Saturday, June 8, 2013

when political science ignores history

I'm a certified political scientist,though most of my work has been in qualitative rather than quantitative research. I see value in both approaches, but lately I have begun to despair at the obsession with quantitative techniques that seem to dominate my profession. 

Years ago, a sociology professor of mine remarked that much of his field was the quantification of common sense. I felt that way a few years later when I read a lengthy article by a political scientist proving that big, expensive defense programs got more scrutiny from Congress than small ones. Hello!

So when the latest issue of the American Political Science Review arrived yesterday, I glanced through it, looking for some enlightenment. Instead, I found this, as summarized in an APSR release:
In "Capitol Mobility: Madisonian Representation and the Location and Relocation of Capitals in the United States," Eric Engstrom, Jessie Hammond, and John Scott examine an important but seemingly underappreciated component of American political development and institutional design-the geographic placement of capital cities. They argue that decisions to locate capitals in the United States have been made in accordance with the theory of representative government that originated in this country, especially as articulated by James Madison. Using historical census and political boundaries data, the authors convincingly demonstrate that the original placement and subsequent relocation of state capital cities, as well as the placement of Washington, DC, follow a consistent pattern of being at or near the population center of the relevant jurisdiction, thereby maximizing citizens' access to their seat of government.
It is interesting that capital locations generally have been near the center of population. But one of the first rules in statistics is that correlation is not causation.

And when I read the authors' account of the choice of a site on the Potomac for the U.S. capital, I was dismayed that they glossed over the historical evidence that the decision in 1790 was a grand political bargain among Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton that linked the site favored by Virginia with the assumption of state war debts sought by Hamilton. Yes, it's nice that the political outcome was consistent with political theory of representation, but that ain't the way it happened in reality.  This isn't quite the same as the French joke that "it may work in practice but doesn't in theory," but it's close.

Ahistorical political science can't be very scientific.

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