Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Methodology?

Alright, folks--time for some academia.

This blog post by political scientist Seth Weinberger defends the importance of scientific methodology. This followup concerns the President of Iran's recent address at Columbia. They make for an interesting one-two routine on the importance of proper scientific methodology. As I happened to find myself militating against it in a seminar today, I thought it might be worth commenting on.

Weinberger's argument in the first entry is that the essential feature of political science is the science part--the method part. This is a fairly common claim--the stuff of any undergrad social sciences course. He then goes about rather incisively analyzing and criticizing a NY Times article, on a number of points (I'll leave it to you to read).

This is all well and good, but I'm not sure it's science. It's certainly good critical thinking, but there's usually more to science than that. The failures of the article are along rather the same lines--the Times may be a great paper, but there's an analytical disconnect at work in the article. It has a few hidden assumptions, and Weinberger nicely teases them out. Were it right though, it still wouldn't be science. It would just be less flawed journalism.

The point I found myself making earlier today (or perhaps trying to make) was that the modes of methodological thought one attributes to the natural sciences aren't always suited to the study of something as ephemeral as society and politics. In the case above, we're concerned with public opinion in Iraq as it relates (or doesn't) to attacks on US soldiers. Good polling techniques help with this, and that's certainly science, but they have numerous quite self-conscious limitations.

This is where any number of forms of nonscientific analysis come in handy--the sort Weinberger probably includes in his blog from time to time, the kind that appears in better non-academic publications across the political spectrum, and that kind that I aspire to here, on good days.

His second post argues that President Ahmadinejad should not have been permitted to speak at Columbia the other day. This I take issue with (see this previous post). Addresses like Ahmadinejad's at Columbia take place all the time--public figures give non-academic lectures about the areas they work in, and are generally welcomed, listened to, and criticized. This is more or less what happened.

Weinberger contends that the address should not have gone ahead because Ahmadinejad in effect lacks methodology. He is a source of opinion, not scientific fact, and thus has no place in a university. Trouble is, if we use this formula to cast his remarks out of the academy, we also silence other public figures we might more readily agree with. We throw out the baby of serious professional policy analysis, valuable experience in the political sphere, and any number of other forms of nonscientific knowledge with the bathwater of Ahmadinejad's misogynistic, homophobic, violent, dishonest, and otherwise offensive remarks.

I'll bet Weinberger tends to favor these sorts of events when they involve more respectable public figures. However if he does, he ends up judging the Iranian president's remarks based on his own opinion of them. This is, I want to emphasize, a good thing. Cogent, well thought out, well defended opinions are essential to academic progress, especially in the humanities and social sciences. But this being the case, we need to let these sorts of events go forward. We don't need to like what we hear or even accept its underlying logic. Our ability and willingness to assess it critically, and the insight we gain either from accepting or rejecting it, justify the event.
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