Monday, 21 April 2003

Scholar-blogger taxonomy

Via Jacob Levy, I learn that Henry Farrell has reorganized his directory of scholar-bloggers by discipline. That’s something of a Herculean task, one that can lead to fistfights if one isn’t careful. For example, you won’t catch me discussing whether you can be opposed to empiricism and still be a political scientist—so I’ll refrain from talking about the Perestroika movement, and just direct you to Mr. Pravda’s comments instead.

For the record, I am a political scientist who studies mass political behavior, legislative behavior, political institutions, and political methodology. In a pinch, you can call me an Americanist, but I also study comparative politics—one of the three analytical chapters of my dissertation (The Role of Political Sophistication in the Use of Heuristics by Voters) looks at the role of political sophistication in the voting behavior of the Dutch electorate. My fundamental bias is toward empiricism (qualitative or quantitative, although I do much more of the latter—having data is nice), perhaps due to my undergrad days studying hard science and mathematics.

What I’m not: a normative political theorist. I’m afraid any APSR article with the word “Locke” in the title will fly straight over my head. Nor am I any good at game theory.

Wednesday, 14 May 2003

Mr. Pravda's back

The discipline’s favorite cynic has returned to H-POLMETH, this time with a brutal assault on the American Political Science Association’s new logo, which purportedly “is intended to represent APSA’s mission to bring together political scientists from all fields of inquiry, regions, and occupational endeavors within and outside academe in order to expand awareness and understanding of politics.” Exactly how three swooshes of orange is supposed to represent that escapes me entirely, but Mr. Pravda has seen through the layers of deception:

As I continue staring at the logo while uncorking my second bottle of wine, it all suddenly becomes clear. The point is obvious: there is no point. This design is intended to convey different ideas to different people. It is, in that sense, fundamentally democratic. Each of us can assign his or her own meaning to it. To the Quantoid, it can represent pure spatial logic. To the Perestroikan, it can signify the diversity of cultures and peoples. To the cynic, it can serve as a reminder of why it’s always a good idea to underreport your professional income when paying dues to the APSA.


Sunday, 24 August 2003

Perestroikans and the obsession with "rational choice"

Matthew at A Fearful Symmetry notes trouble brewing at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government between “rational-choice theorists” and “more traditional political scientists,” according to NYT Magazine writer James Traub.

This description belies a lack of understanding about political science. We can generally break the history of political science into two eras: the pre-behavioral period and the post-behavioral period. During the pre-behavioral period, political scientists basically did two things: descriptive analysis of political institutions and what I’d term “normative political theory,” a nebuolous field that generally involves the study of political phiolosophy, with a nice dash of prescriptivism thrown in just for entertainment value. Woodrow Wilson did a bit of the former, when he wasn’t being a prescriptivist or a racist (the three occupations kept him fairly busy).

Then came World War II, James Gallup, and the sample survey. A bunch of folks at Columbia and Michigan (among other places) decided that it might be a good idea to test whether all these theories people had come up with about the behavior of voters during the “pre-behavioralist” period were valid (and it turns out that they basically were wrong). Thus was born the behavioral revolution in political science—and, arguably, the entire idea of the study of politics using the scientific method (or empiricism).

Note that this account has not used the words “rational choice.” That’s because rat choice really has almost nothing to do with behavioralism. The roots of rat choice come from economics (notably the work of Anthony Downs and Mancur Olson), and in particular the idea of “utility maximization”; rational choice theory generally argues that people behave in a way that has the maximum possible benefit to themselves (“utility”). Utility has proved rather annoying to quantify in political science (in economics, utility maps rather nicely to monetary units; in political science, about the best we’ve done is OxPoints).

However, there are plenty of other ways to explain behavior in political science other than rational choice. Many behaviorists today—including myself—incorporate rationalist explanations with sociological and psychological explanations to formulate their theories of political behavior, which they then test empirically using either experimental or survey-based data with statistical techniques (usually, although not always, borrowed from other fields, including mathematical statistics, economics, psychology, and biostatistics).

More importantly, this ignores other techniques used in other subfields of political science. In international relations (and some other parts of the discipline), many theories are formulated using game theory, which has some links to rational choice (mostly in terms of the institutions the procedures were developed at, most notably the University of Chicago and University of Rochester), or more advanced mathematical modelling techniques; sometimes these techniques are linked with rational choice under the rubric of “formal theory.” Some of these techniques (ironically, like normative political theory) have not historically been subjected to any real-world testing; however, now there is some interest in doing this through the NSF’s promotion of a series of EITM (Empirical Implications of Theoretical Models) workshops and works like that of Rebecca Morton.

