The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Yes, I do envy physicists


August 26, 2012

Even the Evil League of Evil has peer review.

One of the laziest sneers directed at us social scientists who use math and statistics in our research is that we suffer from “physics envy.”

Ha! It sounds like penis envy! It’s a quip that will slay them dead around the seminar table!

Well, I do use math in some of my work (to my great surprise). I also have a couple of working papers (soon, inshallah, to be articles) that have lots and lots of tables and graphs.

But that’s not why I have physics envy.

Nor is the source of my envy my shared commitment to an idea that the social universe can be studied exactly like the physical one—that I can generate hypotheses and test them to yield knowledge about the laws of the social world that are akin to the process my seventh-grade science textbook taught me Newton used to understand gravity. (And boy was that book wrong.)

No. The source of my physics envy is the fact that people automatically respect physicists and they have no idea what I do.

Physicists have it easy. Practically nobody who is neither a physicist nor a crank has any firm opinions on the Higgs boson or the speed of light. Even the religious objections have pretty well been dealt with by now (albeit via two processes: persuasion and social coercion). But everyone gets that doing physics is tough work–that it is, in fact, respectable.

On the other hand.

Everyone has an opinion about social science. Often, people have many, many opinions. Sometimes they are ideologues or fundamentalists or autodidacts or otherwise intellectually crimped, and they therefore have a bizarre and unyielding attachment to their ideas. For some reason, though, certain labels–“economist” is the most prominent–nevertheless carry a certain cachet. (Marion Fourcade would note this is mostly only true in the Anglo-American tradition, but, hey, that’s my tradition.) People seem to think that at least some economists do good and useful work, even if they qualify that with terms like “Keynesian,” “Austrian,” “behavioral,” and so on.

But political scientists?

Well, thanks to John Sides and The Monkey Cage, several Washington political reporters have gotten to the point where they think that political science is worthwhile. But that persuasion has not stopped Congress from, essentially, redefining my vocation out of “science”–an act of rhetorical coercion that PTJ would note in some sense mimics what data-driven political scientists did to their more critical colleagues. And at the every day level I note that practically nobody has a good sense of what I do. When I answer the question “what classes are you teaching” by saying “stats, in the spring,” the response I usually get is “What do political scientists know about statistics?”

(Statisticians and methodologists would agree with this Volkisch notion that political scientists know very little about statistics, but for every different reasons.)

One common complaint within the discipline is that APSR has too much stats-driven work (which is really outdated; the quant-for-quant’s-sake work is now in Political Analysis). On the other hand, the most common reaction outside the discipline is that we don’t do stats at all. What’s the source of this incredible disconnect? A lot of this likely stems from the fact that many introductory courses–indeed, entire undergraduate courses of study–are taught like pre-law or current-events surveys, at least when they are not taught like a history of the twentieth century (I’m looking at you, international relations).

We should change that. We should view introductory courses as an opportunity to advertise what it is that political scientists do and why it matters. That means, however, that our departments should continue to restructure their undergraduate curricula even more thoroughly to expose students to what it is that the professional discipline requires. That means, in part, making data and its analysis central to the undergraduate experience. This is not to say that we should make undergrads into junior graduate students. Rather the opposite. We should guide their exploration to make sure they cover the entirety of the field, not specialize prematurely.  But right now we aren’t even training good generalists.

To do otherwise shortchanges our students and it shortchanges ourselves. If political scientists can’t justify the intellectual contributions of our field to undergraduates–that is, if we think it’s okay to teach politics and not political science–then it’s no surprise that nobody knows what we do. And if nobody knows what we do, then how can they respect it?

Advance responses to commenters:

  • I’m sure your department is perfect in this regard; I’m talking about all the other departments out there.
  • Yes, this means that we’ll be squeezing out room for some discussions to privilege others. But choosing a syllabus–and maintaining a discipline–is inherently an exercise in what to privilege. If there are coherent sets of academic scholarship housed in political science departments that have little to do with the work of the overwhelming majority of their colleagues, then we should consider strongly whether it is a good idea for them to be housed in political science. Perhaps the not-uncommon division of “political science” and “international studies” is one that more schools should adopt, for instance.
  • Yes, this means that I think that we should have an expectation that our political science undergraduates should have minimal fluency with basic stats (up to the point of reading and interpreting an OLS table) and minimal fluency with some statistical package (even if that’s only Excel). This has obvious benefits for the discipline–early familiarity with statistical tools is the best inoculation against misusing those tools–and for our marketing of the major (“You’ll learn how to do data analysis!”) Does anyone think that either society or the marketplace will value statistical tools less in the future?
  • Yes, this means a relative devaluation of history and theory, but not an elimination of either. I’m unapologetic about this. On the other hand, these should probably be re-emphasized at the graduate level.
+ posts