Tag: political science (Page 1 of 3)

The Death of Political Science is Greatly Exaggerated

There is a lot to think about in the aftermath of Trump’s win.  Lots of early hot talks will be wrong.  One of the first reactions has been to wonder about the value of political science (which is not the most important thing to think about but we have plenty of time and bandwidth to cover this and everything else):

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Tweeted and Deleted by APSA: Gender and Race in the Academy

I’ve been wanting to write a Duck post about the experience of a woman with visible minority status in IR for quite some time now. I was waiting for the right moment.  So thanks to the American Political Science Association (APSA), the professional association for US-trained political scientists, the moment has come.

Yesterday morning, an email came from a friend with a screenshot.  The screenshot showed an attractive Asian woman in a frilly top who looks like she’s having a good time looking into the camera.  I was confused.  Then I read the blurb next to it: this was a promotion from PSNow, one of the official APSA dissemination bullhorns.  They were promoting my recent piece with Sarah Stroup in Perspectives on Politics on international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) and authority in global politics.  Instead of contacting us to request a photo, or choosing a stock photo that reflects the subject of our article, APSA decided to accompany this promotion with a photo of a random Asian woman.

I was stunned.

So it’s pretty obvious to me why this is offensive, but let me spell it out.

  • What does the Getty Image “Portrait of a young woman smiling” have to do with INGOs? Or authority?  Or politics?
  • What happened to my co-author?
  • What kind of search terms were being used to even generate such a photo that APSA found worthy of posting not just on PSNow, but tweeting?
  • Has all of my work on INGOs boiled down to some irrelevant stock image?
  • Is it that hard to Google “NGO” for images related to the work being advertised?
  • Yea, “all Asians look alike,” but REALLY?!

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Sexism in Political Science

There is a discussion on PSR about sexism in political science, with most folks concurring that it is still an issue with some deniers pointing out that support groups for women are exclusive, too.  Um, yeah.  How to address such discussions?  I go to my standard operating procedure: what have I seen over the years?  The answer: a heap of sexism which has not gone away.

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Much Ado About Nothing (Very Intellectually or Politically Important)?

The following is a guest post by Jeffrey C. Isaac, the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.  


What constitutes important political science research? This question has been much discussed lately in connection with “When Contact Changes Minds: An Experiment on Transmission of Support for Gay Equality,” an article by Michael J. LaCour and Donald P. Green published in Science magazine.

The reason for the attention is straightforward: because the piece was apparently based on fraudulent data, the article has become a veritable scandal. In the face of strong evidence that the article’s lead author had engaged in repeated and willful misrepresentations, co-author Donald Green, a distinguished senior scholar, issued a retraction and dissociated himself from the piece, and Science magazine itself later followed with a retraction of its own.

Fraud is almost always a serious ethical infraction and in some cases it constitutes a crime. In social science, and in the scholarly disciplines more generally, fraud, plagiarism, and other forms of deliberate misrepresentation are particularly egregious.

Commentary on the scandal has centered on three questions: (1) how could LaCour behave in such an unprofessional manner, get away with it, persuade a senior scholar to sign on to tainted research, and have the work published in a top peer-reviewed scientific journal, without being exposed until after publication? (2) what kinds of collaborative research processes are involved in situations like this, involving scholars on opposite sides of a continent who are not well acquainted with one another, how common are such practices, and how common should they be? (3) what does this episode say about political science as a serious science that possesses the resources to critically evaluate and judge scientific contributions, to expose error much less fraud, and to credibly distinguish valid from invalid, and important from unimportant, knowledge claims?

Each of these questions is important. But I would like here to press a fourth: what is political science, such that its practitioners might believe themselves to have something interesting to say about politics?

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The State of Political Science

It may, however, be appropriate to point out that the persisting bipolar conflict in the  field between humanists and behavioralists conceals a lively polemic within both camps  and perhaps particularly among the so-called  behavioralists. Among the modernists neologisms burst like roman candles in the sky, and wars of epistemological legitimacy are fought. The devotees of rigor and theories of the middle range reject more speculative general theory as  non-knowledge; and the devotees of general theory attack those with more limited scope as technicians, as answerers in search of questions.

