Nerds united

Readers of this blog are aware that I am not a fan of the Flake Amendment, a proposal by the House of Representatives to zero out the political science portion of the National Science Foundation  budget -- and only the political science portion of that budget -- so that the $9 million or so will go to the physical or natural sciences instead.  This is one of those populist measures that sounds peach but in fact relies on either a piss-poor understanding of how public goods work, a piss-poor understanding of how political science works, or both. 

Still, you'd expect that the natural and physical scientists would be at worst neutral about the Flake Amendment.  After all, in a restrictive budgetary environment, anything that plumps up their research dollars can't hurt, right? 

Via Steven Taylor , however, I see that the editors of Nature have a better grasp of political science than, well, some people who write about politics for a living.  I don't agree with everything in this editorial, but I do agree with their main points: 

The social sciences are an easy target for this type of attack because they are less cluttered with technical terminology and so seem easier for the layperson to assess. As social scientist Duncan Watts at Microsoft Research in New York City has pointed out: “Everyone has experience being human, and so the vast majority of findings in social science coincide with something that we have either experienced or can imagine experiencing.” This means that the Flakes of this world have little trouble proclaiming such findings obvious or insignificant.

Part of the blame must lie with the practice of labelling the social sciences as soft, which too readily translates as meaning woolly or soft-headed. Because they deal with systems that are highly complex, adaptive and not rigorously rule-bound, the social sciences are among the most difficult of disciplines, both methodologically and intellectually. They suffer because their findings do sometimes seem obvious. Yet, equally, the common-sense answer can prove to be false when subjected to scrutiny. There are countless examples of this, from economics to traffic planning. This is one reason that the social sciences probably unnerve some politicians...

So, what has political science ever done for us? We don't, after all, know why crime rates rise and fall. We cannot solve the financial crisis or stop civil wars, and we cannot agree on the state's role in systems of justice or taxation. As Washington Post columnist Charles Lane wrote in a recent article that called for the NSF not to fund any social science: “The 'larger' the social or political issue, the more difficult it is to illuminate definitively through the methods of 'hard science'.”.

In part, this just restates the fact that political science is difficult. To conclude that hard problems are better solved by not studying them is ludicrous. Should we slash the physics budget if the problems of dark-matter and dark-energy are not solved? Lane's statement falls for the very myth it wants to attack: that political science is ruled, like physics, by precise, unique, universal rules (emphasis added).

Indeed.  A tip of the cap from this social scientist to the natural sciences -- it's good when nerds unite. 


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