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AUGUST 2003
Volume 95, Issue 6
 

GRAPHIC:  Also in every issueLetters

Affirmative action reminds me of a cheap magic act...

Quantity of qualified responses
Reading Sharla A. Stewart’s article about political science’s “Revolution from Within” (June/03) should raise some important questions. Do quantitative theorists really want to block the publication of qualitative area studies? Do game theorists and statisticians really control the major political-science journals? As a game theorist who works in political science, I can testify that the answer to both questions is No.
Everybody agrees that non-quantitative studies can make important contributions to political science, and nobody wants any research paper to use more mathematics than it needs to make its point. But great research should not avoid powerful mathematical analysis only because some people in the field have not studied enough mathematical tools.

What the game theorists in political science really want is to deepen our understanding of political institutions, by careful, rigorous analysis of the incentives that different institutions can create for politicians and citizens.

Good quantitative modeling is often essential to lead us through the complexities of such analysis. That is why great departments of political science like Chicago are increasingly requiring that their students must master the fundamentals of statistics and game theory.

Roger Myerson
Chicago

Myerson is the W. C. Norby professor in economics at the University.—Ed.


Political scientist David Laitin of Stanford (in “Revolution from Within”) says, “It would be a warping of the scientific frame if we built into the charter of any department of political science that there had to be an expert in ‘realism,’ or in ‘South Asia,’ or in ‘democracy,’ or in ‘qualitative methods.’” (He believes that one scientific theory or methodology will eventually answer all the political science questions; if methodologies are plural, some must be wrong.) Laitin and his colleagues (better yet, the life scientists, who are making fantastic strides and meeting us far more than halfway) should by all means pursue the science of human behavior. But I wonder if Laitin stopped to think how his quoted statement would sound to students of human behavior outside his field. Perhaps it is “a warping of the scientific frame” to require universities to hire experts in “politics,” or in “political behavior,” or in “decision making.” Those are specialties—“local knowledge.” To be sure, “qualitative political scientists” (and historians, sociologists, anthropologists, area specialists. etc.) will still be needed to name the “dependent variables.” Narrow is as narrow does.

Jeffrey C. Kinkley, AB’69
Bernardsville, New Jersey


Sharla Stewart’s article explained a delphic utterance I overheard at DePaul. One of the poli-sci faculty mentioned to a colleague that he had to attend a meeting of departmental “theorists,” and I was not certain what that could mean. I knew that both these individuals were a bit wild-eyed in their work, but the article explained the ideological schism within the discipline (and also the probable purpose of the meeting), and did so clearly and with considerable insight.

For about the last half-century, philosophy has been involved in the same sort of internal tension i.e., a rift between the “scientific” folks who emphasize formal logic and analytical methods vs. the more speculative, “looser” European brand of wisdom-seeking. It is unfortunate that people supposedly pursuing similar goals cannot agree on ways to reach them, or even for approximating a measure of shared wisdom. Perhaps that’s the way of things, although if so, it says something interesting and probably important about advances in knowledge within disciplines. But that’s the subject of a book rather than a letter.

David White
Chicago


Political-science professor John Mearsheimer’s text The Tragedy of Great Power Politics concludes with a number of recommendations regarding U.S. foreign policy in the new millennium. For example, he suggests that we “abandon our policy of constructive engagement” with China. As another example, he ends by stating that U.S. foreign policy must not follow the traditional liberal American political culture. While Professor Mearsheimer presents an in-depth analysis of international relations and a clear presentation of realism, it is important to note that his conclusions, to a large extent, are merely his opinion and do not represent a rigorous scientific analysis of the U.S. role in international relations.

More recently, President Bush and his administration were of the opinion that U.S. troops would be greeted with parades when they invaded Iraq, and that they would quickly restore order and basic services. However, news reports of attacks on U.S. troops, protests around the country, and continued looting and blackouts suggest that this opinion was extremely erroneous.

After reading “Revolution from Within,” I wondered if Professor Mearsheimer was of this opinion, or if he had looked at one of the many published regression analyses of political stability following shift changes in the institutional structure of a country. Perhaps such an analysis would have empowered the political and military leaders with more realistic expectations of the situation in Iraq following the invasion.

While the perestroika camp advocates for the traditional approach to studying political interactions, they appear to ignore the important policy implications of their work, and they seem to ignore the imperative that political research represent more than just the opinion and rationalization of the particular author. Quantitative methods of political research allow researchers to move beyond opinion and delve into the facts as observed in the real world. While these methods are not perfect and contain uncertainties, when it comes to important questions regarding U.S. foreign policy, I say that data is much better than opinion.

Ezra Boyd, AB’99
Slidell, Louisiana


The University of Chicago Magazine welcomes letters on its contents or on topics related to the University. Letters must be signed and may be edited for space and clarity. We ask readers to keep correspondence to 300 words or less. Write:

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