The National Academy of Sciences got more attention for its membership election this past April than it ever gets for the scientific studies it helps the government pursue. Alas, it was a burst of attention that has the officers of the academy still cringing with embarrassment. In full council, the academy membership voted to reject the nomination to its ranks of Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington -- on the grounds that, no matter how respected this political scientist was among his own colleagues, he was not "scientist" enough to receive this honor.

It sounds at first like a minor quibble among academicians, and a linguistic quibble at that. Huntington practices something which it has been common usage to refer to as "political science" since early in this century. The National Academy has reserved a section for honoring "social and behavioral scientists" since 1971. Huntington's colleagues, who have nominated him to the academy two years in a row, think he practices political science pretty darned well. But a cadre of the "harder" scientists in the academy insisted otherwise, and their condemnation of Huntington's "pseudoscience" was taken, correctly, as an attack on the profession as much as on the man. It was this that elevated the Huntington incident, despite its flukish aspects, from an internecine squabble to a revealing commentary on what the "scientific" outlook, long triumphantly ascendant, can do to the rest of our intellectual life.

The 1971 decision that psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, economists and the like were eligible for honor as "scientists" was anything but unanimous. The same year saw a mighty flap at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, where several mathematicians fought tooth and nail to prevent the appointment of the institute's first sociologist. Plenty of NAS "hard" scientists -- especially mathematicians -- still resent the presence of softies. And, of course, a fair portion of the general public also feels skeptical about the sweeping claims made by these new bearers of the scientist mantle, who apply arcane-seeming numbers to subjects -- such as human behavior and international relations -- that have historically been discussed in words.

The Huntington snub pleased quite a few people who tell jokes like "What does an economist do when he finds himself stranded on a desert island with only one object, a sealed can of baked beans? He assumes a can opener." The buzzword "pseudoscience" evokes all those flagrant sillinesses and illusory precisions that social-science trappings have added to the public discourse. On the strictly academic side, there are howlers like the article in the American Political Science Review (first flagged by Steven Waldman in the Washington Monthly) which "proved" that "the average {Italian} government falls when it has accumulated exactly one unit of political stress." Less egregious but more inescapable, clogging the communal psyche, are all the three-decimal-point poll data on the national mood. Not to mention Nielsen ratings.

But the National Academy's vote didn't strike a brave blow against meaningless numerical obfuscation. On the contrary, scientists' rejection of an essentially traditional analyst who uses a few numbers here and there -- Huntington -- constitutes a stirring call for more of it.

To understand why, one has to speculate why such stuff has currency in the first place. The answer is not lack of vigilance by scientists, but just the opposite: their moral authority. Social scientists have gradually internalized the criticisms that scientists make of their work. Models and formulae seem more reliable than mere accounts. No inquiry can be considered serious and valid -- "rigorous" is the term of choice -- unless it is fuzzed out with numbers.

Most people trace this self-hatred by humanists to the post-Sputnik science boom, when science and technology took precedence over humanities and classics in the curriculum for the first time since the Middle Ages. The danger in it is the point of the can-opener joke: inquiries made specifically by numbers tend to ignore or shortchange those realities that, though not expressible in equation form, may be quite important in understanding the situation.

Consider the indictment against Huntington. The substantive part of the debate focused on some "equations" which the mathematicians attacked as bad math but which Huntington insisted were never intended as real equations at all. He said they were supposed to be shorthand ways of describing theory, showing that certain social forces were directly or else inversely related. A fair debate, perhaps. But other criticisms suggested the mathematicians were taking Huntington a bit too, well, literally.

Serge Lang of Yale, the main anti-Huntington organizer, took exception to an article in which Huntington described his own previous book "The Soldier and the State" as an "unabashed defense of the professional military ethic." "A scientist," Lang noted, in materials distributed to the Academy members before the election, "does not give an 'unabashed defense' of the object of his study." He also quoted a 1968 article by Huntington in Foreign Affairs: "The realities of the situation in Viet Nam will not please the extremists on either side." Lang: "Huntington's description of how his analysis would be received by 'extremists on either side' is also an opinion, for which I know of no basis in fact." A Washington mathematician turned policy analyst calls this kind of thinking "mathematical McCarthyism."

One might reasonably ask: So what? If social scientists are happily working away on the problems they find interesting, why should they care about the outside honor conferred by a bunch of scientists? The answer is peer pressure. Scholars of Huntington's stature, secure in a Harvard chair, will continue their research. Huntington has been hardly bothered. But younger social science scholars, notoriously frantic and paranoid in their quest for tenure, already inhabit departments torn between "qualitativist" and "quantitativist" factions. Many will see this public disdain of the non-numerical as just one more hint.

Some scholars don't need persuading. Steven Brams, a professor at New York University, is considered a shining example of the up-to-date, technically sophisticated, space-age political scientist; an official of the American Political Science Association offers his name as an example of "someone who uses numbers properly, whose science isn't at all pseudo." Brams applies principles from an advanced branch of mathematics called game theory to instances of political choice and decision-making, such as arms control. He says mathematicians never give him any trouble about his use of math. ("In fact," he muses, "I find lately I prefer lecturing to mathematicians.") He is full of enthusiasm for the "strength" and "rigor" of mathematical political science models, and guesses that older scholars in the field, who object to his methods, are "defensive, because we're using tools they don't have."

Asked whether there are any fields of inquiry that would not benefit from a dose of this rigor, that do not lend themselves to analysis by the numbers, he answers in all seriousness, "I don't think you could show that, no." No field at all, on any question? "No," says Brams, "I don't think I could work up an impossibility theorem on it." A few more years of this, and we may all be assuming can openers.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.