Tom Coburn Doesn’t Like Political Science

by Henry on October 7, 2009

He has just introduced an amendment to prevent the NSF from funding political science research (PDF). Apparently, Fox News and CNN pundits can do our job better than we can.

The largest award over the last 10 years under the political science program has been $5.4 million for the University of Michigan for the “American National Election Studies” grant. The grant is to “inform explanations of election outcomes.” The University of Michigan may have some interesting theories about recent elections, but Americans who have an interest in electoral politics can turn to CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, the print media, and a seemingly endless number of political commentators on the internet who pour over this data and provide a myriad of viewpoints to answer the same questions.

Whether the answers provided by this ‘myriad of viewpoints’ are good ones, I will leave as an open question. I obviously have a dog in this fight as a political scientist who will probably apply for NSF funding in the future. But I also think that there are measurable Good Things (in terms of understanding how our system of politics works etc) that come from good empirical work in political science. And the politics of Coburn’s amendment are not precisely difficult to discern (among his stated objections are that this money has gone to fund research concluding that the US is increasingly willing to torture suspected terrorists, and carefully unspecified work – doubtless some form of shameless subsidized leftwing punditry – by Paul Krugman). If you feel that political science doesn’t deserve any funding, feel free to say so in comments. If you disagree with Coburn (and are a political scientist) and live in the US, get on to your senator’s office to say so (and ideally, contact your university’s research vice president’s office or whatever while you are at it – they are likely to have good contacts). This may come up for a vote today.

Update: Senator contact information here.

{ 48 comments }

1

Aulus Gellius 10.07.09 at 8:21 pm

Do TV pundits work in total isolation from political science research in explaining election results? I guess maybe they do, but would they admit it?

2

Delicious Pundit 10.07.09 at 8:30 pm

That’s funny, because Randy Newman’s “Political Science” describes his worldview to a T.

3

Adam Kotsko 10.07.09 at 9:16 pm

I wonder what the pundits are pouring onto the data. Is the correct spelling not “pore”?

4

John Emerson 10.07.09 at 9:28 pm

I totally agree with Cockburn.

5

Ben Alpers 10.07.09 at 9:31 pm

The sad thing is that Coburn is arguably my less bad Senator.

6

Secret 10.07.09 at 9:55 pm

I totally agree with Coburn and I am a political “scientist”!

7

djw 10.07.09 at 10:00 pm

How can they use Krugman against us?

8

Timon 10.07.09 at 10:02 pm

I think the basic idea is that if you wire up Berkeley residents to MRI’s and have them listen to Rush Limbaugh, or put an erection-o-meter on homophobic Southern Baptist preachers and have them watch a gay pride parade, then you should be eligible for NSF funding whether or not what you are doing has political consequences. On the other hand just doing surveys or compiling newspaper articles doesn’t fit most people’s idea of science, Coburn is kind of right about that. It is just too hard for political scientists who care about political questions not to let that caring affect their measurements — though personally I would allow NSF funding for you all with the stipulation that researchers only study distant countries, preferably where they don’t speak the language, and try to come up with the kinds of real, unpredictable and un-fudgeable correlations that might be useful to participants in those countries when they hit the news. Stuff like “Henry Farrell discovered that Yuwanmei Party supporters are 30 times more likely to wash their stuffed animal collections than the Standard 5 Party” — and this leads to a brawl in their parliament.

9

Michael 10.07.09 at 10:15 pm

The irony is that we have seen Political Scientists (of which I am, supposedly) like Joseph Nye talk about how useless Political Science is to policy makers and how we study minutia. Coburn basically took Nye’s point and said, “Why fund these yahoos?” I couldn’t agree more with the Senator from Oklahoma. Unless Political Scientists are going to actually study important questions, why fund them? Since many Political Scientists think of policy as a bad word, we have pretty much made ourselves irrelevent outside of the Ivory Tower. Why the hell would I want to send my tax dollars to fund studies on how political discourse at the office?

