The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

They Blinded Them With Science

September 3, 2021

Paul Musgrave’s fun piece uses the analogy of the “lab leak” to highlight the fate of scholarly ideas which escape academia and thrive in the wilds of politics and policy. The analogy pokes at a discipline which imagines itself a real, natural science, complete with experiments, higher math, research labs, and other attributes, if not the white coats. Musgrave’s point is that ideas honed in rarefied academic settings can be dangerous in practice. He zeroes in on some choice candidates: game theory, civilizational analysis, and the democratic peace.

The analogy only takes us so far. In naturalist visions of the sciences, theories are tested against a natural world that (one wants to say) patiently responds to experimental probes until law like statements can be established. In Musgrave’s set up, “peer review” and other academic practices stand in for the natural world. These practices, quite evidently, are social. They are part of the political world, shaped by historical contexts and determinations. Scientistic self-understanding is one of the ways in which political scientists protect themselves from the sociology of knowledge; from confronting the ongoing embeddedness of themselves and their ideas in the power/knowledge relations that shape politics and society. 

Scientistic self-understanding is one of the ways in which political scientists protect themselves from the sociology of knowledge.

While scholarly procedures may have groomed Musgrave’s three dangerous ideas, their genealogies are hardly academic, as he realizes. The immediate precursors of game theory, that reason which lost its mind and nearly killed us all, were to be found in cybernetics and operations research that informed everything from proximity fusing to depth charge patterns in the Second World War. Its broader origins are to be found in forms of rationality, like marginal utility theory, that are characteristic of capitalist modernity. As the Cold War came to an end, Samuel Huntington reached back for the hoary discourse of Western civilization and its Others as a frame for world politics. As in the past, its primary utility was the legitimation of Western dominance, and of practices that would be frankly recognized as imperial at the turn of this century. 

The democratic peace also helped justify armed interventions designed to make the world more liberal. But its deeper roots in Anglo-American self-celebration help occlude something altogether more insidious. As Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, among others, have shown, the global color line of the twentieth century was drawn by the liberal democracies of the Anglo-sphere with their White male franchises. A discipline of International Relations that had properly confronted the racialized histories of the last century, including its own imbrication in them, might be better able to grasp our racialized present. 

Instead, a narcissistic theory seduced the discipline in the US, one that allowed it to simultaneously valorize a resurgent positivist hegemony and to praise its own polity as the final political form for all of humanity. 

An irony is that democratic peace – seemingly an actual law discovered amid the statistics of world politics –was instrumental in displacing realism and in shutting down the critical and historical approaches that thrived in Political Science’s glasnost era of the 1990s. These were the very approaches that might have offered the discipline some reflexivity about its situation. 

Political Scientists are less likely to end up as ideologues for, and semi-conscious hand maidens of, power politics if they give up their favored identity as scientists who exist “objectively” above the politics they study.

Tarak Barkawi an historian of war and empire. His scholarship uses interdisciplinary approaches to imperial and military archives to re-imagine relations between war, armed forces and society in modern times. His last book, Soldiers of Empire, examined the multicultural armies of British Asia in the Second World War, reconceiving Indian and British soldiers in cosmopolitan rather than national terms. It received the American Historical Association’s Paul Birdsall Prize.