Friday, July 27, 2012

Political interference

I’ve a mountain of stuff to put up here after a holiday. For starters, here’s the pre-edited version of an editorial for last week’s issue of Nature. I mention here in passing an opinion piece by Charles Lane of the Washington Post, but couldn’t sink my teeth into it as much as I’d have liked. It is breathtaking what passes as political commentary in the right-wing US media. Lane is worried that US social scientists have an unduly high proportion of Democrats. As I say below, that’s true for US academia generally. To Lane, this means there is a risk of political bias (so that social science is dangerous). Needless to say, there is quite a different interpretation that one might place on the fact that a majority of intelligent, educated Americans are liberals.

But the truly stupid part of his argument is that “Politicization was a risk political scientists accepted when they took government funding in the first place.” No one, Lane trumpets, has offered any counter-argument to that, “so I’ll consider that point conceded.” He’d do better to interpret the lack of response as an indication of the asinine nature of the assertion. Basically he is saying that all governments may reserve the right to employ the methods of dictatorship, imposing censorship and restricting academic freedoms. So if Congress acts like the Turkish government, what are those damned academics whining about? This is the thing about US right-wingers that just leaves we Europeans scratching our heads: they seem to believe that government is a necessary evil that should interfere with the state as little as possible, unless that interference is based on right-wing ideology (for example, by tampering with climate research). Perhaps there’s nothing surprising about that view in itself, though; what’s weird is how blind those who hold it are to its inconsistency.


A fundamental question for democracy is what to submit to the democratic process. The laws of physics should presumably be immune. But should public opinion decide which science gets studied, or at least funded? That’s the implication of an amendment to the US National Science Foundation’s 2013 spending bill approved by the House of Representatives in May. Proposed by Republican Jeff Flake, it would prevent the NSF from funding political science, for which it awarded about $11m in grants this year. The Senate may well squash the amendment, but it’s deeply concerning that it got so far. Flake was hoping for bigger cuts to the NSF’s overall budget, but had to settle for an easier target. He indulged in the familiar trick in the US Congress of finding research with apparently obscure or trivial titles and parading it as a waste of taxpayers’ money.

One can do this in any area of science. The particular vulnerability of the social sciences is that, being less cluttered with technical terminology, it seems superficially easier for the lay person to assess. As social scientist Duncan Watts of Microsoft Research in New York has pointed out, “everyone has experience being human, and so the vast majority of findings in social science coincide with something that we have either experienced or can imagine experiencing”. This means the Flakes of this world have little trouble proclaiming such findings obvious or insignificant.

Part of the blame must lie with the practice of labelling the social sciences ‘soft’, which too readily translates as woolly or soft-headed. Because they deal with systems that are highly complex, adaptive and not rigorously rule-bound, the social sciences are among the hardest of disciplines, both methodologically and intellectually. What is more, they suffer because their findings do sometimes seem obvious. Yet equally, the “obvious”, common-sense answer may prove quite false when subjected to scrutiny. There are countless examples, from economics to traffic planning, which is one reason why the social sciences probably unnerve some politicians used to making decisions based not on evidence but on intuition, wishful thinking and an eye on the polls.

What of the critics’ other arguments against publicly funded political science? They say it is more susceptible to political bias; in particular, more social scientists have Democratic leanings than Republican. The latter is true, but equally so for US academics generally. We can argue about why, but why single out political science? The charge of bias, meanwhile, is asserted rather than demonstrated.

And what has political science ever done for us? We don’t know why crime rates rise and fall or the effect of deterrents, we can’t solve the financial crisis or stop civil wars, we can’t agree on the state’s role in systems of justice or taxation. As Washington Post columnist Charles Lane argues, “the larger the social or political issue, the more difficult it is to illuminate definitively through the methods of ‘hard science’.” In part this just restates the fact that political science is among the most difficult of the sciences. To conclude that hard problems are better solved by not studying them is ludicrous. Should we slash the physics budget unless the dark-matter and dark-energy problems are solved? Lane’s statement falls for the very myth it wants to attack: that political science is ruled, like physics, by precise, unique, universal rules. In any case, we have little idea how successful political science has been, for politicians rarely pay much heed to evidence-based advice from the social sciences, unless of course the evidence suits them. And to constrain political scientists with utilitarian bean-counting is to miss what is mostly its point anyway. As the likes of John Rawls, Herbert Simon, Robert Axelrod, Kenneth Waltz and Karl Popper have shown, they have enriched political debate beyond measure.

The general notion that politicians should decide what is or is not worthy of research is perilous. Here, the proper function of democracy is to establish impartial bodies of experts and leave it to them. But Flake’s amendment does more than just traduce a culture of expertise. Among the research he selected for ridicule were studies of gender disparity in politics and models for international analysis of climate change: issues unpopular with right-wingers. In other words, his interference is not just about cost-cutting but has a political agenda. That he and his political allies feel threatened by evidence-based study of politics and society does not speak highly of their confidence in the objective case for their policies. Flake’s amendment is no different in principle to the ideological infringements of academic freedom in Turkey or Iran. It has nothing to do with democracy.

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