Saturday, June 23, 2012

Prediction in Political Science is Doomed to Fail

If you study political science, and especially the more fundamental philosophies of social science that underlie professional political science research, you will learn that (for many) scientific prediction is the ultimate goal of political science scholarship. That's perhaps a more contentious thesis nowadays (with the surge in popularity of radical postmodernism), but in the first couple of decades after the behavioral revolution in the 1960s, the claim was rarely challenged except by those on the margins of the discipline. Folks can get a feel for the epistemological primacy of scientific prediction by skimming over the first few pages of Carl Hempel's, "The Functioning of General Laws in History" (1942).

After the end of the Cold War, international relations scholars underwent a foundational crisis in the field. No one --- not a single scholar of international politics in the political science profession (with the exception perhaps of Stephen Rock) --- had published a prediction of the end of the Cold War conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. There were huge debates on this in the pages of scholarly journals for a few years, but one of the most important essays to come out at the time was from the historian John Lewis Gaddis. His essay, "International Relations Theory and the End of the Cold War," was a magisterial review of the literature that explained why each of the major paradigms was unsuccessful in predicting the biggest historical change since the end of World War II. (And see Chapter One of Gaddis 1997 book, We Now Know: Rethinking the Cold War.)

In any case, I'm remembering all of this upon reading Jacqueline Stevens' essay at the New York Times, "Political Scientists Are Lousy Forecasters." This paragraph is especially good:
Many of today’s peer-reviewed studies offer trivial confirmations of the obvious and policy documents filled with egregious, dangerous errors. My colleagues now point to research by the political scientists and N.S.F. grant recipients James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin that claims that civil wars result from weak states, and are not caused by ethnic grievances. Numerous scholars have, however, convincingly criticized Professors Fearon and Laitin’s work. In 2011 Lars-Erik Cederman, Nils B. Weidmann and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch wrote in the American Political Science Review that “rejecting ‘messy’ factors, like grievances and inequalities,” which are hard to quantify, “may lead to more elegant models that can be more easily tested, but the fact remains that some of the most intractable and damaging conflict processes in the contemporary world, including Sudan and the former Yugoslavia, are largely about political and economic injustice,” an observation that policy makers could glean from a subscription to this newspaper and that nonetheless is more astute than the insights offered by Professors Fearon and Laitin.
Critiques like this were kicking up pretty hard at the end of the 1990s, and things really came to a head with the "Perestroika Movement" in political science around 2000.

It's been a while now, and I'm not sure how deep an impact that movement's had, notwithstanding the launching of a new journal at the APSA geared toward methodological pluralism. And frankly, in a lot of respects, I don't care that much any more. The top scholars in my subfield of international politics have largely perverted the discipline with thinly veiled ideological commitments. I discussed this the other day in my essay on Kenneth Waltz: "A Nuclear-Armed Iran May Be the Best Path to Stability to the Middle East." And the kicker here is the Professor Stevens illustrated her own radical commitments in an commentary piece at the New York Times last month, "Citizenship to Go." Basically, state sovereignty over migration should be abolished. That is, borders don't matter --- get rid of them. So while Stevens' new essay argues that positivist political science, now under threat with the loss of National Science Foundation funding, has largely failed and is undeserving of continued government support, her alternative of government funding of "those who use history and theory to explain shifting political contexts, challenge our intuitions and help us see beyond daily newspaper headlines" would likely result in reams of research just like her own, research questioning the legitimacy of the national state and the hegemony of the U.S. in the international system.

The irony is that's much of the basic rational for stripping government for political science research in the first place. I gather Stevens isn't making that connection.