The debate over whether and how political science matters to policymakers has gone on long enough for me to realize what it reminds me of: the debate over whether women can be funny. It’s a debate only in the sense that some people continue to insist that they’re right because of their own experience and long-held prejudice. And my current reaction to the poli sci debate pretty much matches the reaction Amy Poehler and Sarah Silverman had five years ago to the women in comedy debate:

I bring this up because journalist Tom Ricks, in a yeoman effort to troll the entire political science community, has decided he’s going to speak his truth to the academy. And the truth is that it’s a very boring, rote set of critiques. So…

  1. According to Ricks, the latest issues leading academic journals are not up on current events… except that they really are.
  2. According to Ricks, modern political science is losing its relevance because of its arcane methods… except that fails to explain why economists maintain their relevance with even more arcane methods.
  3. According to Ricks, the gap in surveys between the most influential international relations scholars in the academy and the most influential ones for policymakers shows the irrelevance of the former… except that if Ricks had bothered to look at an older survey, he would have noticed that IR scholars are well aware of the difference between academic and policy impact — and interestingly enough, academics agree with policymakers as to which political scientists have the most effect inside the Beltway.

Look, I could blog about the personal experiences of political scientists affecting policymaking, or the recent appointment of political scientists to key staff positions, or the resources being thrown around to facilitate even more impact… but there’s really no point.  I wrote about all of this just six short months ago.  Twice.  And I wasn’t the only political scientist writing about it, either.  Ricks is basically rewarming arguments that have been posited and rejected in recent years.

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It’s becoming readily apparent that some people will not be persuaded on this point.  So I’m not going to bother anymore.

Instead, let’s tweak this debate by asking a slightly different question: Why are people like Tom Ricks continuing to insist that political science is irrelevant despite pervasive evidence to the contrary?

My tentative answer is that more traditional foreign policy pundits like Ricks are sensing a relative decline in their own influence.  As time passes and political science continues to burrow its way into the minds of policymakers and the media, more traditional pundits will find fewer and fewer areas of dominance left to them.  Security studies might remain a relative area of strength, but even here you’re beginning to see the emergence of more scientific techniques to improve prediction.  So in a decade or so, the pundit and policymaking landscape will be changed in the same way that baseball commentary has been transformed over the last decade (it’s tough to find a good baseball commentator these days who doesn’t have a familiarity with sabermetrics).

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Academic political science is far from perfect, and most of us still have trouble writing our way out of a paper bag. But the “irrelevance” charge rings hollow, and tends to discredit those making the charge in the first place.  But I would encourage my fellow political scientists to respond not with anger, but rather a dollop of resignation, a measure of pity, and a quiet confidence that the wheel is turning.

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