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15 Must-Read Books (And 2 Must-Watch Movies) For Political Science Students

nixonlandConsider this a prompt for an open thread.

I’m looking for books to recommend to students to both give them a hint of what academic political science is “really” like but also to get them excited about the systematic study of politics. No single book can do it all, but a summer reading list can at least prod people to look in the right areas. So here’s my list; additions welcome.

  • Putnam and Campbell, American Grace: Fascinating survey of religion and politics in American life
  • Cohen, Karol, Noel, and Zaller, The Party Decides: Who makes presidents and why?
  • Gelman, Park, Bafumi, and Shor, Red State, Blue State: Why do people vote the way they do? Why are some states red and some states blue?
  • James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How do ideas constitute and guide state policy?
  • James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: Taking anarchism seriously.
  • Acemoglu and Robinson, Why Nations Fail
  • Hendrik Spruyt, The Sovereign State and Its Competitors: The states system we take for granted wasn’t the inevitable or even the only conclusion of European state-making
  • Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: Sweeping descriptions of how politics made and unmade American society–and a reminder that political contestation isn’t teleological.
  • BDM and Smith, The Dictator’s Handbook: Thinking like a bad guy.
  • John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics: Few scholars have written such an approachable, provocative, and erudite book.
  • Richard Ben Cramer, What It Takes: Gripping.
  • Kenneth Waltz, Man, the State, and War: Worth re-reading. Most successful comps outline in the history of academia.
  • Michael Ross, The Oil Curse. The definitive statement of a generation of the resource curse research project.
  • Please Vote For Me: School politics with a twist. Is ‘picky eating’ a valid decision rule?
  • Street Fight. I think this was supposed to make me like Cory Booker, but I had the opposite reaction.

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Jeffrey C. Isaac on the NSF and Political Science

In a piece that’s bound to generate controversy among political scientists, Isaac looks at the “big picture” of the defunding of (many forms of) political science via the Coburn Amendment. What’s likely controversial about the piece?

First, Isaac argues that the defunding of political science is simply a wedge in the broader conservative “war on science.”

It seems very clear that the move to defund political science is linked to a broader conservative political agenda targeting many aspects of science and the humanities, and rooted in a hostility toward intellectuals; that it hypocritically singles out the relatively small amounts of the NSF budget spent on political science; and that it rests on a range of specious assumptions and claims. One is the notion that most important NSF-funded natural science is technologically driven applied science. This is obviously false, and the distinction between theoretical and applied science is well established within the natural sciences—and scientists well understand that the practical advances that science makes possible are only enabled bytheoretical advances. Another is the notion that the only way to be a “real” science is to be a science like physics or chemistry. And the third, and most serious, specious assumption is that the principal scientific and social value of American political science is its ability to promote the “national security” and “economic interests” of the United States.

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Six Degrees of Securitization (F*@k you, Senator Coburn!)


Separated at birth? Seriously, Ole Weaver is a sexy motherf*@cker.


Ole Weaver is looking good.

Yesterday the Senate passed the Coburn amendment cutting off funds for political science research through the National Science Foundation. It was by a voice vote, which is another way of saying that it was so unanimous that no one bothered to even count hands. So that doesn’t bode well. I heard on NPR that the money will instead go to cancer research, which is a pretty clever move. Needless to say, APSA didn’t mention that in the press release. I must say that I would rather that the government spend money to help find a cure for the disease killing Aunt Millie than help Bueno de Mesquita advance selectorate theory.

But………  Coburn, who has probably trying to be too clever, left a weakness in the system as there is an exception for research that promotes “national security or the economic interests of the United States.” Dumbass, this is our bread and butter. We can “securitize” anything. In fact we learned how from you bozos. The bad news for large-N researchers compiling big datasets is that they are going to have to read a lot of Ole Weaver, which is going to be very hard for them. But if th at is the difference between a million dollars in grant money or rerunning the Correlates of War, I think I know what they will choose.

