political science and the public

At the Midwest Political Science Association meeting over the weekend in Chicago, the distinguished political scientists Arthur Lupia, Jeffrey Isaac, Marc Lynch, Rogers M. Smith, and Lynn Vavreck discussed “Political Science and The Public: It’s Time for More Effective Engagement.” As the program promised, the panel was “about what we are, and can be, doing right now to increase the public relevance of political science.”

Lupia began the panel with a forceful argument that the problem is not with the public. People are overwhelmed with data and opinion; the competition for their attention is fierce. The problem is with us if we fail to communicate effectively. Several panelists noted that we now have many venues for doing so, and political scientists are using them. Lynch, for example, is one of the leaders of The Monkey Cage, the Washington Post’s blog for political scientists; Vavreck is often on TV.

Everyone acknowledged pitfalls and challenges. Writing for the public may not help get tenure; it takes time; and it can seduce you into trading scholarly rigor for public attention. I think the general view was that scientific expertise adds value to public debates. As Vavreck said, there is a difference between data and anecdotes. Political scientists should contribute reliable data (as well as sensitive readings of texts) and not abuse their professional standing by merely opining or making empirical claims outside their expertise. “Stay in your lane” and “Don’t write about the Red Sox” were suggestions made from the podium.

I see important truth in all of this and tried to address similar issues in my Knight Foundation/Aspen Institute White Paper on Civic Engagement and Community Information. But I think Isaac hinted at difficult issues regarding expertise. A simplistic fact/value distinction would encourage political scientists to write about facts for public audiences and leave the public to draw their own value distinctions. That would be a neat division of labor. Unfortunately …

Research programs are always deeply imbued with values. That’s easiest to see when one objects to the values. Plenty of critics have complained that neoclassical economics makes assumptions about social welfare, choice, individualism, etc. that should be controversial. But to say that a research program makes normative assumptions is not to undermine it. Good research programs have good values. For instance, I know and admire the work of Smith and Vavreck, each of whom (in different ways) helps to expand the exercise of political power in the US. That is a good thing to do. But political science, as a science, cannot tell us whether or why it is good.

Further, research is always aimed at some kind of audience and has effects on that audience, whether anticipated or not. Neoclassical economics gives corporate lobbyists arguments to use when they influence voters and policymakers. Sociological research on community organizing should assist community organizers. Choosing an audience is a political act. Expertise cannot distinguish whether that act is good or bad.

One way in which experts affect audiences is by influencing their sense of what is known, what is knowable, and who can know what. For instance, the Monkey Cage announces, “H.L. Mencken said ‘Democracy is the art of running the circus from the monkey cage.’ Here at The Monkey Cage, we talk about political science research and use it to make some sense of the circus that is politics.” That implies that a person who knows political science can make more sense of the democratic system than someone who doesn’t. I don’t disagree, but the implications are complex. Should people who don’t know political science not participate in politics? In 1914, the APSA’s Committee of Seven argued that citizens “should learn humility in the face of expertise.” Nobody would say that now, but why not? If there is expertise, and some lack it, shouldn’t they be humble in its face?

In short, as Isaac said, there is not one political science and one American public. Fairly diverse political scientists hold a range of normative positions and use a range of tools to various ends; and Americans belong to whole set of competing publics. Asserting that political scientists should communicate facts to the public overlooks complex political and normative issues: Which political scientists? (And who gets to be one in the first place?) Which publics? What kinds of facts? To what end?

Political science, as an empirical research program, can contribute to addressing these meta-questions. For example, it can help us to know which forms of communication are likely to affect which audiences by changing their minds on the issue or by raising or lowering their estimation of their own capacity. But it cannot tell us whether these results are good or bad.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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