Monday, May 30, 2011

Is Political Science Actually Science?

PM, over at The Duck, objects to Tom Coburn's desire stop the National Science Foundation from funding projects in the disciplines of "business administration, economics, geography, political science, sociology, international relations, and communication" on the grounds that they aren't, well, science. PM raises some good points, then acknowledges that Coburn's position is probably closer to the average Joe's.

FLG had a couple half-formed thoughts on this.

First, FLG's visceral hatred for Auguste Comte combined with a deep skepticism of empiricism makes it difficult for him to call anything other than physical science by the name science. Don't get FLG wrong. FLG majored in economics and took several PhD-level political science courses just for the hell of it, including a comparative one with all kinds of regressions, so don't think he doesn't understand empiricism. What he worries about is that we can't measure, at least very easily, what is meaningful to people. Instead, we measure what's easy, or at least relatively easier, to measure. And then since social scientists base there experiments and projects around these, non or less meaningful metrics, their research is concomitantly less meaningful.

Second, FLG generally generally objects to government funding of research anyway. He can get behind an argument that pure science, without any foreseeable near or medium run technological application, might benefit from some government funding. Medical research, a la NIH, is hard to argue with. But social science? Nah, not so much. Not that people shouldn't engage in it, but we don't necessarily need public funds to support it. Although, to be honest, we don't really need public funds to do any of it. The medical research, all things considered, FLG really can't argue to defund. (But that's primarily based upon a variety of normative assumptions that FLG thinks we all, or at least the vast, vast majority of us, hold; namely, that, in general, it is better to healthy than ill and be alive than dead.) But social science? It's a kind of science, insofar as it poses hypotheses and tests them, but it's nowhere near as objective as natural and physical sciences.


The Ancient said...

Here's something from Coburn's report:

Are boys more likely to play with trucks and girls with dolls? The National Science Foundation funded a $480,462 study that sought to answer the pressing question of whether a child’s gender predisposes them to prefer certain toys, or if socialization plays a role. Or, more simply, scientists studied if boys like trucks and girls like dolls. To perform the study, scientists evaluated the reactions in 30 infants ranging in age from three to eight months. The scientists used a puppet-theater to show the infants both a pink doll and blue truck, while the children silently watched from car-seats. Because the infants were too young to talk and tell the scientists which toy they favored, the scientists monitored the eye-movements of the infants to determine how long the male and female infants visually fixated on each of the toys. The study, performed at Texas A&M University, found that indeed girls gravitated to the dolls, while boys were evenly split between dolls and trucks. The results of the study on human infants mimicked a similar study the same scientists previously performed in 2002 with green vervet monkeys.

That study found that male monkeys generally preferred to play with a ball or car, while the female monkeys chose generally to spend the most time playing with dolls and pots. The scientist in charge of both studies, Gerianne Alexander, reported that “no one has taught them to go for this toy or that, yet they gravitated to the toys we see human children typically choose. The possibility that there are features of toys that are innately attractive to male and females was reinforced with our human infant subjects.” Here, scientists may have benefitted from talking to any new parent, since the research just confirmed what most new parents easily learn through casual observation. In fact, one new dad observed that his young son would get “so excited upon seeing any truck. A recent trip to a dealership to pick up some parts resulted in his insisting we visit the trucks and touch them. When I set him in the cab, he was probably one of the happiest kids alive.”

LibertyAtStake said...

If politics was a science, Marx would have all the answers. 'Nuff said ...

"Because the Only Good Progressive is a Failed Progressive"

The Ancient said...

In defense (that's too strong, but still) of the witless Senator Coburn:

Some long time ago, I took my g-nephew to Montrose Park, here in DC. He was then about three years of age. He ran about with a moderately large branch, pretending it was a gun. A rather pinched young woman took me aside and said, "My husband and I insist that our boy think of branches and sticks as gardening tools."

I wonder how that worked out.

J. Otto Pohl said...

Political science is not a science. One of the key points of a science is that it can make accurate predictions. Political scientists and economists seem to be wrong more often than just random chance would dictate. Honestly, human society is too complex to fit into scientific equations. The best we can do is try and reconstruct what happened from the remaining evidence.

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