The continued hostility to political science

My last post on the role of political science and political scientists in dealing with Egypt generated some interesting responses via the blogosphere, e-mail, comments, etc.  Let's deal with all of 'em. 

First, Apoorva Shah responds with the following:

I’m not blaming what happened in Egypt on political scientists, as the title of his blog post implies. Rather, I’m saying that the methods with which the political scientists in our academy study the world are so rigid that policy makers imbued in such scholasticism did not appropriately react and make immediate policy decisions when our foreign policy was on the line. Simply put, our administration equivocated. I think they were too confused by all the “variables” involved in Egypt: the protesters themselves, Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hosni Mubarak, etc. In other words, their mental multiple variable regressions failed to produce statistical significance, so they sent mixed messages instead....

None of this is to say that we should shut ourselves off from structured thinking about politics and international affairs. In fact, it should be quite the opposite. Our political scientists shouldn’t be hiding themselves behind theoretical models. They should be studying more history, getting on the ground, doing qualitative research. But look at the syllabus of any graduate level “qualitative methods” class, and I guarantee you it will be just as mind-numbing as their quantitative methods courses.

Perhaps a few months or years from now political science will help us clarify what happened in Egypt over this past week, and it may even look back and dictate what should have been the correct U.S. response. But none of the academic work to date helped policy makers make the right decision when it mattered this week. And that’s the crux of this story. In crunch time, the political scientists failed to get the policy right.

On Shah's first point -- that "policy makers imbued in such scholasticism did not appropriately react" -- well, to get all political science-y, I don't know what the hell he's talking about.  What evidence, if any, is there to suggest that Obama administration policymakers were paralyzed by rigid adherence to political science paradigms?  Looking at the policy principals, what's striking about the Obama administration is that most of the key actors don't have much academic background per se.  Tom Donilon is a politico, for example.  Hillary Clinton is a politico's politico.  I could go on, but you get the idea.   

One thing all social scientists want to see is evidence to support an assertion.  So, I'm calling out Shah to back up his point:  what evidence is there that the U.S. government was slow to react because of adherence to "scholasticism"?  Simply responding "but the response was slow!" doesn't cut it, either.  There are lots of possible causal explanations for a slow policy response -- bureaucratic inertia, conflicting policy priorities, interest group capture, poor intelligence gathering, etc.  Why is "scholasticism" to blame? 

Shah's last two paragraphs are also confusing.  Encouraging "structured thinking" requires an acceptance that theories are a key guide to understanding a ridiculously complex world.  Area knowledge and deep historical backgrounds are useful too -- oh, and so are statistical techniques.  The judgment to assess when to apply which area of knowledge, however, is extremely hard to teach and extremely hard to learn.  And, just to repeat a point from that last post, some political scientists got Egypt right.  Whether policymakers were listening is another question entirely. 

A deeper question is why Shah's view of political science is so widespread.  A fellow political scientist e-mailed the following on this point: 

I think there is a deeper problem here.  We political scientists/political economists may be aware of all of this, but I sense that  it is too easy for outside observers to come to the conclusions Shah's post illustrates.  Quick perusal of journal articles and conference papers, some textbooks, and a great deal of current graduate (and some undergraduate) education in the field can easily lead a rational and intelligent observer to conclude that political scientists are indeed only concerned with plugging cases into models, caring mostly about the model and little about actual political dynamics.  (Have you seen conference presentations in which grad students lay out their dissertation models?  Often sounds more like Shah's description than yours.)  Practitioners may share your understanding of the role of theory, but they often don't do a good job of making this clear to non-specialist readers...and I think to themselves.  I'm not sure what to do about this, but I suspect that Shah's kind of reading of the discipline is just too easy to come to and can seem quite reasonable.

Hmmm.... no, I'm not completely buying this explanation, for a few reasons.  First, as I noted in the past, there are good and valid reasons why academic political science seems so inpenetrable to outsiders.  Second, if this was really the reason that the foreign policy community disdains political scuence, then the economic policy community would have started ignoring economics beginning around, oh, 1932.  Economic journals and presentations are far more impenetrable, and yet I rarely hear mainstream policymakers or think-tankers bash economists for this fact [Umm..... should they bash economists for this?--ed.  I'll leave that to the economists to construct clashing formal models debate]. 

Why is this?  This gets to the third reason -- the fundamental difference between economic policy and foreign policy is that the former community accepts the idea that economic methodologies and theory-building enterprises have value, and are worth using as a guide to policymaking.  This doesn't mean economists agree on everything, but it does mean they are all speaking a common language and accept the notion of external validity checks on their arguments. 

That consensus simply does not exist within the foreign policy community, and Shah simply provides another data point to back up that assertion.  Many members of the foreign policy community explicitly reject the notion that social science methodologies and techniques can explain much in world politics.  They therefore are predisposed to reject the kind of scholarship that political scientists of all stripes generate.   This might be for well-founded reasons, it might be simple innumeracy hostility to the academy, or it might be a combination of the two.  I'd love to have a debate about whether that's a good or bad thing, but my point is that's the reality we face. 

Am I missing anything? 

Daniel W. Drezner

Stop blaming Egypt on political scientists!!

Pundits are clearly scrambling to figure out what the hell is happening in Egypt, and what Egypt means for the rest of the world.  And I'm beginning to notice that some of them are blaming international relations theory for being asleep at the wheel. 

