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More From the Know-Nothings October 13, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics, Science.
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David Glenn’s 7 October article in The Chronicle reports that Senator Tom Coburn (Sen. OK) wants to halt federal funding for social science research. This is not a new effort. As Glenn points out, Sen. Hutchison of Texas introduced a bill to kill most federal social science spending in 2006.

Coburn’s office justifies this by claiming “Federal research dollars should go to scientists who work on finding solutions for people with severe disabilities, or the next generation of biofuels, or engineering breakthroughs”; and further claimed that government funded social science projects “in reality have little, if anything to do with science.”

This is just more blather coming from the know-nothings in the Republican Party.

Political science is not a natural science in that it doesn’t produce predictions that will confirm general theories of political behavior. But it nevertheless produces socially useful results.

The natural sciences are not able to tell us whether a particular social policy is good or bad or come up with proposals for how democracy should function. These are questions that involve how we want to live and no science can answer these questions. But surely we need people who think about these questions.  The motivations and institutional arrangements that explain how power is acquired and deployed in society are important to know about if we are to have a functioning democracy.

Social scientists investigate policies to determine if they are successful or not and model future policies based on that understanding. Their generalizations will hold only “for the most part” for a variety of reasons having to do with the inherent difficulties in studying human behavior. But generalizations that hold for the most part are vastly superior to wild guesses about policy.

Here is one example of what Coburn objects to:

The Human Rights Data Project: which concluded that the United States has been “increasingly willing to torture enemy combatants and imprison suspected terrorists,” leading to a worldwide increase in “human rights violations” as others followed-suit.

This is kind of important to know, an example of data-gathering and correlation that looks a lot like science, and is socially useful, unless you are a conservative trying to cover up war crimes.

Coburn goes on to say that “Theories on political behavior are best left to CNN, pollsters, pundits, historians, candidates, political parties, and the voters, rather than being funded out of taxpayers’ wallets, especially when our nation has much more urgent needs and priorities.

With the exception of some historians, who in this bunch does hypothesis testing by gathering evidence? None of them are in the theory business. The idea that we can leave our knowledge of how politics works to TV pundits, political parties, and their candidates is frightening. Just think about it—Glenn Beck an expert on drug policy, Sarah Palin’s theory of conflict resolution!

And where do pollsters get their understanding of how to measure public opinion if not from political science?

It is clear what the motivation is here. Conservatives generally hate the social sciences because that research typically disproves their nonsense.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com



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