Monday, 22 September 2003

Understanding science

David Adesnik apparently has been drinking the Perestroikans’ Kool Aid:

The secret to success in America’s political science departments is to invent statistics. If you can talk about regressions and r-squared and chi-squared and probit and logit, then you can persuade your colleagues that your work is as rigorous as that of a chemist, a physicist, or (at worst) an economist.

Funny, I just came back from spending a month with people who told me that the absolute worst way to get a job in political science is to “invent statistics.” If David means “understand and be able to utilize” by “invent,” that is. If he means something else, I can’t figure it out.

Still, it is absolutely impossible to explain the tactics of Al Qaeda or Hamas without reference to their perverse ideologies.

It is? Actually, it’s pretty easy to explain their tactics—historically, they’ve been quite effective. What’s (slightly) more difficult to explain is why Al Qaeda and Hamas engage in terrorism while the Sierra Club and Libertarian Party don’t.

The real problem is that [Robert] Pape, like so many political scientists, abandons all nuance in deriving policy programs from his work.

Fair enough. But what exactly does that have to do with the fact that Pape uses quantitative methods in his research? Adesnik claims:

As I see it, the cause of this unsubtle approach is political scientists’ obsession with statistics, a pursuit that dulls their sensitivity to the compexity of real-world political events. If numbers are your thing, you’re going to have a hard time explaining why Israelis and Palestinians have spent five decades fighting over narrow tracts of land.

So then, what is to be done? As you might of heard, many political science programs require training in statistics but not foreign languages. That trend has to be sharply reversed.

Great. Now we can have more social scientists who are completely incompetent at quantitative methods, but at least can express that incompetence in multiple languages. Where do I sign on to this initiative?

Look, I’m more than willing to concede that quantitative research doesn’t—and can’t—answer every interesting question in political science. But the rigorous study of politics can, and IMHO should, be scientific: founded on the scientific method, no matter whether the actual methods used are qualitative or quantitative.

And—irony of ironies—the APSR piece that Adesnik vents his wrath at is completely qualitative (at least in terms of its method of inference). Not a p-value, χ², or logit model in sight.

Anyway, you can read the piece yourself courtesy of Dan Drezner, at least until the APSR’s copyright goons come after him.