In (qualified) praise of political scientists
Seth Masket defends political science from those who think the discipline undervalues the importance of individual people and particular campaigns:
[W]hile we can learn a lot by studying a single election, studying hundreds or thousands of them makes it far less likely that we'll be led astray by an atypical case or by a conversation with a dominant personality and far more likely that we'll uncover the basic dynamics that govern elections. That's why we sometimes try to quantify things. Without this sort of larger-scale perspective, it's possible for an observer to believe, as in the example Bernstein mentions, that only Ronald Reagan's humorous quip about his age prevented Walter Mondale from becoming the 41st president. The best sorts of political science usually involve both approaches, balancing a study of individual human political behavior with a quantitative perspective that ensures that what we have found is representative of the political world.[...]
The reason most of us became political scientists and that we endured nearly a decade of low-wage, low-status graduate student status in the process is because politics interests us. We use numbers and probabilities and theories to help us understand politics. If we only cared about numbers and probabilities and theories, we'd have become mathematicians.
All that said, political scientists make it extremely hard for the rest of us to benefit from all that study. The papers are locked away in obscure journals accessible only by expensive subscriptions. There are relatively few blogs dedicated to applying the insights of political science to the events of the day (but more than there used to be!). I don't know of any organizations in the District dedicated to guiding journalists through the thickets of the discipline. Nor do many think tanks in Washington employ political scientists (one reason that economists are so dominant in this town is that they're everywhere, and they spend most of their time talking to journalists on the phone).
I really like the papers I've come across from Yale's David Mayhew. Brilliant, careful stuff that's vastly enriched my understanding of Congress. But I've only read them because another political scientist thought to send them to me. And there's no obvious way for me to get more of them without badgering people for things that I don't yet know that I want. Similarly, Frances Lee's publisher recently sent me her book 'Beyond Ideology.' Great stuff, and it led to this post. But I never would've found out about it if it hadn't shown up on my doorstep.
Masket is right that journalists are making a terrible error if they judge political scientists irrelevant to the debate. But political science could do a lot more to meet those of us who want to listen halfway.
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