Let’s show you how easy this is by playing six degrees of securitization. You can take any political science problem and justify it on the basis of national security in six steps or fewer.

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USNWR Political Science Rankings

I performed a similar operation to Scatterplot, e.g., estimated the results of the current poll by assuming equal weighting for both the 2013 and 2009 poll results (explanation). For the Departments that moved from ranked to unranked in the 2013 rankings I assumed a 1.9–as it looks like 2.0 might be the cutoff for ranking schools.

I forgot to include the actual rankings, though, so my spreadsheet (direct download) only includes scores. If someone wants to do a better job, feel free to start with the spreadsheet I created. Or just make your own.

I haven’t checked my work, but it looks like the largest changes in raw score were +/- .4. GWU was among the biggest gainers, the New School among the biggest losers.

Below the fold is a screen capture of some of the top scorers sorted by estimated 2013-only  results. Remember that these are simply reputation-based rankings.

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Save IR and Politics at University of the West of England

Earlier today, I received an email alerting me to the fact that the University of the West of England’s Academic Board supported a recommendation from the Vice Chancellor’s Executive Group to close all international relations and politics programs.

Apparently, the plan is to refocus the university (one of the ten largest in England) on skills-based learning and vocational courses, which essentially means that arts and social sciences have no place in future plans. As long-time Duck readers know, I think this is a very bad idea — and some much-discussed research strongly supports the value of liberal arts education. Indeed, this research suggests that liberal arts students even out-perform vocationally trained students in the job market. In IR at UWE, 95% of “Students [are] in work / study six months after finishing” their course.

Unsurprisingly, students are very happy with the education they receive at UWE:

In the last five National Student Surveys History at UWE has consistently scored over 90 per cent in the overall satisfaction ratings and Politics at UWE has scored close to 90 per cent. In the 2011 Guardian University League Tables Politics at UWE scored 91 per cent for overall course satisfaction.

Indeed, the students are campaigning  to save their programs. They have set up an online petition. They also have a Facebook page. An especially resourceful Politics/IR student at UWE made the following video about the pending decision and the value of the programs: Continue reading


The Politics of “Political Science”: Mushroom Cloud Edition

Mushroom CloudErik Voeten has a nice piece up about recent research on the benefits of nuclear superiority. Does nuclear superiority provide an advantage to states engaged in crisis bargaining?

In the most recent issue of International Organization (ungated version) my colleague Matthew Kroenig argues that in a crisis between two nuclear powers, the state that enjoys a nuclear advantage is willing to run more risk than its opponent. This gives the nuclear superior state greater “effective resolve,” meaning that the other state is less likely to think that the state with nuclear superiority will back down.


The same issue of International Organization contains an article (ungated version) by Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrman, who claim that nuclear weapons are of no use in increasing the credibility of threats to seize territory or another asset. Moreover, using nuclear weapons is costly. Thus, they find that while nuclear weapons are extremely useful for deterrence, they do little for “compellence” (making a threat to force an opponent to take some desirable action). They show with a different data set of crisis bargaining that threats from nuclear states are not more likely to succeed than threats from non-nuclear states.

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The Minerva Project: Time for a Disciplinary Appraisal?

MinervaA little over four years ago the U.S. Department of Defense issued its first Minerva grants. These often substantial awards have produced a significant number of publications by some of the “best and brightest” (including long-term Duck of Minerva guest blogger Josh Busby) in the field and, whether directly or indirectly, shaped the nature of (at least) contemporary security studies. But it seems to me that we haven’t had anything resembling a robust discussion about consequent costs and benefits to political science, international relations, and security studies.

A brief search online doesn’t turn up much. Sean Kay has a piece in Defense Horizons that praises the program. An older news-style piece in Science by Jeffrey Mervis suggests both why the discussion matters (“That type of funding is on a scale most social scientists have only dreamed about”) and why it might be difficult to have. There’s–and I almost hate to say this–predictable nastiness about the whole thing from some anthropologists. But other than that….

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Another Virtue of Blogsphere Engagement?