10

weserei 10.07.09 at 10:36 pm

@1: There certainly doesn’t seem to be any disadvantage to pushing ideas that political science has discredited (e.g. “Ross Perot’s candidacy in 1992 threw the election to Clinton.”). Now, having just finished a B.A. in political science, it occurs to me that this is also the case in a lot of PS classrooms. But I don’t think this makes the case for funding PS research weaker; the field needs to be more research-focused. There’s a continuum between the TV pundit who may do little but TV punditry and talking with other pundits, and the fact-based political scientist who is probably working in an academic setting with little direct publicity. In the middle you have people like Nate Silver, who produces some relatively hard PS work on something like applied roll-call vote models, as well as some basically unsubstantiated punditry, like his argument a few months ago with David Sirota. Silver uses a lot of work done by PS professors who are, like him, doing something approach real science. But he’s also swimming in the big netroots river.

PS and political commentary are sort of a stew of a) charisma-driven punditry, b) work, mostly statistical, that approaches hard science, and c) anthropological/journalistic work. Every individual in the field combines them in different proportions. There was a fascinating study a few years back that tested the abilities of various pundits to predict, in a binary/ternary way, the outcomes of certain future political events. Some of them demonstrated fairly strong predictive ability. Quite a few had little to no ability to make correct predictions. Several even demonstrated strong negative abilities. Sadly, they didn’t name names or ask much about the subjects’ methods.

11

polsci wannabe 10.07.09 at 11:43 pm

Three weeks ago, Senator Coburn saw fit to extol the virtues of a study that resulted from one of the NSF grants he now wishes hadn’t been funded. See:

12

polsci wannabe 10.07.09 at 11:45 pm

Sorry, mistyped the link. It is:

13

Maurice Meilleur 10.07.09 at 11:56 pm

My heart wants me to agree with Emerson, above, and I have a PhD in political science. But, unfortunately, we have to evaluate the ideas of the asshole senators we have, not of the ones we wish we had (for periods of six years at a time, at least).

If Coburn’s amendment said, ‘No NSF funding for you, political scientists; try the NEH instead’–and provided just that much more money to the NEH for the newcomers–then great. (Political theorists have already staked their claim with the NEH. And not that the NEH is necessarily the most secure source of funding for scholarship, either, but work with me.) An institutional rejection of the idea that we can discover law-like generalizations about politics that doesn’t shut down the scholarly effort to make political experience meaningful and to help us find ways to avoid being politically stupid is fine by me. (And let’s be honest: Coburn is not the only person who can’t see the difference between political scientists and political pundits, and that’s not just a failure of everyone else’s imagination or moral fiber.)

But Coburn just doesn’t like smarty-pants professors writing things that get in the way of his and his party’s assholery, so he’s trying to step on their necks. So, as much as I’ll wince when I hear many of the defenses mobilized to protect their access to the NSF spigot (‘we are too a science’), more power to the political scientists. There is such a thing as doing the right thing for the wrong reason.

14

Kieran Healy 10.08.09 at 1:23 am

who pour over this data

Hm.

15

Ray 10.08.09 at 1:49 am

I have to say, as a mathematician, the idea of reducing the number of people fighting over the size of the NSF pie, while reducing the pie by a smaller amount, is music to my ears.

16

engels 10.08.09 at 1:56 am

s/b

a seemingly endless number of cats who paw over this data

17

Jumping Joe 10.08.09 at 2:57 am

I was a political science major and I agree with Coburn. Government funds should go to real science not a bunch of academics sorting over theories that really mean little to most people. Did Jefferson or Plato or Aristotle need government funding for their political theories?

18

Salient 10.08.09 at 3:19 am

I have to say, as a mathematician, the idea of reducing the number of people fighting over the size of the NSF pie, while reducing the pie by a smaller amount, is music to my ears.

Well, there is that.

First they came for the political scientists, but I did not speak up, for I was not a political scientist… Then they came for the philosophers, but I did not speak up, for I was not a philosopher… Then they came for the ethnic studies professors, but I did not speak up, for I was not an ethnic studies professor… Then they came for cultural studies, because it’s not like they do anything useful… Then, I dunno, maybe they come for the mathematicians because f— it, pi = 3 was good enough for God the Lord, now wasn’t it?

19

Salient 10.08.09 at 3:29 am

Also, what the heck’s up with all the self-immolating political science majors? I guess maybe NSF funding is not the lifeblood of poly sci the way it is for mathematics.

20

Sebastian 10.08.09 at 4:54 am

“But I also think that there are measurable Good Things (in terms of understanding how our system of politics works etc) that come from good empirical work in political science.”

