On political ‘science’


in Geek stuff, Psychology, Rants

As a consequence of returning to school, I am asked several times a day about what my field of study is. This is a touch awkward, as I have never really believed in the ‘science’ part of ‘political science’. I don’t think political phenomena can generally be effectively studied using quantitative methods. Indeed, I would be a lot more comfortable in a discipline with a name like ‘politics, philosophy, and economics’.

Thankfully, I can often dodge the ‘science’ part by saying that I study ‘environmental politics’. Those with a strong interest in academic taxonomy will sometimes persist in questioning until I name a discipline that is formally recognized at this institution, but most people seem content to accept ‘environmental politics’ as a field of study.

There is science involved in this area of research, certainly, but it pertains mostly to how the physical world responds to human choices, not to attempts to understand human interaction and institutions numerically. The interaction between carbon dioxide and electromagnetic radiation can be well-explained mathematically – the relationship between what scientists know and how governments behave, much less so.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

oleh September 4, 2012 at 11:44 am

Environmental politics conveys a clearer and narrower meaning than political science. It also seems more descriptive of a situation when your study goes well beyond the “study of the state” which is one definition of political science. Stoner said “As a discipline, political science, possibly like the social sciences as a whole, lives on the fault line between the ‘two cultures’ in the academy, the sciences and the humanities.”

I wonder if part of holding onto the use of the term science in the social sciences is in part a belief that science has more importance than humanities in our age of reason.

Milan September 4, 2012 at 11:54 am

If not more important, at least more worthy of public funding in the eyes of politicians and voters.

Still, I think the social ‘sciences’ often bear a resemblance to what Richard Feynmann described as cargo cult science.

See also: Feynman on bad science

. August 7, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Scientism, in this good sense, is not the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble. On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable. Scientism does not mean that all current scientific hypotheses are true; most new ones are not, since the cycle of conjecture and refutation is the lifeblood of science. It is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities; the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them. And it is not the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists. Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise. In this conception, science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism. It is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life.


. August 7, 2013 at 12:17 pm

“I also had a certain sympathy for the idea that national styles had evolved in the study of political life that should not be lightly disregarded. In addition, possibly due to my interdisciplinary research for my Oxford DPhil degree, which concentrated on history, anthropology, and the emerging subject of race relations, I was skeptical that a science of politics was possible. Finally, graduate studies were poorly developed at Oxford in the 1950s. There were no comprehensives. The DPhil was a thesis degree, and in general the social sciences were weak on the ground. The idea of mastering a social science discipline as a necessary preliminary to making an intellectual contribution was foreign to my Oxford experience. In sum, I was socialized into an un-American, old-fashioned view of academic life, one in which the permeability of academic disciplines was more important than their boundaries. My academic socialization was not an invitation to believe that political science had or could have hard scientific credentials. My argument consistently was that political science in Canada, especially the study of Canadian politics, should not be a miniature replica of American practice, that national disciplinary differences were appropriate, and more generally that our intellectual value to each other was nourished rather than hindered by the variations in how we study our domestic political systems.”

Cairns, Alan C. “Conclusion: Are We on the Right Track?” (p. 241 paperback) in White, Linda, Richard Simeon, Robert Vipond, and Jennifer Wallner eds. The Comparative Turn in Canadian Political Science. 2008.

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