PM’s latest post, “Nobody cares about foreign policy” (note to self: we need a style manual to resolve whether, for example, post titles should be capitalized), was prompted by a proseminar we both attended on Monday.

At this proseminar, the always-interesting and invariably thoughtful Elizabeth Saunders presented part of her book project: a paper entitled “The Electoral Disconnection in US Foreign Policy.”

Among other things, Saunders argues that theories of “democratic international relations” — particularly those surrounding audience costs — need to incorporate a central insight from the last fifty years of American politics research: that most voters are “low information”* when it comes to many things political–and especially international affairs.** It follows, therefore, that elites who provide “cues” to the voting public in general, partisans, ethnic groups, etc. often operate as key intermediaries in the relationship between foreign policy and electoral pressures.

You should definitely read the paper, but that isn’t the point of this post.

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Yes, I do envy physicists

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.

A Failure to Communicate?

Political science, alas, has been facing much hostility as of late.  Selected out by a Republican for de-funding, attacked by one of our own in a highly publicized and reputed piece, it is time that we wielded our tools to figure out what is going on.  Thankfully, Huber, Dowling and Hill have done some social science: surveys with some random selection to assess how people feel about Political Science compared to Psychology and Computer Science.  They find that people in general support NSF funding for political science less than for the other two with independents and Republicans far more negative to political science (although Republicans are not that fond of NSF funding of any of these dark arts) and psychology is only slightly preferred.

The scholars asked a batch of questions with these findings about what kinds of stuff people will support, broken down by party id:

Support for Different Purposes of NSF Funding
Overall      Democrats     Independents     Republicans    
To develop new technologies, products, and therapies 0.70 0.82 0.74 0.60
To improve basic understanding in the natural sciences 0.68 0.77 0.73 0.56
To train students  0.67 0.76 0.71 0.55
To improve basic understanding of human behavior 0.64 0.77 0.66 0.52
To support faculty and student research 0.63 0.73 0.67 0.52
Note: Cell entries are mean scale scores (weighted), where 1=Strongly support, .75=Somewhat support, .5=Neither support nor oppose, .25=Somewhat oppoes, 0=Strongly oppose

What we see here is an 7-8% preference for new technologies over faculty/student research or improve understanding of human behavior.  The authors conclude:

In the abstract, however, Independents are more supportive of understanding human behavior than they are of Political Science funding in particular, suggesting political scientists would do well to highlight their contributions in that area. Likewise, training students and supporting faculty and student research are reasonably popular among Independents. Perhaps the more general point is that it is hard to know what the mass public thinks Political Science funding supports, nor what elements of that work it finds objectionable. These results suggest, however, that the public, even Republicans, are more supportive of NSF funding of academic research than opposed, especially when evaluating the abstract goals that the NSF pursues. More effort highlighting these contributions, perhaps related to new technologies and the training of students, might be a fruitful way to foster support for continuing NSF funding for academic research in the social and behavioral sciences.

Interesting stuff.  I do think that political science is very much misunderstood, which may have something to do with this.  That is, we study politics, and politics is seen as dirty and unpopular.  In my experience, when I tell someone I study politics, their responses are usually focused on my ambition to be a politician or my interest in being a lawyer.  Given how much disrepute those two professions are in, it should not be surprising that we are not held in the highest esteem.

To be clear, I think our discipline has been targeted by Republicans of late because of two basic realities–we are low-hanging fruit, and we end up presenting inconvenient truths.  First, because of the existing PR problem that people don’t know what we do, we are easy to attack.  A politician hostile to any government funding of research finds it easiest to attack political scientists because we do not provide patents and other obvious markers of benefits to humankind.  I would not be surprised if Flake and others did some polling before they proposed attacking NSF funding of political science–that it plays better than cutting cancer research, for instance.  Second, we ask some damned inconvenient questions like: do politicians actually represent their constituents? what is the impact of foreign aid on repression? Why do people have political opinions that are counter to their interests?

