Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Blyth in 2006. And on the pop-technocratic happy-talk 3QD. It makes sense in a way that they’d let it slip through. Popular is sloppier for worse and for better. 

Towards the end of this year, The American Political Science Review will publish its 100th anniversary issue. In researching for a submission to this centennial issue, I examined what political scientists have been saying for the past 100 years, and in doing do something very odd struck me: that the arguments that I have been having for a decade with my colleagues about the idea of a science of politics being at all possible are the same arguments that have been going on in the pages of The American Political Science Review since its inception.

Then and now, political scientists tend to fall into two camps. In the first camp are those who wear the badge of ‘scientist’ and see their field as a predictive enterprise whose job it is to uncover those general laws of politics that ‘must’ be out there. The second camp contains those who think the former project logically untenable. For years now I have tried (largely in vain) to convince my colleagues in the first camp that the idea of a political ‘science’ is inherently problematic. I have marshaled various arguments to make this case, and each of these has been met by a some variant of; ‘political science is a young science’; ‘what we face are problems of method’; and that ‘more ‘basic research is required’. Then, with ‘more and better methods’ we will make ‘sufficient’ progress and ‘become’ a science. I remain unconvinced by this line of argument, but it was enlightening to see it played out again and again over a century....

From its inception in 1906 until World War One American political scientists took ‘public administration’ as its object and the Prussian state as the model of good governance. Sampling on this particular datum proved costly to the subfield however when the model (Germany) became the enemy during World War One and the guiding models of the field collapsed. Following this debacle, political science retreated inwards during the 1920s and 1930s. One can scan the American Political Science Review throughout these tumultuous decades for any sustained examination of the great events of the day and come up empty. What I did find however were reports on constitutional change in Estonia, committee reform in Nebraska, and predictions that the German administrative structure will not allow Hitler to become a dictator.

After World War Two this lack of ‘relevance’ haunted the discipline and its post-war re-founders sought to build a predictive science built upon the process notions of functionalism, pluralism, and modernization. These new theories saw societies as homeostatic systems arrayed along a developmental telos with the United States as everyone’s historical end. Paradoxically however, just as the field was united under these common theories, they were suddenly, and completely, invalidated by the facts of the day. At the height of these theories’ popularity, the United States was, contrary to theory, tearing itself apart over civil rights, Vietnam, and sexual politics while ‘developing’ countries were ‘sliding back’ along the ‘developmental telos’ into dictatorships. Despite these events being the world’s first televised falsification of theory, once again political science turned inward and ignored the lesson waiting to be learned – that prediction in the social world is far more difficult than we imagine, and the call for more ‘rigor’ and ‘more and better methods’ will never solve that problem. Our continuing prediction failures continue to bear this out. Since its ‘third re-founding’ in the 1980s till today, political science has predicted the decline of the US (just as it achieved ‘hyper-power’ status); completely missed the decade long economic stagnation of Japan (just as it was supposed to eclipse the US); missed the end of the Cold War, the growth of international terrorism, and the rebirth of religion in politics. 

After reviewing this catalog of consistently wrong calls, a very simple question occurred to me. If political science is a science by virtue of its ability to predict, and its prediction rate is so awful, can it be a science even in its own terms? I would say that it cannot. But this answer itself begged another, and I think more interesting, question; why is my field’s ability to predict so bad? The answer to this question is not found in the pages of the American Political Science Review. Rather, it is found in how political science as a discipline, through its training, thinks about probability in the social world.

Political scientists haven’t predicted the future, but history repeats.

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