Current Political Scientist to Congress: Please Ignore Greg Ferenstein

by on 2013-02-12 in Duck- 4 Comments

alldumberAnother day, another op-ed or blog post saying that the social sciences contribute nothing and that we must be more policy-centric or policy-relevant or policy-synergistic or policy-policy-policy-policy.

You know, it’s funny. I’ve just finished reading a history of Bell labs (these journalistic nonfiction books go by quick–about the same time as a movie and a half) and the takeaway was that apparently esoteric research (e.g. Claude Shannon’s information theory) can have immensely practical implications. Somewhat like that Tom Schelling guy, who thought that he could say something about nuclear war even though he’d never even fought one.

Anyway, Ferenstein’s argument is pretty familiar to all participants in the debate, but his argumentation is laughably weak:

As a result, even the potentially useful research gets overlooked by policymakers who have little contact with experts from the discipline. During a dinner my university threw for a distinguished Harvard professor who also served as a United Nations consultant, I asked our guest if she ever witnessed any actual impact of political-science research. She literally laughed out loud, and regaled the now-perturbed table of academics about her experience with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who had apparently ignored all the academic experts during his country’s transition to democracy and, instead, decided on the structure of government in a tent with his peers.

If this is supposed to be evidence for Ferenstein’s position, I’m taken aback. So, the scholars were consulted by Karzai; they gave good advice; Karzai ignored them; and this is the scholars‘ fault? Isn’t there a more parsimonious explanation?

And Ferenstein’s policy recommendation, to defund academic research, doesn’t flow from his argument, which instead suggests funding much more research along the lines of the Minerva project.

Or, perhaps, just funding traditional research more lavishly:

For instance, one of the most influential pieces of practical research in the last half-century found that building strong communities, where neighbors have frequent informal interactions with one another, dramatically boosts social welfare, as measured by the health, happiness, and governmental effectiveness of a city. The study took Harvard’s Robert Putnam 25 years, which was necessary to observe how natural variation in communities all around the entire country of Italy affected the lives of its 50-plus million citizens. Quite reasonably, most researchers are squeamish about dedicating half their career to one study and simply avoid the challenge of relevant research.

The way to incentivize more studies like Putnam’s is to fund them more generously, not less. (And I don’t know why political science, or economics or sociology or English literature for that matter, should pass Putnam’s asinine “mother-in-law test”; if that were the case, we could save loads of money by exchanging political science profs with high school civics teachers, who, as in high schools, could also serve as football coaches.)

Moreover, Ferenstein writes that we should all get better at teaching, since it’s there that we’ll educate the next generation of policymakers. Leaving aside the obvious fact that very few of even our best students will become policymakers (that’s even true at my current home institution), that seems to be at odds with Ferenstein’s observation that the current undergrad curriculum is pretty soft. But the easiest way to make it harder–and to educate students competent to read contemporary mainstream research–would be to introduce more statistics training…which Ferenstein would presumably deride as “clever mathematical models that … do little to aid real-world public policy.”

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  • David McCourt

    Great post. I love the way policy-relevant research often means Putnam. As I understand it, he was just flat wrong on a factual level. Associational membership was not declining in the United States, but increasing – people just weren’t going bowling. An old white guy had observed a decline in a traditional blue collar institution and generalized his experience, ignoring new modes of association he couldn’t recognize. It’s like saying people aren’t eating at local restaurants by looking at the Mom and Pop’s diners going out of business – completely ignoring how Taco Bell and the rest of them are going great guns.

    Plus, Putnam was just bad theory. “Social capital” was a neat way of describing the increased separation people feel in an era of neo-liberalism, one that spoke to a popular and political audience. But in social scientific terms it was not particularly enlightening, and was not anchored in the major traditions of social theory.

    Of course, none of that is to suggest that defunding is the answer. And certainly not that sociology or political science can’t do policy-relevant research – however we want to define that. So what is my point? I guess the advice would be to fund more widely, and not just to big wigs like Putnam, whose research only showed how divorced from reality he really was in the most ivory of towers. So split the “genius grants” and share the wealth. Pluralism again, in short.

  • Philip Conway

    Everything you say is true. However, isn’t the worst part of the ‘policy relevance’ obsession the notion that social science exists solely to satisfy the epistemic requirements of the state? That academics are really just government think-tankers who do a bit of teaching on the side?

    Why is it always just ‘policy relevance’? Why not ‘activist relevance’? Why not ‘public relevance’? For that matter, why not ‘student relevance’? One can hardly teach a subject that no one researches. Doing research for the benefit of students or simply for the sake of informing public discourse is at least as honourable, in my view, as producing knowledge for policymakers. Perhaps even more so.

    The accusation that social science is policy irrelevant and therefore should be defunded shouldn’t be counter-argued simply by maintaining that it IS policy relevant because that accepts the premise of the accusation: that policy relevance is the only meaningful metric for assessing the value of research.

    As the story about Karzai demonstrates, policymakers shouldn’t be spoken of in such hushed, cowed, deferential tones. The people with the power are quite often complete cretins — and nasty, corrupt ones at that. Why should we WANT to write policy advice for these people? Chances are they’ll either misunderstand or just plain ignore it.

    Quite simply, academic research can be a public good (and therefore justify receiving state funding) even if it doesn’t directly inform policy-making. Having a critically minded, well informed civil society is at least as important for achieving peace and justice as having well-briefed and advised political elites.

  • Jarrod Hayes

    I couldn’t agree more.

  • LFC

    Ferenstein’s paragraph on Putnam makes dubious sense even on its own terms. Ferenstein links to Bowling Alone but then he proceeds to talk about Putnam’s 25-year-long study of Italy. That’s a different book — Bowling Alone no doubt owed a good deal to Putnam’s earlier book on Italy, but Bowling Alone did not take 25 years.