Aside from making fun of lawyers, what can we do?  In the short run, not a whole hell of a lot.  Everything we have borrowed/stolen from the cognitive and social psychologists tells us that it is awfully hard to persuade people to change their minds.  In the long run?  Well, we are all dead, or so the economists tell us.  In the medium run, we can perhaps do a better job of connecting our research to the problems in the world.  The whole academia/policy gap that we make much noise about–the more we bridge that gap and bridge it visibly, perhaps our added value can be more apparent.

The good news is that we seem to be doing far more outreach now than in the past.  More and more political scientists are blogging, tweeting, and podcasting.  This is all to the good, as the more and more people see what we think, get snippets of research in more digestible forms, and hear our arguments, they can see that we are not aspiring politicians or lawyers but scholars seeking to understand the political world.  That politics is the making of decisions big and small that affect how communities are run (why Montreal’s roads are akin to World War I battlefields), that determine that the response to the current economic crisis should be austerity, that shape interventions into Syria and other conflicts or not.

My realization tonight is that my blogging and my media appearances are not just for my own narcissism but are for the good of the profession (as long as I am not too mistaken).  The more the public sees political scientists providing some insight, some perspective, the more we can change the perception of what we are and why our work is worthy of some public support if governments are going to be in the business of supporting research.

Of course, we disagree with each other as much or more than economists disagree with each other.  That noise sometimes makes it hard to appreciate what we bring to the table.  All we can do is convey our perspectives and hope that people see some value in our views.  They don’t have to agree.  They certainly will not much of the time.  But the more we step out of the ivory towers, the more we can influence how we are perceived.  Or at least, that is my wishful thinking for this night.

What else can we do to change how political science is viewed?


When Political Scientists Do Not Understand Political Science

[cross-posted at SSSpew]

When Political Scientists Do Not Understand Political Science …. they get published in the New York Times.

I tried, I really tried, to ignore the screed at the NYT against political science (especially of the quant variety), but Jacqueline Stevens’s rant is such a poor effort that I know it will be widely read and influential.  Why?  Because bad ideas often spread further and faster than good ones (see Clash of Civilizations).

There are so many things wrong with this piece that it is hard to know where to start.  First, I am , of course, much of what this women hates about political science.  I have actually worked not just with Department of Defense dollars but actually in the Pentagon and, dare I say it?, liked it.  I have taken National Science Foundation [NSF] money–about $4,000.  I have used …. data!

Ok, with that disclaimer aside, I guess the only way to address this piece is to go through it from the top..  Otherwise, I might write something as incoherent as Stevens’s piece.  Ok, one more disclaimer, I am mighty miffed to see a left-wing political scientist end up being a fellow traveler with the right-wing ones that are trying to de-fund NSF’s political science program.  I don’t know this person as her work is in political theory, a subfield that I do not know well.

Stevens argues that “it’s an open secret” that the creation of “contrived data sets” has failed to produce “accurate political predictions.”  Oh, really?  Yes, anyone creating a data set understands that coding political behavior means making assessments and assumptions.  But any other methodology that seeks to generalize about politics also has to make assessments and assumptions.  So, quantitative work will vary, just as qualitative work will, in how well they are performed.  Yes, there are alternatives to using the past in either slices of numbers or in case studies, such as experiments and surveys and game theory–but they will have the same problems.  So, either we go ahead and try to test our hypotheses and figure out whether there are generalizable dynamics or we don’t.  If we don’t, then we don’t need federal grant money or any funding, as we can just think and write without doing the hard work of gathering data via coding or via interviews or whatever.

The second problem with this sentence is this: most of us do not aspire to provide accurate predictions of single events.  Most of us seek to understand the causes of outcomes, which leads us t be able to predict that y is more likely or perhaps only possible if x is present (which she ultimately condemns in her conclusion).  This can lead to predictions.  Indeed, having more understanding should allow us to develop expectations.  Having less understanding or no understanding is probably not the pathway to predicting anything.

