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Post Partisan
Posted at 03:39 PM ET, 06/13/2012

The academic hornet’s nest

Last summer, I tried to clear out a large hornet’s nest in my back yard. This summer, I proposed eliminating National Science Foundation funding for social science research.

On the whole, I’d say the stinging insects responded more calmly than the academics did.

Some of the objections to my article were measured, some pointed — but too many were nasty, personal and hyperbolic. Not a good advertisement for the reigning temperament in political science and associated disciplines.

In any case, those who did level good-faith criticisms deserve a substantive reply, which I offer here since it’s impossible to answer every e-mailer individually.

Basically, there are three bones of contention:

Should Congress get to decide what constitutes “science” for purposes of NSF support, as Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) implicitly does by threatening to cut off poli sci’s federal dollars, and leave everyone else’s alone?

I started my column with that question, since Flake’s critics, notably political scientist Christopher Zorn, had accused Flake of attempting to “substitute political for scientific judgment” in the allocation of federal research funds.

I responded that Flake’s effort was perfectly legitimate, on the grounds that he who pays the piper calls the tune. Of all the many ripostes to my article, none has disputed this part of my argument — some candidly agreed with it — probably because a basic principle of our democracy is that Congress gets to do what it wants with taxpayer money. Politicization was a risk political scientists accepted when they took government funding in the first place.

So I’ll consider that point conceded.

Was I wrong to suggest that Congress could end funding to the social sciences because they possess fewer indicia of objectivity than the natural sciences?

This is what really infuriated the academics, and brought down a flood of epithets — “ignorant” being the most printable. So let me just reassure everyone that I am aware of the strides that psychologists and others have made toward experimental methodology. I am an admirer, and, as a journalist, a frequent consumer, of quantitative analyses of social data ranging from election results to consumer auto buying habits.

Nor did I suggest that the social sciences lack all objectivity, or that the natural sciences are perfectly value-free. That would be silly.

Nevertheless, I insist that the latter are relatively more impervious to distortion by ideology than the former. On a spectrum of objectivity with pure mathematics on one end and literary criticism on the other, social science lies closer to the lit crit end.

Let me put it this way: In psychology, Democrats outnumber Republicans 12 to 1. Is that more relevant in that field than it would be in, say, astronomy? Given the potential for a partisan divide on such current psychological questions as gay parenting and gender roles, I think so.

I repeat: Social science has made great strides in describing and predicting behavior, especially in microeconomics. But how many of the fundamental questions of human existence, or even social policy, have the social sciences been able to settle, in the same sense that natural science has established that the earth revolves around the sun?

Social scientists are as divided over whether the death penalty deters murder as they were in Cesare Beccarria’s time. Economists of equal professional stature furiously debate austerity vs. stimulus, 80 years post-New Deal. Social scientists have been unable to explain the “Great Crime Decline” in the United States over the last two decades. Heck, political science models even failed, spectacularly, to predict the outcome of the 2000 presidential election race.

That’s what I meant when I wrote that “unlike hypotheses in the hard sciences, hypotheses about society usually can’t be proven or disproven by experimentation. Society is not a laboratory.”

Yes, social scientists can offer a reliable ballpark estimate of how much drunk driving might be deterred by different levels of alcohol taxation, as Christopher Shea notes. But finding that people drink less when booze costs more strikes me as an elaboration of common knowledge, not a scientific breakthrough.

Which brings me to the last big issue: whether the public benefits of social science research justify spending federal money on it.

Even if social sciences are “softer” than the natural sciences, it does not necessarily follow that Congress should fund the former less generously than the latter. That depends on whether there is a relationship between the social sciences’ relative “softness” and the reasons that justify government funding for science of any kind.

I think there is such a relationship, for two reasons. First, the natural sciences are more likely than the social sciences to lead to practical applications whose benefits will be both widely shared and widely recognized.

As I’ve already suggested, the “larger” the social or political issue, the more difficult it is to illuminate definitively through the methods of “hard science.”As New York University political scientist Lawrence Mead has explained, today’s methodology-obsessed political scientists compensate for this fact by studying ever-smaller or more abstruse questions.

“Scholars are focusing more on themselves, less on the real world,” Mead has written. “That has harmed the realism of their work and the audience for it. The scholastic emphasis on rigor supposedly serves the interests of science. But taken to recent extremes, specialized research becomes self-referential — preoccupied with the researchers themselves and their issues.”

If you want evidence for what Mead calls the “new scholasticism” of political science, here are a couple of NSF-funded examples

Second, as I’ve already suggested, the natural sciences are less subject to the kinds of political and ideological influences, acknowledged and unacknowledged, to which taxpayers and those who represent them might legitimately object.

Journalism is supposed to be objective; NPR practices journalism; but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming a source of grievance for taxpayers who don’t share its views about what news is and how to cover it. That’s why I’ve also written that both NPR and the federal government would be better off if the radio network were fully privatized.

In an e-mail, one of my critics argued that a $9 million grant might have a $100 billion payoff if it yielded findings that led to improved advice “that averted another Iraq.”

To which I can only reply: Good luck proving, scientifically, that a) the grant caused the advice, b) the advice caused the good policy, and c) the avoided damages were worth $100 billion.  

In any case, if my correspondent wants to claim credit for all the benefits from using NSF-funded poli sci to inform policy, he’ll have to deduct the costs policy-makers incur when, dazzled by the NSF imprimatur, they rely on poli sci research that later turns out to be no more valid than those misbegotten 2000 election models. 

This country faces a fiscal crisis, the resolution of which requires sacrifice from everyone, including many groups that have come to rely on Washington for their money, and feel entitled to continue doing so. Congress is going to have to set priorities; and I hope they emphasize the true core functions of the federal government, such as national defense, a safety net for the poor and elderly, law enforcement and, yes, basic research in the natural sciences and medicine.

 Though social science is useful, and should be funded by universities, think tanks and other private entities, a quarter-billion federal dollars for it every year strikes me as unjustified in the light of competing priorities. It disappoints, but does not surprise, me that so many certified experts on politics would resist that suggestion with such certitude, and, in some cases, actual venom.

By  |  03:39 PM ET, 06/13/2012

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