The Relevance of Political Science

Daniel Drezner posts some reflections by political scientist Erik Gartzke on the irrelevance of political science to policy:

We really want to be “useful.” I [Gartzke] know of no other discipline that is so angst-ridden about mattering, even those that don’t matter in any concrete, “real world” sense. Obviously, what makes us different from poets, particle physicists, or Professors of Pediatric Oncology is that we study politics and occasionally imagine that this gives us some special salience to that subject. Policy makers, too, want us to be “relevant,” though I think what they have in mind differs in important respects. . . .

Gartzke’s main message seems to be that it’s ok to not be useful: if we’re just addressing in-house debates within political science, that’s ok but we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

Gartzke is a bit too pessimistic for my own taste. I’d actually like to think that my political science research findings on incumbency, redistricting, campaign effects, voting power, and public opinion are relevant to policy (perhaps sometimes in indirect ways). But perhaps his perspective is more relevant for international relations and security studies, where the policy choices are sometimes so clear that there can be a huge feeling of frustration when policymakers pick and choose research findings to support the positions they already want to take.

I don’t know, really, but I’m putting this out there in case some of you have thoughts on the matter.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.