Ok, let’s go to the examples.  First–the end of the cold war.  Oy.  Yes, we didn’t have too many scholars predicting the Soviet Union would fall apart.  There are a lot of reasons for this including a status quo bias where our theories have often tended to predict continuity and not change.  Second, our work is not designed to produce predictions of when a country fails apart.  Third, the accusation that International Relations failed misses the target as the Soviet Union collapsed due to domestic political processes with external forces filtered through these domestic dynamics.  Sure, that just shifts the target from IR to Comparativists, but I would also say that our understanding of how authoritarianism works has always been behind democracy.  Data limitations, for one, made it hard to figure out.  Also, much of our work is based on how institutions work, but institutions tend to be less binding where rule of law is absent.  Fourth, there were lots of elements to the end of the Soviet Union that we did understand pretty well, such as ethnic identity can generate conflict.

The really funny thing about Nancy Reagan’s astrologer is that we don’t know what she said, so we cannot evaluate her predictions.

Stevens goes on to say that political science didn’t get how Al Qaeda changed global politics and that we didn’t get Arab Spring.  Um, I guess Stevens doesn’t read much stuff, as there was plenty of work out there on globalization, including of violence, that would alter the conduct of international relations–written before 9/11.  On Arab Spring, no, folks didn’t predict Egypt’s fall, but plenty of NSF funded research on dissent and repression can make sense of what happened including that democracy only seems to have flowered in one spot.  Again, we, aside from a few, do not say x will happen in 2011.

The op-ed then goes onto to say that our errors are caused by adopting the priorities of government by sucking up for money from DoD and elsewhere.  Please.  Yes, we are fad-driven–that we shift some of our attention based on what will get us money–security issues in the 1960’s, oil and interdependence in the 1970s; security during the resurgence of the Cold War in the early 1980’s; the European Union in the late 1980’s; ethnic conflict in the aftermath of the Cold war; terrorism and then counter-insurgency in the 2000’s.  So, yes, some of the field and some of the funding does shift–but those are shifts in topics, not so much in what our answers are.  That is, some of us will shift our research to study that which the public wants to know more about (the government is a public institution, right?), but we in general do not shift our answers or game the models to give answers that we think folks will want.  More importantly, isn’t this point a contradiction for Stevens?  She starts off by saying that our work does not provide for the public good because we cannot predict but then questions why we might be asking questions to which the public might want answers?

The next paragraph shows how little Stevens understands quantitative political science or modern political science in general, as she cites  a few articles with which I am most familiar.  Fearon and Laitin’s (F&L) piece has faced much criticism, including by me, arguing that ethnic grievances matter less and civil wars mostly result from weak states. 

First, to be clear, their model does, ahem, predict which countries will have civil wars pretty well–in general, not specific ones at specific times.  Second, arguing that subsequent work disagrees with F&L is not a condemnation of political SCIENCE but misses the point, as science of any kind requires a give and take.  Every prominent piece of work that is published is not venerated, does not settle the question.  The Cederman, Weidmann, Gleditsch [CWG] piece (which I happened to review for the APSR) is an advancement precisely because it was inspired by the F&L article.  Fearon and Laitin made others think harder and have to provide evidence to make their cases better than if no one had written that piece or if it was not based on some hunk of evidence based on reality.  The really amusing thing is that CWG make their case using … data.  They coded inequalities and made assumptions about what their indicators measured to argue that ethnic grievances do matter.  CWG did rely on heaps of public funding (European, I think, and some NSF) to collect a heap of data to test assertions about various factors and which ones are associated with a higher probability of violence.  It is not a perfect piece, but it causes us to have to re-think the conventional wisdom.

The point here is THIS IS HOW SCIENCE WORKS.  If you want to make general claims (which you must if you want to make any kind of prediction), you need to develop a set of hypotheses based on your logics and considering how others have addressed the question, you need then to develop some sort of test to see if the various hypotheses are reflected in the real world, and then you assess what you found.  The process is part of an ongoing social engagement with other folks studying the same stuff–which means arguing.

The slam she adds is that our conclusions about grievances could be found in the NYT.  Lovely, yes, because everything published in newspapers is right, including this piece?  Um, HA!

