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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.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 12, 2010; 5:06 PM ET
Categories:  Political Science  
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Interesting observation. Economists are everywhere. Political scientists are nowhere. If you'd asked me whether it would turn out that way when I was majoring in political science as an undergraduate many years ago, I would've bet the reverse.

Maybe social science disciplines are sexy in direct proportion to how much damage they can do!

Posted by: bcamarda2 | January 12, 2010 5:24 PM | Report abuse

I say this with love, because my dad is a political scientist, but the thick of poli-sci talk is pretty boring. Most seem not to have figured out how to reorient their language to the wider community. Or they don't want those outside of academia to write newspaper columns that don't tell the whole truth of their studies. For every good Ezra Klein column about a dense, scholarly topic there are 400 CNN articles that don't do a great job of exploring the source material.

That said, here's a link to one poli sci blog you may not have heard of (rather than the Monkey Cage, which seems to be the political scientist's blog of choice):

Posted by: howardclh | January 12, 2010 6:26 PM | Report abuse

From the perspective of someone who works in campaigns: I find insight in the quantitative work of political scientists (like you, when I happen to get access to it). But often it feels excessively oblivious to the tasks I need to master: how to help campaigns I'm involved with take advantage of the underlying fundamentals. That's campaign workers' art and the obscurity of the science is greater than I wish it was.

Posted by: janinsanfran | January 12, 2010 9:52 PM | Report abuse

You've become trapped in the promotion and tenure circus of academia. The only thing that counts in P&T decisions is peer reviewed publications in expensive, small circulation journals.

Physics has made an end run around this with the arXiv server. We still have to publish in the peer reviewed journals to keep the P&T committee happy, but long before that comes out, preprints appear for free on arXiv. The result is that no one reads the journals any more, and they exist solely on library subscriptions. If you rely on journals to keep you up to date, you are 6 months to a year behind all your peers.

Sadly, comparable services do not exist in other disciplines.

Posted by: pj_camp | January 13, 2010 8:42 AM | Report abuse

I'm with Seth on this one, and I'd like to add that a lot of political scientists are putting their knowledge to work on the ground. I may not be getting my comments published in the Washington Post, but the people I've worked with on numerous local campaigns have appreciated the knowledge brought to those campaigns - all courtesy of political science research.

Posted by: sjenkins | January 13, 2010 9:52 AM | Report abuse

Ezra, what I think you're missing is that virtually all political scientists are also teachers. The fruits of all that inaccessible, quantitative study do get disseminated--by political science faculty to their students. I imagine most journalists have taken numerous poli sci courses in college. This is a very meaningful role for the discipline. And I think a more appropriate one than the more public and direct role Robert Putnam advocated a few years ago as president of the APSA. When political scientists start appearing on cable news shows, the discipline will be doomed to marginalization because it will be dismissed as biased and driven by hidden agendas. Better to have the articulation between discipline and society occur in the classroom.

Posted by: DougRoscoe | January 13, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

Uh, dude, can't you just walk yourself into the library of one of DCs many universities and use their academic search engines to identify papers you are interested in? Then, if it's not in full text on-line, ask the librarian to show you to the stacks where the journal is located.

Posted by: ideallydc | January 13, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

This is a bizarre post, that only confirms my suspicion that political reporters are among the few college-educated Americans never to have taken a political science course. Of course I'm kidding--but how else to explain why Klein is seriously pondering, "If only there were some way for political scientists to get the word out about their work!" Besides, um, writing textbooks and teaching courses?
If someone as research-savvy as Klein is wondering how to get hold of these hidden treasures of political science, I'm floored. But he could start with the "Longman Classics Series" in political science. It's an excellent intro to some the best stuff in Americanist poli sci.

Posted by: jjohn2 | January 14, 2010 3:17 AM | Report abuse

I forwarded this entry to my old poli sci prof from college and he said you were dead on and he was forwarding your post to his colleagues.

Posted by: lisamj2a | January 14, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse

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