Predicting the Past

It was either Edward Banfield or James Q. Wilson—I forget which, but it doesn’t matter since they were both giants of political science who thought in similar ways—who once told another political scientist: “Stop trying to predict the future; you can’t even predict the past!”

This lapidary epigram came to mind recently when all the usual people (meaning liberals and the media) got their knickers in a twist when those no-nothing “anti-science” Republicans on Capitol Hill moved to cut or restrict National Science Foundation funding for academic political science.  The media-academic complex went into full swing to defend their oxygen supply.  From the outcry you’d have thought Republicans were proposing to cut off taxpayer subsidies for avant-garde art through the National Endowment for the Arts or something.

So kudos to Jacqueline Stevens, a professor of political science (tenured, I assume) at Northwestern University, who took to the New York Times a few days ago to point out that academic “political” science has a terrible track record:

It’s an open secret in my discipline: in terms of accurate political predictions (the field’s benchmark for what counts as science), my colleagues have failed spectacularly and wasted colossal amounts of time and money. The most obvious example may be political scientists’ insistence, during the cold war, that the Soviet Union would persist as a nuclear threat to the United States. In 1993, in the journal International Security, for example, the cold war historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote that the demise of the Soviet Union was “of such importance that no approach to the study of international relations claiming both foresight and competence should have failed to see it coming.” And yet, he noted, “None actually did so.” Careers were made, prizes awarded and millions of research dollars distributed to international relations experts, even though Nancy Reagan’s astrologer may have had superior forecasting skills.

There’s more good stuff in the article, but suffice it to say that if academic political science, especially government-grant funded studies, were subjected to any kind of quality control test, most of it would be regarded as a more scandalous waste than those legendary $800 Pentagon toilet seats.

PAUL ADDS: When I was studying law at Stanford, I audited a class in modern Soviet history taught by a distinguished specialist in the field. He noted that neither he nor his peers had predicted the fall of Nikita Khrushchev. He added, however, that since Khrushchev himself had not seen his fall coming, it was unreasonable to expect specialists, who had less access to the facts on the ground, to have predicted it.

It’s an interesting argument, but not ultimately a persuasive one, in my opinion.


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