilson, who sought to "re-engineer" the US constitution and the American Regime - they also wanted to be able to transform the citizenry, its mores, attitudes and practices such that the poor ill-formed, ill-educated hoi polloi could be better lead, controlled and ultimately re-engineered into a far more supple, malleable body.

It continues to this day. And it produces "scientifically" demonstrated absurdities on a par with the earlier *science* of phrenology, eugenics and scientific Marxism.

Hey, the more things change......

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Image of gabe
on April 04, 2019 at 12:40:44 pm

Science of course means only knowledge; that is its etymology. So while Rogers leads with the absolutely correct and appropriate distinction of science from scientism, I think he is still too narrow in his limitation of proper science as " revolving around. . .patterned, observable phenomena." That still reduces knowledge to data and operations upon data and invites the very scientism that Rogers criticizes: scientism being the imperative to render all knowledge in mathematical-symbolic form and to accord the status of knowledge only to such representations. This approach is still endemic to the practice of all academic social sciences, and it supports the maintenance of an oversupply of academic social science careers by making it very easy to construct papers for publication. People today still read Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Cicero, Aristotle, Plato for knowledge of politics; only undergraduates read Gordon Tullock, because they must. I commend William Starbuck's The Production of Knowledge as an excellent indictment of this phenomenon (the title alone speaks volumes).

And the phenomenon is bound up with and closely related to the quantification and mathematicization of philosophy in England and especially the US during the 20th century as so-called "analytical philosophy."

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Image of QET
on April 06, 2019 at 12:02:47 pm

So what should we call this field? My modest proposal: "Political Theory"

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F. E. Guerra-Pujol
on April 06, 2019 at 12:41:39 pm

... or in the alternative, "Political Economy".

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F. E. Guerra-Pujol
on April 08, 2019 at 17:15:40 pm

>>But let’s not pretend we don’t know why the discipline originally called itself “political science.<<

We don't have to "pretend" anything. We know that the term "political science" originated with Aristotle, and has been in use in English since the 1600s. And, as the author actually mentions, it was used by the American framers in the 1700s.

The author's actual problem appears to be with the contemporary popular meaning of the word "science," and he wants a millennia-old discipline to change its name because of it. I would suggest that it would be more appropriate to instruct people in what the term means.

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Image of Bill
on May 23, 2019 at 21:47:19 pm

[…] Let’s not pretend we don’t know why the discipline originally called itself “political science.” — Read on www.lawliberty.org/2019/04/04/just-dont-call-it-political-science/ […]

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Just Don’t Call It Political Science – Philosophical & Scientific Transactions
on October 06, 2020 at 07:39:11 am

[…] certainly is a continuing need for modesty when applying modern social science tools to real life problems and policies. Kay and King’s […]

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