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Michael Gerson’s Latest

- November 5, 2012

Gerson’s latest column contains a strange critique of quantitative approaches to elections and political science more generally.  Talking about election forecasting and polling aggregation, Gerson writes:

bq. The main problem with this approach to politics is not that it is pseudo-scientific but that it is trivial. An election is not a mathematical equation; it is a nation making a decision. People are weighing the priorities of their society and the quality of their leaders. Those views, at any given moment, can be roughly measured. But spreadsheets don’t add up to a political community. In a democracy, the convictions of the public ultimately depend on persuasion, which resists quantification.

bq. Put another way: The most interesting and important thing about politics is not the measurement of opinion but the formation of opinion. Public opinion is the product — the outcome — of politics; it is not the substance of politics. If political punditry has any value in a democracy, it is in clarifying large policy issues and ethical debates, not in “scientific” assessments of public views.

There are two false dichotomies here.  One is the measurement of opinion vs. the formation of opinion.  In political science, we do the former so we can do the latter.  Indeed, although forecasting models and polling aggregators take centerstage in an election year, far more political science research actually focuses on the formation of opinion.  In fact, far more political science research about elections is about how voters make decisions — you know, in books like How Voters Decide — and not about averaging polls.  And it’s about how voters may or may not be persuaded by the arguments of candidates — you know, in books like The Message Matters.  (And, yes, persuasion can be quantified.  It’s attitude change in the face of new information.  You can measure attitude change and information with quantitative data!  I don’t know why Gerson thinks otherwise.)

The second false dichotomy is between empirical inquiry and normative argument.  Gerson says that political science, like the rest of social science, cares only about empirical inquiry — it has “precision envy” — and not about values.  Gerson wants pundits to avoid this mistake:

bq. Over the past decade, there has been a revolt among political scientists against a mathematical methodology that excludes substantive political debates about justice and equality. A similar revolution is increasingly needed in political commentary. The problem with the current fashion for polls and statistics is that it changes what it purports to study. Instead of making political analysis more “objective,” it has driven the entire political class — pundits, reporters, campaigns, the public — toward an obsessive emphasis on data and technique. Quantification has also resulted in miniaturization. In politics, unlike physics, you can only measure what matters least.

That’s funny, because when I read political science, I see a lot of interest in topics like justice and equality.  Here’s a book that’s primarily quantitative, about the formation of opinion, and about justice: Jon Hurwitz and Mark Peffley’s Justice in America: The Separate Realities of Blacks and Whites.  Here’s Larry’s Bartel’s book about (in)equality.  And Martin Gilen’s. And Nathan Kelly’s.  Shoot, the American Political Science Association commission a whole report about “Inequality and American Democracy.”  All of these are empirical.  All engage normative arguments.

I’m not suggesting that every work of political science qualifies, including many of my own.  But I’m not cherry-picking either.  It is easy to find political science research that marries objective analysis — even mathematics! — with “substantive political debates.”

Gerson purportedly “crack(s) open most political science journals” and “find(s) a profusion of numbers and formulas more suited to the study of physics.” He should read a little more, because he doesn’t really know what he’s missing.

[UPDATE: See also Greg Weeks.]