So describing what I do as “rational choice” is something of a misnomer. It would be like describing all normative political theorists as “Plato scholars,” or all economists as Keynesians. The truth is that there’s room for many different perspectives on the study of politics in our discipline.

The problem is that I’m not sure most Perestroikans are aware that there are multiple empirically-based perspectives. For example, the book the Perestroikans hold up as validating their point of view comes from two political scientists grounded in the empiricist, Michigan school tradition. Now, I’ll agree that some leading journals often mistake sexy methodology with substantive importance; like in specifying any theory, simpler methods are preferable to complex ones—given similar explanatory power. (This also goes for theoretical articles; if the APSR is to be a journal that everyone with a graduate education can read, surely we should expect prose that is penetrable to non-specialists.) But to reject empiricism outright in a discipline that has science as part of its name is, in my view, a bridge too far.

Daniel Drezner has more on the Summers piece this morning, which will no doubt spark an interesting discussion, while this post (inexplicably) makes John Jenkins is glad he’s a theorist. He writes:

While I'm certain that good work can, has, and will continue to be done this way in political science, more often than not we end up with analysis so blatant in its biases that it's entirely useless. I am reminded of a study that we looked at in one of my methods classes that determined that, on the whole, those who were of [M]exican descent were paid far less than those who weren’t in some city in Texas. It failed utterly to account for how long the people had been in America (i.e. first-generation immigrants tend to work in low-paying jobs because of lack of training and lack of facility with English) and resolutely concluded that the disparity was due exclusively to racism. Anyone think there was a foreordained conclusion there?

Can you say omitted variable bias? Bad research is bad research, whether it’s empirical or not…

More to the point, I don’t think empirically-oriented political scientists claim to be able to make predictions on a par with those made by sciences solely governed by physical laws. In any event, that’s fundamentally not the point of science, which seeks explanations rather than predictions. Just because, as John puts it, “people will do stupid shit sometimes” doesn’t necessarily mean that their behavior isn’t at least somewhat explainable.

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.

Tuesday, 23 December 2003

You're Inexplicable (with apologies to The Corrs)

Via Bill Hobbs comes the bizarre tale in The New York Times of Howard Dean’s rather odd claims surrounding his younger brother Charles, who went missing—and was presumed killed—in the Laotian jungle in 1974, and whose remains have now apparently been identified. Quoth the newspaper of record:

Asked by The Quad-City Times, which is based in Davenport, Iowa, to complete the sentence “My closest living relative in the armed services is,” Dr. Dean wrote in August, “My brother is a POW/MIA in Laos, but is almost certainly dead.”

Charles Dean, however, wasn’t a member of the armed forces at all—he was, in fact, by all accounts a civilian tourist and anti-war activist, something Dean the elder claims was common knowledge:

“The way I read the question was that they wanted to know if I knew anything about the armed services from a personal level,” he said. “I don’t think it was inaccurate or misleading if anybody knew what the history was, and I assumed that most people knew what the history was. Anybody who wanted to write about this could have looked through the 23-year history to see that I’ve always acknowledged my brother’s a civilian, was a civilian.“…

Dr. Dean called the editorial, which referred to his brother as a “renegade,” “one of the greatest cheap shots I’ve ever seen in journalism.”

“It’s offensive and insensitive not to understand what the impact of this is,” he said, “writing about this in such a tawdry way.”

Personally, the only thing I consider tawdry is the attempt by Dean to link his brother, who was apparently playing Hanoi Jane on the cheap and—amazingly enough—got mixed up with the wrong people in the process, with the real American POWs and MIAs who suffered at the hands of the Vietnamese and Laotian communists. Sorry, but to me little wayward Charlie’s vanity trip to Southeast Asia doesn’t exactly scream “empathy with American servicemen,” either.

I’m not sure what galls me more: that Dean thought he could get away with this, that he genuinely thinks that all there is to empathy with our armed forces is the experience of having a loved one disappear, or that Dean’s circle is so far removed from the military that he can’t even name so much as a sixth cousin with some genuine connection to America’s armed forces. What a truly loathsome creature.

The Quad-City Times editorial is here.

Update: Geitner Simmons of Regions of Mind—whose excellent blog I’d read far more often if he pinged when he made new posts—has thoughts on another concern regarding Howard Dean’s candidacy.

