(Mis)Understanding Political Science and Some Other Stuff

Let me preface this by saying that I started writing this post a little while ago, so some of the content is a bit dated at this point. That said, over at the Duck, Steve Saideman has a post up that continues the ongoing discussion on political science, its utility, and its relationship with the broader public. Steve* also links to some research on the subject done by fellow Binghamton University PhD, Conor Dowling

You can check out either post for more details on the content/findings of the research. For now, I wanted to focus on a couple of points. Overall, I agree with the vast majority of what Steve says. I've commented previously on the idea of making political science research more readily accessible to outsiders—policymakers in particular. Though I'm a bit skeptical as to just how much of this gap is attributable to political scientists, I do think that we have a lot to add to the public debate on a wide range of issues. And as my fellow blogger Chad Clay has expressed in discussions we've had on the topic, some of this probably does not even imply a complete overhaul of how we go about our work. Maybe we just need to do a better job of publicizing slightly more condensed and less formal versions of the research that we're currently engaged in. 

But I would take Steve's point one step furhter—I think part of the problem is a generally poor understanding of science among the broader public. While I completely agree that most people have no idea what we do, and that the mere sound of what we do probably turns many people off, I'm not sure they really have any idea what most of the hard sciences actually do either. Things like Cancer research excepted, that is. Still, I'm guessing support for funding research in physics, chemistry, biology, etc., is much higher than support for funding political science research, but most people probably have very little idea as to what these disciplines do with their time, or how they do it. And as I've pointed out before, the hard sciences deal with many of the same problems of classification, measurement, etc. The medical field, for all of its developments over the past century or so, still treats a range of mental health issues as though they are somehow not related to an organ in your body. This a simplification, but I don't think it's much of a stretch. Call me crazy, but ECT does not seem like a terribly sophisticated treatment—and yes, this is still used today. 

Overall, my point is that there is somehow a popular distinction as to what qualifies as science and what does not. Science is not viewed as a process of understanding, learning, and evaluation that can be applied to a range of subjects, but it is popularly identified with the subjects themselves. Even though we have the word "science" in the name of our discipline, I don't think most people see it as such. Even if you tell them that we use some of the same methodologies that are used in the hard sciences, I don't think this will change their views either (As Steve notes, this is pretty tough). The widespread use of the term "scientist" to describe someone that does research in any field of the hard sciences is both irksome and somewhat representative of this problem—most people have no idea as to the distinctions that exist between the numerous fields of research within the "scientist" label/category, but they are far more comfortable telling you who is not a scientist. Where this misplaced sense of authority over just what constitutes science—one that many people seem to hold—comes from is not clear, but I blame the ubiquitous question, "what do you want to be when you grow up?" 

As I said, I started this post a little while ago, and I came across some interesting stories this morning as I prepped this for posting. In other news, Financial Times reports that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have "quietly" opened up a pipeline that bypasses the Straight of Hormuz. FT notes that the sanctions have pushed Iranian oil production to its lowest point in 20 years. The new pipelines will also carry a volume of oil that is equivalent to about 40% of the Straight's daily flow. The opening of this pipeline is "news" in some sense, but my guess is that the Iranians have probably known about this for a while now. So my question is, have they yet to react to this development, or is the expectation that this pipeline would open already baked into their behavior?  

Another brief point: Foreign Policy informs me that the Red Cross has classified Syria as a Civil War. Another topic I've talked about before. Keep watching to see if each successive label change comes closer on the heels of the previous. 

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*I should disclose that I've never actually met Professor Saideman (unless seeing his face on my Twitter feed counts, but I don't think he follows me so that probably doesn't count), so I may be a bit presumptuous in using such familiar terms. 

Michael Flynn

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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