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January 06, 2010


Putting the science back in political science. Love. It.

Pft, but the all-knowing Tom Coburn already convinced me that political science is a waste of time and money.

What's there to study? Much better to let the Beltway gasbags call their status-quo preferences "moderate," "centrist" and "serious" without having to justify this, even if our nation remains unable to deal with serious problems . . .

Brendan claims to have shown that a particular claim by Douthat is at least partly wrong. The ordinary reader would take this comment to mean that Douthat's claim is wrong in the real world. However, Brendan has has only shown is that Douthat's claim is wrong within the context of a particular model.

I ran into this distinction while creating an actuarial exam based on Samuelson's economics book. Some committee members submitted questions based on statements that were apparently true because they were quotes from the book. However, some of these statements were true only within the context of a particular economic model. As stand-alone statements their validity couldn't be evaluated.

However, Brendan has has only shown is that Douthat's claim is wrong within the context of a particular model.

By that standard, shouldn't you believe that Douthat's original post is pointless? He hasn't attempted to prove that his argument is right in any world (he's just stated it as fact) and you claim that it could never be proven at all.

The current health reform bill is the most significant, ultra-partisan law in the last 60 or 70 years IMHO. It's being passed only because the Dems have the Presidency and a veto-proof majority. That's only one instance, but it's an important one, and it supports Douthat's position.

For me, Brendan's model-based approach has three glaring problems. First, the simplified assumptions are obviously quite far from reality. Second, the technical details have been omitted from Brendan's blog post, presumably because they're too complicated and/or too lengthy. Third, the fact that one model comes up with a different conclusion seems inadequate to prove that Douthat is wrong in the real world. For all I know, other models might support Douthat.

Jinchi raises an interesting point. It suggests the following: If the only real political truths are those that can be scientifically proved, but if Policial Science cannot adequately prove real-world propositions, then there can be no real political truths. I tend to think that's more or less the case. Politics doesn't have laws with the degree of certainty of the law of gravity.

However, academics may have a different definition of "truth" -- namely, publishability. Douthat's claim is wrong in the sense that a Political Science journal will publish an article saying that Douthat is wrong based on a model like this one.

In fairness to the Bafumi-Herron model, their graph does show eight humps, and that much humping seems like a valid depiction of Congress. Marshall McLuhan was right: the medium is the message.

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