Saturday, 10 January 2004

Thumb enchanted evening

Some say George W. Bush looks like a chimpanzee. Now, Jeff Jarvis speculates that Howard Dean looks like a thumb. Sounds like a warped version of rock-paper-scissors to me…

Thursday, 15 January 2004

Conventional lack-of-wisdom

Stephen Green ponders whether Howard Dean’s candidacy is stagnating in the face of surges from Wesley Clark (in New Hampshire, as he’s had the whole state to himself while the rest of the Dems pander to Iowans prior to next Tuesday’s essentially meaningless precinct caucuses) and John Edwards (who’s picking up endorsements and favorable media coverage in Iowa).

At this point, the narrative for Iowa is pretty much written:* Edwards surges to a surprisingly strong third-place finish, and Dick Gephardt fails to live up to expectations in his own back yard against Dean, effectively starting the “death bells” for Gephardt’s campaign—with the nails to the coffin coming when he finishes spectacularly poorly in New Hampshire.

So, what’s the New Hampshire narrative? Today’s polls still show Dean with a statistically-significant, but rapidly eroding, lead over Clark. If Dean and Clark finish within single digits of each other, Dean fails to live up to expectations—and has to hope that Clark, Edwards, and Gephardt divide the South Carolina electorate enough for Dean to finish #2 behind Edwards. If, on the other hand, Dean gets a double-digit win over Clark in New Hampshire, that’s probably enough to make him the designated frontrunner and tip the balance in the non-S.C. February 3rd primaries through favorable media.

Stay tuned, things are about to get interesting…

* Update: Ok, maybe not… where the heck did Kerry come from?

Wednesday, 11 February 2004

Intelligence failures

A lot of people have egg on their face over this one. Lots of bloggers staked their reputations, in some way, on it, and we utterly failed. The latest, and perhaps the most high-profile, blogger to acknowledge it, is Dan Drezner.

No, I’m not talking about WMD in Iraq. I’m talking about John Kerry’s cakewalk to the Democratic nomination. A month ago, everyone thought that Dean was going to win this thing, even though (as we now know) his poll numbers started eroding about that time.

This is, no doubt, the point where our good buddies the Perestroikans will come out and say this proves, once and for all, that attempts at a science of politics are futile (one suspects they might also think a science of chemistry is futile, but that is neither here nor there). And, if I were someone who believed that the ultimate test of science is prediction rather than explanation, I might agree with them. But in all good science, when our observations don’t conform with our theories it’s a good time to revisit our hypotheses. The hypothetical reasons why Dean should win were sound:

  1. Dean will win the nomination because he’s got the support of the base: This was the clearest argument for Dean’s candidacy. He had a massive fundraising advantage. Dean had captured the energy of the Internet and young people. He captured the anger of many Democratic rank-and-file voters against both Bush and the Iraq war.
  2. Dean has organization: Dean had spent all of 2003 setting up a formidable organization in Iowa; the only candidate who was close was near-native-son Dick Gephardt.
  3. The primary schedule favors Dean: Coming off an anticipated win in Iowa, most observers expected him to surge into New Hampshire and create an air of inevitability around his campaign.
  4. Dean was a governor: Three of the last five Democratic nominees were state governors. In a field where Dean was the only governor, the prediction that Dean would win would be reasonable.
  5. Dean has elite support: Throughout the fall, establishment Democrats jumped on the Dean bandwagon. Elites don’t generally hand out endorsements, particularly in primaries, unless they’re pretty sure they won’t be shown to be incorrect.

Yet a funny thing happened on the way to Boston. As we now know, none of these things came to pass. Why?

  1. We overestimated the base: Dean’s base was deep, but not very broad—perhaps 20% of the Democratic electorate. Dean’s gambit to widen his appeal—being the hardcore “anti-war” candidate not named Kucinich—backfired when Saddam Hussein got dragged out of a foxhole in mid-December. Dean correctly recognized that Democrats were anti-war, but not why they were anti-war: much of the Dem base doesn’t really oppose the war on principle; instead, they oppose it mostly because George W. Bush called the shots. I’d call this the “process” critique of the war, and one that John Kerry was able to capitalize on by being downright shifty with his votes and rhetoric.
  2. Organization didn’t matter in Iowa: Somehow a lot of Iowa Democrats got excited about the campaign without getting very excited about the candidates themselves, and when it came time to vote the undecided voters chose Kerry and Edwards—two candidates whose operations in Iowa were weak.
  3. The primary schedule favored a New Englander: Kerry essentially borrowed the Dean playbook—convert a win in Iowa to unstoppable momentum coming out of New Hampshire as a “favorite son.” Kerry also benefitted from the unexpected nature of the Iowa win—a Dean victory in Iowa would have been expected, and the momentum bump would have been far smaller.
  4. Endorsements don’t matter: The big kahuna, Bill Clinton, stayed out, so the endorsements Dean picked up from has-beens like Al Gore, Bill Bradley, and (maybe) Jimmy Carter were devalued.
  5. Dean pissed off the Iowans: Not just in making stuff up when asked about his connection with military veterans, but in old videotapes where Dean had an all-too-candid moment in revealing that the Iowa caucuses are mainly an excuse for presidential candiates to go and kiss farmers’ asses for months on end.
  6. Finally, Democrats recognized that Republicans were teeing up for Dean: Anyone with half a brain knew that Dean was Karl Rove’s dream candidate: an inexperienced opponent, prone to displays of short temper and highly vulnerable on social issues and defense policy. Democratic voters, who are desperate to be rid of Bush, siezed on electability as the one and only issue that matters—and decided a patrician senator from Massachusetts, like party idol/martyr JFK, was preferable to the thumb-shaped Vermont wonder in that department.