Stevens then cites Tetlock’s work on experts, saying that we don’t do better than chimps throwing darts.  Actually, the line she writes is chips and darts “would have done almost as well as the experts.”  Oh, so we actually do make predictions that are better than random.  That is good, right?  Even if we are not perfect? [I have not read Tetlock’s work so I cannot speak to it directly but others can and have.]

Government can and should assist political scienitsts, especially those who use history and theory to explain shifting contexts, challenge our intuitions and help us see beyond daily newspaper headlines.

Um, isn’t that what Fearon and Laitin did?  That they pointed out that state weakness is problematic, perhaps more so than ethnic grievances?  Didn’t this explain the challenges we face today given the number of weak states in the world?  Didn’t it challenge our intuitions by suggesting that it is not just about ethnic hatreds (oh, and yes, if we want to talk about crap in the newspapers, let’s start with ancient hatreds)?  Isn’t state weakness not something that appears in most newspapers?  Fearon and Laitin were not entirely right, but they were not entirely wrong either.

She writes that, “Research aimed at political prediction is doomed to fail.  At least if the idea is to predict more accurately than a dart-throwing chimp.” Does she read her own stuff?  She said that chimps throwing darts did “almost as well as the experts.”  So, the advantage still goes to the experts. What is better? A lack of expertise?

She concludes by saying that NSF money should be allocated by lottery.  Anyone with a PhD and a “defensible” budget could apply.  This is utterly ridiculous.  How about we then have lotteries for who gets their articles into the prestigious journals and books into the prestigious presses?  After all, if having review processes taint who gets money, won’t it taint who gets published?  Of course, we had that debate in the 1990s–perestroika it was called.  An effort to rebuild political science to do away with the hegemony of quantitative analyses.  That is Stevens’s goal: witness her last sentence which is not about point prediction at all: “I look forward to seeing what happens to my discipline and politics more generally once we stop mistaking probability studies and statistical significance for knowledge.”  Aha!  See, this was not about predicting stuff, it was about quantitative work.  Her animus is not really about failing to predict the end of the cold war–which qualitative analysts also did not predict.  Her target is, despite the token lines in the conclusion about getting some data, quantitative work.

What upsets me she that she condemns political science in general and lines up with those who are ideologically motivated to de-fund political science (because it does bad things like study accountability).  But the NYT would not publish a piece if it said “I was on the losing side of a battle ten years ago to re-structure political science because I don’t like quantitative work.”

The funny thing is that these folks did win in a way–mixed methods is the way of the 21st century–methodological pluralism is the dominant path.  You use the methods that work the best to answer your questions–at least in IR and Comparative.  In American Politics, quant work is still pretty hegemonic, I guess.

Anyhow, the point is that Stevens does not understand contemporary political science, which makes here a mighty poor advocate for her position.  I guess if political science is being attacked from the far right and from the far left, it must be doing something right.

[For more and better takes on this, see pieces elsewhere, including here and  here.]


Open Access and IR Journals

Some time ago Thomas Rid had an amazing post arguing for an open-access revolution in our field. I won’t repeat the arguments here; you can read them for yourself. The open-access movement is showing signs of momentum. Indeed, at BISA/ISA in Edinburgh, a number of people agitated for open access for the Review of International Studies (RIS) at its relaunch event.

It seems that there are very few significant IR journals in a position to go open access. The obvious candidates would be journals associated with professional associations — in addition to RIS, that would include the International Studies Association journals, the European Journal of International Relations, and some others. But at least BISA and SGIR (soon to be EISA) use the revenue from the journals to support their activities. That leaves the independent foundation journals, such as International Organization, as the most likely candidates for moving to open access.

