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Revisiting Coburn

- November 2, 2009

A reporter from our student newspaper is writing a story about Senator Coburn and NSF funding for political science. At my suggestion, she looked at the posts on this blog, and then wrote with two questions. Below are her questions and my brief responses.

bq. In your blog, you discuss Coburn’s assertion that other sciences are more important because they “improve the human condition.” In what ways does political science provide benefits to the average person?

The average person’s life is greatly affected by politics. Political science seeks a systematic understanding of politics. For example, political science can tell the average person why their representatives or their government generates particular policies, policies which can in turn affect the person’s well-being. Political science can tell the average person why certain candidates or parties win particular elections. Political science can tell the average person why some countries form successful democracies and others do not. Political science can tell the average person why some civil wars are short and others are long and bloody. That’s just a short list. The broader point is this: all of these speak to the “human condition” in fundamental ways — a fact that Senator Coburn fails to appreciate.

bq. In his report, Coburn discusses how CNN and other outlets that cover politics provide ways for Americans to learn about electoral politics. In what ways does formal political science research move beyond what CNN offers?

News outlets can provide superficial analysis of polls and election returns. But they have no incentive to analyze these numbers in greater detail. They will tell you, for example, what proportion of whites and what proportion of rich people voted for Obama, but they do not tell you whether race or class was more important. Moreover, the social scientific surveys that the NSF funds are far longer and detailed than the typical pre-election poll. The main survey is also about 60 years old and allows scholars to compare the most recent election to past elections. This comparison tells us the answers to important questions, such as “Was race more important in 2008 than in earlier elections?”

News outlets also have an incentive to produce good stories, and this means over-interpreting highly salient events — the Jeremiah Wright saga, for example — even when there is little data to suggest that these events are affecting voters. To be more precise: cable news traffics mostly in anecdotes and intuition. Political science uses hard data and, perhaps more importantly, acknowledges both its power and its limitations.

Putting election analysis in the hands of cable news is like putting medical care in the hands of palm readers. No pun intended.

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