Menus Subscribe Search
aristotle

The Politics of Attacking Political Science

• February 25, 2013 • 1:34 PM

When someone attacks physics, Neil DeGrasse Tyson is there to defend it. But who comes to the defense of political science?

Political science seems to be finding itself in politicians’ crosshairs lately. Less than a year after Rep. Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ) amendment making political science ineligible for National Science Foundation funding passed the U.S. House, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) has said that federal dollars currently spent on studying politics should be spent instead on researching diseases. A former political science graduate student, meanwhile, has taken to the pages of The Atlantic to deride the discipline as being largely without public value and therefore not warranting public support. And of course last summer, a practicing political scientist complained in the New York Times that her peers are lousy forecasters.

As a political scientist, I find it curious that my discipline has been singled out as being particularly wasteful of federal research dollars. How did we join welfare queens and spotted owls as convenient punching bags, things that must not be aided by taxpayer money during lean times? Can we really not comb through the social sciences and liberal arts to find some other less deserving discipline? Have we discovered things that our elected officials would like to keep from coming to light?

Part of what’s going on here is that politicians know that, like punching bags, we won’t hit back. There’s a strong (if not universal) norm within political science that mitigates against our own political activity. Sure, we vote (mostly), we donate to candidates, and many of us were involved in student government back in high school and college. But compared to our peers in many other disciplines, we’re relatively under-engaged in politics. Using our knowledge to weigh in on political matters, especially ones that concern our own livelihoods, is often seen as bad form.

We also don’t really have a network of prominent allies eager to speak up for us when we get attacked. Go after physics or history, and beloved scholars like Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Doris Kearns Goodwin will take to the airwaves and make you look bad, explaining how under-funding scientific exploration or failing to understand our past weakens our country. Who rushes to the defense of political science? Notably, a large chunk of former political science majors are now lawyers and politicians—not exactly up there with nuns and baby seals in terms of likability. There’s really not much downside to attacking us.

It’s also a problem that few political scientists have made much of an effort to explain to the broader society just what we do and why it’s important that we do it. We don’t do ourselves any favors, either, by withdrawing from larger political discussions or hiding our research (especially that which is funded by the public) behind paywalls.

There are exceptions, of course. John Patty, for example, recently wrote a compelling post explaining how political science is the only social science concerned with understanding institutions, which are really important if you want to, say, pass a law, develop rules for society, or promote some sense of the common good. Institutional rules have enormous consequences for policy outcomes, and if you want to understand what sorts of rules allow for certain types of outcomes and what rules impede them, ask a political scientist. John Sides also offers an excellent justification for support for the social sciences, noting that people’s happiness and quality of life depend a lot more on social than physical phenomena, and we’re the ones who study the social stuff.

Our political leaders, meanwhile (even the ones opposed to supporting political science research), make claims all the time about things that have been tested by political science, but they largely ignore our research. Eric Cantor himself has advocated for term limits for party leadership positions. There’s a lot of solid research about the effects of term limits! Cantor might want to know whether this would improve the functioning of his party or weaken it. But as far as I know, we haven’t been consulted in this case.

More generally, there are plenty of examples of political science research that addresses important questions about how we live our lives and what sorts of political arrangements can improve or worsen them. It’s regrettable that some political leaders have chosen to scapegoat this research, but more regrettable that there is so little reaction from political scientists and their allies. As scholars who study political phenomena, we should hardly be surprised when a group with little political power and less will to fight back is singled out.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 31 • 8:00 AM

Should Athletes Train Their Memories?

Sure, but it probably won’t help.


July 31 • 6:00 AM

Universal Basic Income: Something We Can All Agree on?

According to Almaz Zelleke, it’s not a crazy thought.


July 31 • 4:00 AM

Medical Dramas Produce Misinformed, Fatalistic Viewers

New research suggests TV doctor dramas leave viewers with skewed impressions of important health-related topics.


July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.