Open-access journals sustain themselves through some combination of subsidy and pay-for-publication. In essence, authors provide a fee upon acceptance if they want their articles to appear “in print.”It took PLoS — probably the most famous member of the open-access family — a number of years for revenues to exceed costs. I can imagine a lot of IR scholars recoiling at paying such a fee. The math suggests that their institutions (if they are associated with one) should be happy to fork over the money, as doing so is cheaper than subscribing to journals. But right now, at least, institutions already pay for standard IR journals, so the open-access journals represent an additional fee. This isn’t an issue if the institution is Harvard University, but it might be for smaller places — particularly if the fee comes out of cash-strapped Departmental coffers rather than scientific grants.
The graphic comes from the Chronicle of Higher Education, which, in 201, reported on a study highlighting the two biggest hurdles to open access:

A new survey of nearly 40,000 scholars across the natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences shows that almost 90 percent of them believe open-access journals are good for the research community and the individual researcher. But charges for publishing and the perception that open-access journals are of lower quality than traditional publications deter scholars from the open-access route, according to the Study of Open Access Publishing report, by an international team of researchers.

These concerns are likely to be a particular problem in IR. The aforementioned factors suggest that most open-access journals will be both digital-only and new. Given the field’s elitism concerning “journal hierarchy,” and its general conservatism when it comes to all things smacking of “web 2.0”, those are both significant barriers to success. I think it would be very difficult to ask IR scholars to pay-for-publication in an unranked, digital-only journal. While everyone knows this is the future, it isn’t clear how we will get there.

This reticence comes despite the fact that, if mid-tier blogs such as the Duck of Minerva are any indication, more people will read a given piece in an open-access digital journal than a typical one in a top-tier — let alone a second-tier — traditional journal.* Thomas Rid got access to the raw Taylor and Francis “most read”numbers and this is what he found:

These are, as Thomas notes, crude indicators. And blog posts are, in general, shorter and more accessible than academic articles. Still, they point to the advantages of ungated academic work, particularly if presented in the right way. It would be interesting to know the readership of the papers at e-ir, which might provide a better comparison.

Indeed, a few months ago PTJ and I had some discussions about starting a journal using a “non-traditional” model. We estimated our barebones costs at about ~$25k to pay for a graduate-student assistant, plus some unspecified amount to handle incidentals. Startup costs would probably run between $5-7K, and it would be best to have some money to subsidize undergraduate interns to help keep the technical side running. All of this assumes a journal that is, in essence, a labor of love. No money for course releases, travel and promotion, and all that other stuff. 

One idea was to publish volumes as e-books for .99$, but the economics don’t work and you wind up with a cheap, but still gated, product. The pay-for-play model would impose prohibitively expensive costs on authors, particularly in the context of a startup. And, of course, we both think that there are too many journals in the field already.

So the question remains: how to finance this kind of endeavor?

Still, there’s a certain attraction to the model.

An online open-access journal could firmly break with the tyranny of the quarterly volume. No more “online first” as an orphan, uncertain category. The editors simply need to keep the standards of the journal high — as reflected in quality and acceptance rate — and they can publish pieces whenever they are accepted and processed. Volume numbers would persist, but as temporal markers for the purpose of citation rather than as bundled artifacts.

Because the content would be ungated, it would be even easier to integrate the journal into a blogging and social-media environment than it would be for a traditional publication. One could build an intellectual community and ensure repeat visitors — and with them, greater likelihood that articles would be read and cited.

But, even if we could somehow come up with the funds, the experiment strikes me as pretty high risk. We would need to convince some high-profile scholars to provide quality pieces — ones good enough to survive rigorous peer review — to legitimize the endeavor. We’d need to convince reviewers to take it seriously. And there are a lot of other institutional barriers.

I guess what I’m talking about is, in essence, a Duck of Minerva journal, but (probably) with a less whimsical name. I wonder what our readers think of that?

*As I discovered while putting together a proposal for wrapping a journal in a webzine (see here for an example of poor implementation of a good idea) an undercount of the most-viewed pages at the Duck outdistances the download figures for the most-read piece at the American Political Science Review. And, as I alluded to earlier, neither KoW or the Duck are in the same league as Crooked Timber, The Monkey Cage, Steve Walt, Dan Drezner, or any number of higher-profile blogs. By the way, if any journal editors out there are interested in bringing me on to spearhead a web strategy likely to (among other things) increase your impact factor, contact me. 

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