In Limited Defense of Political Science

Like a sizable number of law students newly-minted J.D.’s, I studied political science in college. Despite years spent in the discipline, I remain unconvinced that the discipline is, in fact, anything like a science. While political science appropriates scientific methodologies — quantitative analysis, etc. — the vast majority of work done in the name of political science seldom approximates the rigorous process that defines modern science. And when it does — as in, game theory — the results are interesting, but not as valuable today as they were twenty years ago, when mutually assured destruction remained a problem to be avoided, and not an intellectual curio.

The difference between me and congressional Republicans, apparently, is that I don’t think this conclusion deprives the discipline of value.

First, knowledge is valuable for its own sake, or, alternately, need not have an evident goal at its inception to be useful. Many students (like me) enter history classes out of curiosity, or to hear a good story, but the best will leave with an eminently applicable idea of what humanity has tried, and why it worked, or why it failed. Political science is the same way. It may not be a “science,” narrowly construed, but the journey is as important as the destination, to the extent that whether one reaches the destination is largely irrelevant. Students of political science will obtain their degree with, at a minimum:

  1. A decent understanding of the various political systems available; the reasons and basis of their interactions; and their origins and purposes;
  2. A grasp of not just the state of modern American politics, but the reasons for its existence;
  3. An appreciation for the motivations, costs, and reasons for war and warfare, and even, at the higher levels;
  4. A mathematical model for analyzing complex decisionmaking.

Lessons like these, and the steps towards them, form the basis for good citizenship. Even a college sophomore, after a political science class, can tell you why we’re nowhere near socialism; why nation-building in Iraq was at best a helluva gamble; why the Republican Party isn’t really the “party of Lincoln”; and why voters find Obama’s story so damn compelling, separate from his politics. And, if they come to the opposite conclusions, at least they’ll be able to give good reasons.

Rep. Coburn (R-OK) notwithstanding, those aren’t lessons that can be found on cable news networks. Today’s cable news networks are the antithesis of nuance. On the other hand, a rigorous study of politics — so expansive as to seem “scientific” — gives its students an appreciation for nuance. Citizenship in a democracy requires that voters appreciate nuance, lest the act of voting devolve into a knee-jerk reaction to whatever one has most recently seen on television.

The problems facing America deserve to be met with logic and a decent respect for history. Political science reminds us of that fact, and for that alone, it remains valuable. Whether it’s a misnomer is quite beside the point.

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2 comments

  1. Political science certainly qualifies as a social science. It’s not a natural science or an engineering discipline, but neither is it a liberal art.

    Now I’m curious if there couldn’t be another name for the discipline, though. One that doesn’t include “science” but instead maybe “-ology.” Politology? ;)

  2. “Even a college sophomore, after a political science class, can tell you why we’re nowhere near socialism; why nation-building in Iraq was at best a helluva gamble; why the Republican Party isn’t really the “party of Lincoln”; and why voters find Obama’s story so damn compelling..” Name it Politicism; this statement is a compelling argument for calling it Politicism – a one-sided story. Politology isn’t bad, either.

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