Right. We like political SCIENCE but we aren’t thrilled about funding POLITICAL ‘science’. And poli-sci departments are rather noticeably filled with both.

21

djw 10.08.09 at 6:18 am

Unless Political Scientists are going to actually study important questions, why fund them? Since many Political Scientists think of policy as a bad word, we have pretty much made ourselves irrelevent outside of the Ivory Tower.

Well, yes, political scientists like these are frustrating, annoying and a bit more prominent in the profession then they probably should be. But part of the reason this particular brand of political science is ascendant is they get the grants. The solution here is to fund political scientists studying interesting questions in potentially policy-relevant ways. (Although in all fairness some of the problems Coburn attempts to disparage sound like they might fit this description).

22

Richard Pointer 10.08.09 at 6:25 am

As an Econ BA, and Political Science PhD Candidate, I think the argument can be made about marginal benefits of only 91 million spent over the past 10 years on Political Science versus the projects not funded in other “hard” sciences. I think those choices should be made by NSF, not Politicians in Congress.

One could argue that 91 million dollars is a cheap price to keep your intelligentsia at bay; especially one that explicitly studies how governments and revolutions work.

Frankly, if Tom Coburn thinks social science is such a waste of resources then he should work to ban state universities from teaching those courses.

23

Richard Pointer 10.08.09 at 6:27 am

And jeez, doesn’t Coburn use pollsters? If he does, he owes that to PS.

24

J. Otto Pohl 10.08.09 at 7:41 am

Although I am an American with a Ph.D. in history from SOAS I teach in a political science department outside the US. I actually work in one of those far away countries mentioned by Timon. While I would like to see more grant money be made available to my department, I can understand the basic idea behind not including politics under the rubric of science. There really is nothing scientific about political science in the sense of the English word.

Indeed I think there might be an argument for breaking up the discipline and having historians cover political history. This is what I essentially do now. Philosophers could have political theory. Economics could have political economy, etc. Unfortunately right now a lot of “political science” seems to be impossible to differentiate from the greater social studies mush that anthropology and sociology too often produce.

25

rea 10.08.09 at 10:43 am

Coburn is the guy who famously campaigned claiming that rural Oklahoma high schools were overrun with lesbians, to the point that more than one girl could not be allowed in the school bathroom at once, or orgies would break out. One can see why someone who gets elected making those kinds of claims might not approve of empirical studies.

26

rea 10.08.09 at 10:55 am

Did Jefferson or Plato or Aristotle need government funding for theri political theories

Well, Jefferson was on the government payroll for much of his life. Plato was subsidized by the government of Syracuse, while Aristotle was subsidized by the government of Macendonia.

27

Barry 10.08.09 at 11:50 am

Salient 10.08.09 at 3:29 am

” Also, what the heck’s up with all the self-immolating political science majors? I guess maybe NSF funding is not the lifeblood of poly sci the way it is for mathematics.”

They didn’t get into law school, so they’re p*ssed off there, and they’re finding that a BS in Poli Sci isn’t the most employable major.

28

Barry 10.08.09 at 11:52 am

Sebastian 10.08.09 at 4:54 am

” Right. We like political SCIENCE but we aren’t thrilled about funding POLITICAL ‘science’. And poli-sci departments are rather noticeably filled with both.”

Sounds like Coburn-level empiricism to me.

29

Henry 10.08.09 at 1:06 pm

bq. Right. We like political SCIENCE but we aren’t thrilled about funding POLITICAL ‘science’. And poli-sci departments are rather noticeably filled with both.

Sebastian – if you want to make this criticism of NSF funding for pol-sci stick, you’re going to have to show us a piece of NSF funded political science research which is demonstrably politically biased in its analysis. You can find descriptions of funded projects on the NSF website, and can usually figure out pretty easily which research papers etc have built on these projects from the funded professors’ webpages. Have fun with your search! And if you do have to give up after some time, because you can’t find any, I do expect you to come back and tell us.