I think the bottom-line lesson here is that peoples’ political behavior is both idiosyncratic and hard to predict. Perhaps more importantly, I won’t call for an investigation of my fellow political scientists for blowing the search for the Democratic nominee if you won’t.

This is today’s entry in the OTB Beltway Traffic Jam.

Monday, 23 February 2004

Signifying Nothing gets results from Howard Kurtz!

James Joyner finds Howard Kurtz in today’s Washington Post acknowledging many of the same sins of the pundit class that SN did almost two weeks ago.

Wednesday, 25 August 2004

Ixnay on the APSA

William Sjostrom detects a hint of bias in the speaker selection for the upcoming APSA conference. Dan Drezner, while acknowledging the potential bias, also points out that the speakers’ appearances will be lightly attended, largely because political scientists have better things to do. He also manages to summarize part of my research methods class last night:

[T]here’s a difference between political science and politics. Most of the presentations and papers given at APSA do not address normative debates about the way politics should be. Instead, they are more detatched analyses of why things are the way they are. Sometimes the answers can be ideological, but most political scientists just care about whether their answer is correct—or more precisely, whether someone else can demonstrate that their preferred answer is wrong.

That said, something I didn’t mention last night is that many scholars’ normative beliefs drive their scholastic inquiry; witness the cottage industry of campaign finance scholarship, the whole “peace science” coterie, or most inquiry into racial and ethnic politics in America. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

Update: Meanwhile, Nick Troester notes that people disagree what “political theory” means. Most often, I see it used as a synonym for normative theory, rather than formal theory, which I gather is Nick’s conception of the term—the latter is sometimes referred to as “formal modeling” to reduce potential confusion, and occassionally (erroneously, in my opinion) as “positive” theory.

Wednesday, 20 October 2004


I have to say, my initial reaction to this Patrick Belton OxBlog post was a determination to go and vote against the Perestroika slate of candidates for the APSA council.

Then I read the bios and found out that my good friend Jim Johnson had nominated both of these candidates. So I committed heresy and only voted for three candidates: the two Perestroikans and the only nominee not at a top-25 institution—even though I found the identity politics paragraph in his bio both tedious and pretentious, he saved himself with the statement “I fear that the proposals of some in the [Perestroika] movement could result in less diversity in the APSA leadership.” Gotta have some balance in the end.

Saturday, 15 January 2005

Really stepping in it

Uh oh, Alexandra Samuel just added insult to injury:

[L]et me agree with all those who pointed out that political science is not a “real” science. I am always available for a long diatribe on this subject myself, and will happily sign on for a campaign to rename it political studies.

For my part, let me say that I will happily sign on to a campaign to rename whatever Dr. Samuel does “political studies” (or “government” or “politics” or whatever she and her like-minded colleagues want) so those of us who actually apply the scientific method to the study of politics can reserve the title “political scientist” for ourselves.

As for me, though, I only offer the suggestion in the spirit of good humor, lest I be accused of advocating excommunication, although some reeducation may nonetheless be in order.

Friday, 11 March 2005

Things that annoy me

Every time I log on to MyAPSA, I have to scroll past this stupid message:

Thank you for submitting your proposal to the 2005 Annual Meeting program. We received a large number of excellent proposals—too many, unfortunately, to be able to incorporate all of them into the program. Your proposal has not been accepted to the program.

We appreciate your interest in the upcoming APSA Annual Meeting and hope that you have the opportunity to attend.

Now, if I were just someone who had submitted a proposal and been rejected, I’d be annoyed by the reminder every time I log in that I got dinged—on the first login, I could see it being valuable, but by the 30th or so I think I’d be pissed off. But I didn’t even submit a proposal, so it’s just insulting me for no good reason. Jackasses.

