Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Research: It's so important that someone else should pay for it

If you're interested in the ongoing saga over NSF funding for political science, please do not miss Charles Lane's op/ed in yesterday's Washington Post. Lane starts by taking on Christopher Zorn's post at the Monkey Cage, in which Zorn raised concerns about the politicization of NSF funding decisions. Then Lane goes on to make some odd economic claims, such as:
The relevant question... is whether society could have reaped equal or greater benefits through other uses of the money — and how unreasonable it would be to ask the political scientists to rely on non-federal support. [...] 
If this research is as valuable as its proponents say, someone other than the U.S. Treasury will pay for it.
That last sentence is pretty astounding. Swap out the words "this research" for "the study of cancer" or "national defense" just to get a sense of it. Just because something is important does not automatically mean it is popular or well-funded. Strangely, Lane seems to concede as much just two paragraphs later:
The private sector chronically underinvests in basic scientific research; the costs and risks are relatively high, and the benefits relatively hard to commercialize. Government support compensates for this “market failure,” enabling society to reap “positive externalities” — economic, environmental or military.
Um, yeah! That's just what I was saying! But Lane thinks this logic only applies to the "hard" sciences, not the social sciences:
Though quantitative methods may rule economics, political science and psychology, these disciplines can never achieve the objectivity of the natural sciences. Those who study social behavior — or fund studies of it — are inevitably influenced by value judgments, left, right and center. And unlike hypotheses in the hard sciences, hypotheses about society usually can’t be proven or disproven by experimentation. Society is not a laboratory.
Wow. Okay, last point first: Of course we can use experiments to test claims about society! Political psychologists, among others, do this all the time. Political scientists also use natural experiments all the time. Here's one: Nebraska and Kansas have very similar populations but different institutional rules for their state legislatures, and this has important effects on legislative partisanship. Yes, society can be a laboratory.

Now, as for Lane's other points in there, let's just pretend for a moment that those who study the hard sciences are not influenced by value judgments, such as desires to cure cancer, to make fusion energy cheaply available, to prove or disprove human-made climate change, etc. Are social scientists influenced by value judgments? Well, I suppose we'd need to define the word "influenced." Their political beliefs probably cause them to find certain questions interesting and to spend time researching them as opposed to other questions. So I suppose that's a form of influence. But that's probably not what Lane is saying. Rather, he seems to be suggesting that our political judgments cloud our results.

So here's a challenge for Lane: Please browse through the most recent edition of the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Politics, or any of the other major political science journals and show me where scholarship has been compromised by the scholar's ideological judgments. If you don't have access to these articles, just let me know and I'll send them to you. Hell, you can find most of my publications here: show me where my findings have been influenced by my value judgments.

The question of whether society should be subsidizing research about politics is an interesting one, and while I certainly have my opinions, I welcome debate on the topic. But the idea that social scientists can't do research without being clouded by political judgments and that this makes our research inferior to that of the other sciences is, frankly, offensive.

(Cross-posted from Mischiefs of Faction)

1 comment:

Joe said...

"Hell, you can find most of my publications here: show me where my findings have been influenced by my value judgments."

From another article:
"So there’s your money effect, folks. Go from a 2:1 money advantage to a 7:1 money advantage, and it could increase your vote share by a full percentage point! Woo hoo!"

You pay lip service to the other variables with the loose word "could", but this point is essentially non-sequitur. There are other variables that influenced the percentage of votes received. You didn't mention them, or even make clear they existed.

I don't see that you're party affiliated, but I'd have to say you bias leans right-wing.

Unless it's an honest mistake.