Otto – again, it would be nice to have some examples of NSF funded projects that are ‘social studies mush’ like that produced by sociologists and anthropologists (n.b. that I really want to emphasize that this is your characterization of these disciplines – not mine). I really don’t think that you will have much luck finding them. Political scientists who have tendencies towards anthropological explanations or qualitative sociology (which I take to be your targets here) don’t have much luck in getting their projects funded (whether this is a good or bad thing you can debate – but it is, as best as I can tell, an empirical fact).

30

JJ 10.08.09 at 1:41 pm

I think Coburn is a crackpot. But his challenge is important. How would our discipline present an intellectual justification for itself as (1) not just the same thing as (if maybe somewhat more systematic and reliable) journalism and (2) still a scientific discipline, if not one quite like cell biology or astrophysics or plate tectonics whatever. By and large political scientists are wholly unprepared to undertake that task. Indeed, they look down on anyone who might so much as suggest that such basically philosophical questions have any merit. And, their ‘let’s just get on with the research’ attitude generates lots of real crap – and I mean crap in the sense that it does not come close to living up to its own criteria of success.

So, while Dr. Tom is nuts (what are his views on climate change or the theory of evolution?), the discipline has asked for this. On the one hand there are the ‘we are real scientist’ types whose notions of science reflect what in 1940 was clearly crack-pot philosophy of science. These folks tend to have a methods fetish – think Imelda Marcos only formal models and quantitative methods instead of shoes. On the other hand we have various luddites who, accepting the same bad philosophy of science, say ‘see we are not and cannot be a real science.’ These folks want us to draw some sort of inference from case studies but haven’t really a clue about what that would amount to. (And if you think case studies don’t require or sustain such inferences go back and actually read, say, the opening essay to Geertz’s Interpretation of Cultures which is largely about the need to generalize.) If it is not general laws, then the luddites have some burden to offer an alternative account – which is notoriously not forthcoming.

By the way, yes I draw a check from a Political Science Department. And, for the lamentable political science majors, the textbook based courses you were spoon fed as sophomores and juniors have nothing to do with political science.

31

Russell Arben Fox 10.08.09 at 1:52 pm

I don’t call myself a political scientist, and am quite sympathetic to the various attacks–be they coming from Strauss or Wolin or Flyvbjerg and the Perestroika folks–on the very idea of calling the study of politics “scientific.” But then, I’m a theorist by training, and a philosopher and generalist by inclination, plus I teach at liberal arts college with little or no serious research expectations, so making a grab for NSF money was never in the card for me. Still, in the United States they put us in political science departments, and you have to defend your tribe (and perhaps especially those members who can actually make the label we’re collectively stuck with work for them) when it comes under attack. So down with Coburn! Sign those petitions!

32

Steve LaBonne 10.08.09 at 3:22 pm

People do realize that NSF has- and rightly so- an entire Directorate of Social, Behavioral and Economic Science? It’s not as though they accidentally funded political science by mistake because they were confused by the word “science”. Sheesh.

33

roac 10.08.09 at 4:17 pm

The sad thing is that Coburn is arguably my less bad Senator.

Whenever Coburn comes to my attention I say “He must be the worst of all the Republican senators,” and when Inhofe impinges I say the same thing about him. Not being from Oklahoma however, I can ignore him most of the time. Can you educate me about the difference?

34

Justin N 10.08.09 at 5:15 pm

As a poli-sci grad student and part of a team that does political psychology work, funded in part by an NSF grant right now, I think this is ludicrous. There are projects in the poli-sci department that don’t fall under the purview of what we traditionally think of as science- political theory comes to mind- but those projects aren’t getting NSF grants. The projects that are going to the NSF for money are data-driven empirical research projects. They have every right to be funded by, as #32 points out, a “Directorate of Social, Behavioural and Economic Science”.

Interestingly enough, Sen. Coburn brings up the point that political behaviourists and political psychologists often pathologise conservatism, which we were discussing in the lab just yesterday. This is a potential problem for researchers, but it’s an issue that ought to be worked out in academia, rather than chopped off by a senator on a political tirade.

And, incidentally, I would really like to study the effect of youtube.com on the 2008 election… where was this conference held and where can I get the proceedings?

35

tired of blogs 10.08.09 at 7:44 pm

If the political process is to govern what decisions the NSF and NEH make, and the principal criterion is what politicians see are “useful” and “non-partisan,” you can expect to see support withdrawn for the rest of the social sciences, the humanities in toto, and the “political” parts of the natural sciences, next.

