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.”