In Tuesday’s post, I argued that it was quite possible for political scientists to be both rigorous and relevant. But I closed by observing that economists generally don’t worry about the whole rigor vs. relevance debate. Their scholarly papers are impermeable black masses to lay readers, and yet policymakers and politicians defer to their expertise on a regular basis. Political scientists — particularly international relations scholars — look at that and think, “Why can’t we get us some of that?”
The response by much of political science to this state of affairs has been to try to mimic economic methodology as much as humanly possible. Now the more sophisticated modelling and statistical techniques might have some intrinsic value to studying political phenomena. But I think the belief that aping economists will lead political scientists to be treated with more respect fundamentally misinterprets why economists get more respect.
It’s worth stepping back here for a second to point out that what is particularly impressive about the prominence of economists in the marketplace of ideas is just how badly the profession has screwed up the past decade. With some important exceptions, few economists accurately warned about the severe dangers of the housing bubble before the 2008 financial crisis. Indeed, as John Quiggin and others have noted, ideas like the efficient markets hypothesis helped to spur the conditions that created the bubble in the first place.
Nor have economists shined during the post-2008 era. Forecasters of all stripes have failed badly. The Federal Reserve has persistently overestimated projected economic growth since the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Since the start of the Great Recession, the International Monetary Fund’s economic forecasters have had to continually revise downward their short-term projections for global economic growth. The failure rate has been so bad that the IMF has started to devote research to why so many revisions have been necessary.
Meanwhile, the field of macroeconomics has committed particularly egregious errors. Two key economic papers provided intellectual heft to pro-austerity policies. Furthermore, acting as thought leaders, these economists went way beyond their findings in delivering policy recommendations. The effects of these austerity policies ranged from contractionary to devastating — and it later turned out that one of these papers screwed up the data. These failures of macroeconomic advice buttress Alan Blinder’s decades-old maxim that economists are always listened to the most when they agree with each other the least.
And yet, despite all of this, Marion Fourcade and her co-authors recently demonstrated that economists retain an outsized voice inside and outside the academy. Why?
Is it the superior methods, as economists tend to believe? It’s possible, but I seriously doubt it. I’d offer three alternative explanations. The first is prejudice. This is a subject I’ve beaten to death and will therefore not belabor here.
The second is sheer arrogance by economists. Having been in doctoral programs in both economics and political science, I can confirm that the former are far more arrogant than latter. Economists have treated other branches of the social sciences with condescension bordering on contempt. In a world in which economic literacy is low and innumeracy is high, this kind of confidence is in and of itself a form of intellectual power. The self-confidence of economists becomes self-reinforcing; since they are earning the most and given the most respect, it stands to reason that it is earned.
The final reason is that when economists try to engage the public, they often act like evangelists — and the message they preach has a very receptive audience among the affluent and the authorities. Economists share a strong consensus about the virtues of free markets, free trade, capital mobility and entrepreneurialism. They are therefore able to preach a set of economic ideas that are music to the ears of those plumping for the modern Ideas Industry. Conservatives suspicious of state intervention into the economy embrace this laissez-faire message. Even liberals more suspicious of free markets will be wary of crossing the general consensus of economists on myriad issues. Plutocrats who believe in the power of economic dynamism and technological innovation will embrace the ideas put forth by neoclassical economics.
Political scientists traffic in structural explanations for American politics. They can’t tell you what an individual senator thinks, or what message the president’s campaign will try out next. But they can tell you, in general, how polarized the Senate is by party, and whether independent voters are just partisans in disguise, and how predictable elections generally are.
International relations scholars are also very big on structural factors determining outcomes. Very little international relations scholarship focuses on individual-level variables, such as leadership. Even less focuses on individual leaders. The major international relations paradigms in recent decades have been structural in nature, arguing that the international system imposes powerful constraints on state behavior.
Structural explanations of politics never go over well among policymakers because the essence of structuralist advice is that little can be done. As Stephen Walt noted a decade ago, “policymakers are often less interested in explaining a general tendency than in figuring out how to overcome it.” International relations scholarship focuses on aggregate data; both entrepreneurs and policymakers are notorious for overemphasizing the particular pieces of first-hand information they possess. Indeed, the problem is more existential than that; most international relations scholarship does not think that any particular policy principal is terribly important. This is a worldview that no policymaker wants to hear.
[Plutocrats like hearing it even less. Successful entrepreneurs believe that they got to their current station due to effort, creativity and risk-taking. In other words, plutocrats very much believe in their own agency. They have little patience for much poorer academics who would suggest anything different. Also, plutocrats are interested in spending their money to influence the marketplace of ideas. Political scientists might tell them that the influence of their super PACS or their activist foundations will be vastly overstated. When political science does this, however, it is essentially telling the One Percent that they do not matter.]
So the problem is that political science has tried to mimic the forms of economics but usually preaches a message that audiences find to be far more hostile. And so those audiences tune it out.
Because political scientists are preaching difficult messages, we have to maximize our ability to have these messages received. And here is where political scientists might be making a mistake in acting like economists. The shift in academic political science to a more scientific cast has exacerbated the problem — not because more science is wrong, but because it affects how many political scientists think about engaging the rest of the public. As Lynn Vavreck recently said in an interview, “it is not any scientist’s job to make the results of their scientific work accessible to a layperson.” There’s some truth to that — but it requires that the layperson thinks of the scientist as an actual scientist. And there’s an abundance of evidence that this is not how the public or policymakers think about political scientists. Furthermore, a recent spate of news stories suggests that this perception of the noneconomic social sciences will take a looooong time to correct.
In the meantime, trying to talk about politics to a general audience using only the language of science has consequences. The use of scientific argot to discuss political phenomena makes sense when political scientists talk to each other, but not to the wider public. When political scientists use the neutral language of science to discuss genocide or police brutality, however, the public views them as talking about terrible things matter-of-factly. More generally, when public debates about policy hinge on methodological disputes, the public will tune it out. As long as policymakers and the public do not treat us like a science, we have to adapt to that fact and learn to communicate more as public intellectuals.
So here’s my warning to APSA and its members: If political science keeps going as it does, the discipline will possess all of the insularity, inaccessibility and insufferability of economics — and none of the public cachet. We need to think differently about this.