Thursday, 25 September 2003

Continuing to get it wrong

Daniel Drezner notes that David Adesnik is digging himself into a hole of rather epic proportions. Quoth Adesnik:

The great flaw of modern political science is its desire to imitate microeconomists (and share in their prestige) by developing theorems that explain and predict the behavior of rational actors. Of course, that is exactly the wrong way to go about things. It is only when political scientists recognize that ideas and values are what drive politicians and voters that they will begin to produce something worthy of the name “science”.

Huh? To begin with, in general political scientists—with very few exceptions—don’t believe all actors are purely rational; in Herbert Simon’s terms, actors are boundedly rational. It isn’t just political scientists who believe this—contemporary psychologists and economists also use Simon’s conception of bounded rationality and satisficing (the idea that people don’t choose among all available options, but rather choose the first one that they encounter that is minimally satisfactory) to explain decison-making, as well as more modern ideas.

For another thing, political scientists recognize that “ideas” and “values” have utility to rational actors. Quantifying these things is hard, and perhaps sometimes it is simpler to retreat to the realm of relative capabilities and force projection ability (to name two favorite variables of my friends that study international relations using data from the Correlates of War project), but to blanket the entire discipline with a critique that perhaps only applies to the most hardcore CoW junkie (and doesn’t even discuss the contributions of the political behavior field to the understanding of how citizens in democratic societies make voting and other political decisions or elite decision-making processes—not all political science goes on in the halls of ISA) seems awfully, and dangerously, simplistic.

Josh Chafetz, one of David’s partners in crime at OxBlog, has some good points (partially in David’s defense and partially critical) and usefully distinguishes between rational choice theorists and empiricists. But, honestly I’m not sure there are that many “universalist” rat choicers out there; I know a few, and they mostly lurk on the edge between political science and economics. Perhaps that perception reflects my training in the behaviorist (Michigan) tradition, though. But in general the ones I’ve met aren’t hostile to empirical testing of their ideas; it’s just not what they personally find interesting.

As for Josh’s snarky aside, “when The Clash of Civilizations is widely mistaken for a good work of political culture analysis, the field is in trouble,” all I can say is: Heh.