Evolution, anyone? The NSF spends a lot of money on it, and I bet a lot of politicians don’t like it. So I wouldn’t be too quick to abandon the political scientists to their fate.

36

Aaron Swartz 10.08.09 at 7:44 pm

37

Tom in Raleigh 10.08.09 at 8:58 pm

I’m a political scientist. I’ve also worked at, and been funded by, NSF. It might be good for those who have not the slightest idea what either NSF or political science or science in general mean to either provide some real analysis and insight, or STFU. Sorry to pull rank, but if I was on a hot-rod restoring website and said something stupid about, oh, a Hurst shifter or something, I’d get called out. So I’m calling out the dopes.

I’m not calling out those who have an honest argument about what “science” means, and whether what we do is “science.” For one thing, I have a big problem with the idea that prediction is a criterion for a good theory. But this debate is pitched to a higher level than Coburn’s ganglia (what humans have evolved into a brain) can grasp. Clearly, Coburn is playing to his base, and, if his views on this amendment are a perfect reflection of his base, God help Oklahoma. Clearly, Coburn is playing small p politics, and for a shockingly large number of people, it resonates–not because it strikes a nerve in our discipline, but because it riles up the booboisie that constitutes what’s left of the hard core political right in this country.

38

Virgil H. Soule 10.08.09 at 10:24 pm

It’s a government work project. Political scientists have to eat too, y’know. WPA is not dead.

39

eddie 10.08.09 at 10:49 pm

Just look at where bollockticians DO get their policy ideas from.

40

eddie 10.08.09 at 10:51 pm

I mean, is cock burn really advocating an end to tax breaks for churches? Goood on him if so, but I suspect not.

41

Fr. 10.09.09 at 12:02 am

What I don’t understand is the bit about funding biomedical research instead.

There’s plenty of evidence on TV that praying is the most effective therapy against tumor growth, and that depleting CD4+ T helper lymphocytes are homosexuals getting what they rightly deserve for their depravity. By what virtue, then, is there even a National Science Foundation? Copy and paste if needed; the National Endowment for the Arts should come next.

Demagogues never disappoint me for being demagogues. It’s just that they never push the argument to its end.

42

Fr. 10.09.09 at 12:07 am

Oh, I forgot to post my own amendment:

The U.S. Senate may have some interesting theories about democracy, but Americans who have an interest in democratic politics can turn to the House of Representatives, the White House, the print media, and a seemingly endless number of political commentators on the internet who actually do shit and provide a myriad of viewpoints to answer the same questions.

Oh, I just love the possibilities of that paragraph.

43

rea 10.09.09 at 2:45 am

What I don’t understand is the bit about funding biomedical research instead.

Well, Coburn is an MD, believe it or not. members of his tribe obviously deserve funding.

44

Fr. 10.09.09 at 3:08 am

Well if he’s an MD, he has obviously never spent more than five minutes with a biomedical researcher. I know immunologists who get sh!tloads of cash from all sorts of national agencies to work on something they know for certain will never have the smallest clinical application.

45

hix 10.09.09 at 11:47 pm

Are we already at the point where political science has to hide behind “we are empirical, so wer do serious science”. Dont let this go down the economics way were complicated impressive math with nothing behind gets the only legitimation.

46

ALX 10.11.09 at 9:55 pm

This is doubly funny, because not only were Plato and Aristotle funded by their respective governments, their governments were funded in large part by slave labour. So I guess following the cited logic that sort of makes for a good defense of slave-labour as well as government-subsidies for political science.

47

ALX 10.11.09 at 9:56 pm

Above, I was trying to quote the following comment (#17):

“I was a political science major and I agree with Coburn. Government funds should go to real science not a bunch of academics sorting over theories that really mean little to most people. Did Jefferson or Plato or Aristotle need government funding for their political theories?”

48

Chris 10.15.09 at 12:01 am

As a political science major I am somewhat disheartened by the pile-on. Of course, international security doesn’t matter at all, much the same way it won’t matter when the world erupts in nuclear war. Additionally, studies of democratization and social movements don’t matter at all because dissidents in Iran will never move against their theocratic government. I hope my sarcasm brings the point home, but just in case, Coburn doesn’t have a freaking clue!

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