First, over at AEI's Enterprise blog, Apoorva Shah argues that these events suggest the poverty of modern political science:

Did anything in academia foresee the unrest in Egypt, and more importantly, can something explain how Western foreign policy can appropriately react to the events? Of all the “schools” of IR thought—liberal internationalism, realism, isolationism, etc.—did any theory make sense of this and guide us on what to do next?

My amateur opinion is no. Because of an academic world obsessed with increasingly complex empirical analysis where every revolution is a mere data point and every country a pawn in the great game, our political science departments and the scholars they have trained (many of whom serve in and advise our current administration) were caught flat-footed, searching for some logical, rational approach to a particularly unique and country-specific event. While digging for the right IR theory, they instead produced a mishmash of mixed messages and equivocation.

If I’m wrong, please correct me.

OK... you're wrong.  Let me correct you. 

First of all, let's clarify the division of labor in political science a bit.  Crudely put, international relations focuses on the interactions between governments and other transnational and subnational actors.  Comparative politics focuses on the domestic politics within countries. 

To put this in the context of Egypt, it's the job of comparative politics scholars to explain/predict when we should see mass protests and when those protests might cause authoritarian regimes to buckle.  It's the job of international relations scholars to predict what effects the regime change/authoritarian crackdown would have on both Egypt's foreign policy and the situation in the Middle East. 

Calling out IR scholars for not predicting the uprising in Egypt is like calling out a cardiologist for not detecting a cancerous growth.    

But here's the thing -- as Laura Rozen has observed, political scientists and those they've trained did call this one!! From her September 2010 story:   

A bipartisan group of senators and foreign policy analysts is pushing the Obama administration to prepare for the looming end of Hosni Mubarak’s rule in Egypt by putting a new emphasis on Egyptian political reform and human rights....

“The bottom line is that we are moving into a period of guaranteed instability in Egypt,” said Robert Kagan, a foreign policy scholar with the Brookings Institution who co-founded the Egypt Working Group with Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “So the idea [that] we can keep puttering on as if nothing is going to change is a mistake. ... What we need now is to move to deliverables.”

The pressure from the academic and political community comes amid widespread expectation that the 82-year-old Mubarak — who reportedly is seriously ill — may soon cede power to his son, Gamal. 

If that's not enough, consider that Joshua Tucker blogged about the spread of revolutions last week, before Egypt blew up.  Even before that, my fellow political scientist and FP blogger Marc Lynch's January 5th blog post

 For years, both Arab and Western analysts and many political activists have warned of the urgent need for reform as such problems built and spread. Most of the Arab governments have learned to talk a good game about the need for such reform, while ruthlessly stripping democratic forms of any actual ability to challenge their grip on power....

Meanwhile, the energy and desperation across disenfranchised but wired youth populations will likely become increasingly potent. It's likely to manifest not in organized politics and elections, but in the kind of outburst of social protest we're seeing now in Tunisia.... and, alarmingly, in the kinds of outburst of social violence which we can see in Jordan and Egypt. Whether that energy is channeled into productive political engagement or into anomic violence would seem to be one of the crucial variables shaping the coming period in Arab politics. Right now, the trends aren't in the right direction.

 Not surprisingly, the Obama administration met with many of these people this week. 

Finally, a small point I made earlier this week regarding Mubarak's options: 

Everyone assumes that the Egyptian leader is a dead man walking, and given his speech on Friday, I can understand that sentiment.  There are, however, remaining options for Mubarak to pursue, ranging from a full-blown 1989 Tiananmen square crackdown to a slow-motion 2009 Tehran-style crackdown. 

Obviously, these aren't remotely good options for anyone involved.  The first rule in political science, however, is that leaders want to stay in power, and Mubarak has given no indication that he wants to leave.  (emphasis added)

Alas, based on this morning's events, it appears that Mubarak has selected the Tehran 2009 option. 

So I think Shah is pretty much wrong.  That said, I agree that there are profound limits on what IR theory can do in a situation like Egypt.  Ross Douthat sorta made this point earlier this week:

[Americans] take refuge in foreign policy systems: liberal internationalism or realpolitik, neoconservatism or noninterventionism. We have theories, and expect the facts to fall into line behind them. Support democracy, and stability will take care of itself. Don’t meddle, and nobody will meddle with you. International institutions will keep the peace. No, balance-of-power politics will do it.

But history makes fools of us all. We make deals with dictators, and reap the whirlwind of terrorism. We promote democracy, and watch Islamists gain power from Iraq to Palestine. We leap into humanitarian interventions, and get bloodied in Somalia. We stay out, and watch genocide engulf Rwanda. We intervene in Afghanistan and then depart, and watch the Taliban take over. We intervene in Afghanistan and stay, and end up trapped there, with no end in sight.

Sooner or later, the theories always fail. The world is too complicated for them, and too tragic.

Douthat is sorta correct -- but it's precisely because the world is so complex that we rely on theories.  While they're often wrong, they're vastly superior to the alternatives.    

Consider that, instead of explicit theories, a lot of commentators are simply asking whether 2011 Egypt parallels 1978/79 Iran.  This is a great question to ask, but the only way to answer it is to rely on explicit or implict theories of how revolutions play out and how the international system reacts to them. 

Of course the theories will fail from time to time.  Unfortunately, this is not rocket science, because rocket science is way easier than the social sciences.   There are too many variables, too many idiosyncratic elements to each case, too much endogeneity, and so forth.  But simply saying "the world is tragic" is a pretty lousy substitute to organizing foreign policy.