Just another reminder that, as Mr. Pravda says, “it’s always a good idea to underreport your professional income when paying dues to the APSA.”

Monday, 16 May 2005

Stopped clock watch

Eszter Hargittai and Brendan Nyhan point out (as I noticed sometime in the past few days when surfing eJobs) that the American Political Science Association has condemned the AUT boycott of Israeli universities. I’m glad to see the $77 I sent the association last year (not to mention the hundreds of dollars I have spent in the past) has finally produced something of even minor value.

Of course, the complete uselessness of the APSA has been a recurring theme on this weblog…

Sunday, 9 October 2005

Hire this man

Dan Drezner was denied tenure on Friday. I have to say in my mind (at least, with the essential caveat that I am no expert on IR) that said decision reflects rather more poorly on the University of Chicago than it does on Dan, who I am certain will land on his feet elsewhere; my impression of the U of C is unlikely to recover so quickly.

Drezner Denial Discussion

The University of Chicago’s decision to deny tenure to Dan Drezner has predictably led to quite a bit of discussion; the highlights (as far as I’ve seen):

Stotch also raises an interesting point that is worth discussing at greater length:

Drezner made another huge mistake in trying to conflate blogging and scholarship, and I can only assume that his colleagues deemed this type of work unserious—a perspective with which I largely agree. Looking at his CV, however impressive, might have led his colleagues to believe that once granted tenure, his focus might shift away from his serious work toward more articles, books, conference papers, etc. about blogging—which I assume is hardly what they were looking for when they hired him.

I don’t necessarily believe that Dan’s primary area of expertise (international political economy) is any more “serious” than studying the role of weblogs in domestic political discourse, but it is quite definitely different, and to the extent that institutions hire people to “fill holes” (rather than based on their innate abilities or general competence) I think that could be an issue. Quite clearly, Dan was not hired by the U of C to be a political communications person. On the other hand, there’s no evidence that Dan has neglected scholarship in his primary field.

And I probably need not point out that plenty of tenured faculty take advantage of the security of tenure to spend more time with their families, stagnate scholastically, dodge professional responsibilities, and/or bed undergraduate and graduate students. Somehow the idea of Dan potentially doing research on blogs post-tenure seems like a de minimis concern compared to the other possibilities.

Tuesday, 11 October 2005

More Drezner blowback

As Steven Taylor notes, the Drezner story has made it to the New York Sun; for your own amusement, try to parse this non-denial denial from the department chair:

While refusing to go into specifics about Mr. Drezner’s tenure case, the chairman of the political science department at the University of Chicago, Dali Yang, dismissed the notion that his department considered Mr. Drezner’s blog in making its decision. “I can assure you it’s not specifically about the blog,” he said.

(There is no paragraph here. You may pass.)

Drezner IV

Hopefully the final post in this series: my ex-blogger boss pops up in comments at PoliBlog, Matthew Shugart (a political scientist at UCSD and the co-author of Presidents and Assemblies, one of my absolute favorite comparative politics books) points up the positive aspects of blogging in academe, and Jim Hu has more thoughts.

Wednesday, 2 November 2005

Those who can't publish in the top journals are condemned to insult them

As a counterpoint to my previous post, note this article in the other, less-relevant Chronicle to which I preemptively responded 15 months ago.

Thursday, 3 November 2005

Drezner 1, Wolfe 0

Lest I be seen as an outlier, Daniel Drezner is similarly unimpressed with the recycled Chronicle of Higher Ed article by Alan Wolfe I was forwarded by a departmental colleague and complained about yesterday.

Friday, 16 December 2005


U of C theory professor Jacob Levy talks about his tenure denial, breaking a two-month blogospheric silence; from his perspective, the fact that both he and Dan Drezner were denied tenure at the departmental level has nothing to do with blogging or ideology, but instead because “both political economy and liberal political theory are outside the emerging, Perestroikan, sense of what [Chicago’s] department’s about.”

My (strictly personal) sense is that any department that aspires to either be or continue to be considered at the top of the discipline needs to attract and retain the best faculty possible across the breadth of the discipline. My sense is also that the Perestroikans and their fellow travellers have at best a minimal conception of the actual breadth of the discipline. The intersection of these two senses is most disturbing, at least for those of us who’d like to think that Chicago ought to be an important center of political science research.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

QotD, whisky-and-car-keys-and-teenage-boys edition

Megan McArdle on the profound ignorance of 100 University of Chicago faculty members:

I haven’t heard such transparently wishful claptrap since my fifteen-year-old boyfriend tried to convince me that sex provided unparalleled aerobic exercise.

Then again, profound ignorance is hardly a new problem for the institution.