Ten Miles Square


July 26, 2012 3:00 PM Is Politics Too Important for the Politicians?

By Seth Masket

I was pleased and grateful to read this editorial in Nature in defense of National Science Foundation funding for political science. It’s frankly nice to know that someone’s got our back at a time when people want to defund political science because we’re not sufficiently scientific, or we make lousy predictions, or just ‘cuz.

But this passage left me uncomfortable:

The idea that politicians should decide what is worthy of research is perilous. The proper function of democracy is to establish impartial bodies of experts and leave it to them.

Is that really the proper function of democracy? I tend to advocate more responsibilities for elected officials, not fewer. I’d rather see elected officials in charge of things like redistricting, budgeting, nominating judges, etc., if for no other reason than that these activities give elections meaning. Voters should be able to get the government that they want — or something close to it — by voting people who believe as they do into office, and if they vote out the incumbents in favor of something different, they should get something different.

Government by “impartial bodies of experts,” conversely, is the antithesis of representative democracy. It means, in its purest form, that you’ll continue to get the same policies regardless of which party or candidate you vote for.

Now, I’ll certainly concede some roles to the impartial bodies of experts. I tend to think that the Fed being in charge of our currency is better than having Congress do that, and having special committees for things like military base closures is probably a good idea. In such situations, the potential for individual political gain causing serious problems elsewhere in the country runs pretty high.

But the NSF situation is different. Members of Congress are certainly competent to judge our work, and  defunding our research, while a bad idea for a number of reasons, is not likely to seriously harm the nation in the near future. Rep. Flake and those who supported his amendment are simply making a political judgment. If that’s a bad judgment, people should stand up and oppose it, and if that fails, they should take the struggle to the ballot box. But there’s nothing inherent in our line of work that places us beyond politics.  We elect people to make decisions about the use of our money. By all means, let’s try to influence those decisions. But let’s make sure that those decisions are made by elected officials. That is the proper function of democracy.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.


  • Mitch on July 26, 2012 12:52 PM:

    It is not that "politics is too important for politicians", it is that SCIENCE is too important for politicians.

    Let's face it, one major political party utterly denies science, and are very active in their attempt to distort or outright destroy the spread of scientific knowledge. It doesn't matter if you are talking about evolution, climate change, geology or physics or, yes, political science. The GOP is firmly against the search for knowledge that has given us the modern world. They do not seek to research political science in any realistic fashion anymore than they seek to do honest research about natural selection or the affect of tripling atmospheric carbon in less than a century. Conservatism already has all of the answers, according to it's followers.

    And the Dems, while they do tend to be better, are still politicians. That means they are swayed more by electoral pressure and, yes, outside influences like lobbyists than by observable fact.

    Also, assuming that "[m]embers of Congress are certainly competent" to judge anything is dangerous. Once glance at Congress should show you that. Not to sound crude, but a good portion of them are under-educated, arrogant zealots who would not know Reality if it walked up and slapped them on the face. And even when they are competent, they are often overpowered by outside pressure and the enforced ideology of their parties.

    I understand your point. Hey, this is a democracy (or, well, a representative republic) so what voters want should matter more than anything. Yeah, the quote in question is a very poor choice of words. Although if the author had replaced the word "democracy" with the phrase "a representative republic" he would have been describing how our system is indeed supposed to work. We mere voters don't write or pass legislation, after all. And we have even less control over how laws are implemented by the powers that be. We pass that resonsibility off to (hopefully) intelligent and impartial officials.

    Anyway, I think that the author's point is this: Science is a self-correcting endeavor. Probably the only one humanity has ever created. Allowing researchers the freedom to formulate and ask questions and then follow the scientific method to the answers without outside forces influencing them is pretty much the ONLY way to get an honest answer about anything. This goes for poli sci and much as any other form of knowledge.