Can politics be studied scientifically?

A Daily Kos headline caught my eye: Too Important for Clever Titles – Scientific Study Says We Are an Oligarchy

Now, the contents of this Princeton study can be debated, but I’m kind of more interested in the very concept that political matters can be studied scientifically, and things “proven” as if it were evolution. My instincts say that it feels incongruous, but I haven’t been able to give it the thought it deserves.


It can be, but almost never is.

The notion of political science is nothing new. It is at least as scientific as any other social science.

As stated political science is one of the social sciences. The social sciences use different methods of research than the physical sciences (controlled experiments are common in physical science–but not in social science).

You can take the ontological approach to studying anything, however it doesn’t necessarily lead to proofs or predictions.

Yeah, but I always thought poli sci was about trends and such, not the production of falsifiable, repeatable, scientific proofs.

Here is an excellent recent Poly Sci article that I find both scientific and falsifiable:

The Political Legacy of American Slavery

Is the case proven beyond a shadow of a doubt? No, but real science is tentative.

It might be objected that physics, chemistry, biology, and geology are more cumulative, and I suppose they are. But the study in my link does build on earlier political science

As another example, you could compare the longevity of constitutional democracies using a bicameral or unicameral legislature. You could also do the same with any number of characteristics.

Some constitutional structures apparently make the system more prone to gridlock followed by collapse.
More generally, aspects of politics are susceptible to measurement and test.

Controlled experiments and “falsifiable, repeatable, scientific proofs” are rare to non-existent in many rigorous, “hard” scientific fields that are not social sciences - astronomy, geology, paleontology, and much of evolutionary biology, for instance - and common in some sciences that are often categorized as “social”, such as experimental psychology.

The problem here is not with the social sciences, or their rigor, but with the naïve, simplistic, and often quite inappropriate criteria by which too many “fans” of science try to sharply demarcate between the scientific and the non-scientific. Use of the methodologies appropriate to physics is often inappropriate or even downright impossible in many other fields of scientific research, and excessive “physics chauvanism” has quite often retarded progress in such fields. Social sciences often deal with issues of much greater practical importance than much of the stuff that the physical sciences concern themselves with, and the attitude sometimes encountered amongst physical scientists (though, I suspect, much more common amongst engineers and “fans” of the physical sciences) that the social sciences are not “real” sciences, or not “rigorous” is based upon nothing more than deep ignorance, chauvinism, and prejudice.

The answer to the OP is that, yes, many aspects of politics can be and are studied scientifically, and this has been going on for a long time. Most decent universities will have a Political Science department (although not always under that exact name), and there is a lot more to political science than the study of “trends and such”.

Note that you can come to the same conclusion using different methodologies: There are academicians who study the matter very carefully and who come to the conclusion that we are an oligarchy.

On the other hand, I hang out with my buddies in our favorite watering hole on Friday nights and after 4 hours or so and a good number of beers, we usually agree that we are ruled by a bunch of [expletive deleted] rich guys and that elections are just a scam.

I believe Ernest Rutherford would call those fields “stamp collecting” (as opposed to physics).

Relevant xkcd toon.

Okay, fine, but a lot of commentary on this article is treating this like it is now scientifically proven that the US is an oligarchy — it is now (again) a scientifically proven fact like the laws of physics or gravity. Notwithstanding this particular study (maybe I’ll start a new thread about it), is this even possible?

Heh. The Princeton study was science (or so I presume: I haven’t read the paper). The bragging at the Daily Kos was rhetoric.

Here, I’ll provide a contrast. This is science. It’s the abstract of the article: Each of four theoretical traditions in the study of American politics – which can be characterized as theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic Elite Domination, and two types of interest group pluralism, Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased Pluralism – offers different predictions about which sets of actors have how much influence over public policy: average citizens; economic elites; and organized interest groups, mass-based or business-oriented. A great deal of empirical research speaks to the policy influence of one or another set of actors, but until recently it has not been possible to test these contrasting theoretical predictions against each other within a single statistical model. This paper reports on an effort to do so, using a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues. Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism. And this, my friend, is rhetoric: Too Important for Clever Titles – Scientific Study Says We Are an Oligarchy See the difference?

Yes, but that doesn’t answer my question: is it ever possible for political points (e.g. “the United States is an oligarchy”) to be scientifically proven the way the rhetoric suggests it can be? If so, under what circumstances?

Well, Nate Silver’s electoral-prediction models are political points and can be tested by track record. Like weather forecasts, they’re predictive scientific descriptions of events.

Well, the first step would be defining oligarchy. In the context of the US, that’s pure rhetoric. Which is ok: I don’t have a problem with rhetoric.

Could it be demonstrated that the statistical evidence is more consistent with Economic Elite Domination than the other 3 named theories? Yes, I think this is a potentially falsifiable hypothesis. In practice evidence will be mixed and will have to be weighed though.
So again, well defined statements can be proved scientifically and in that sense political science is not an oxymoron. Rhetoric can be demonstrated as well, but in that context standards of evidence are looser.
ETA: All that said, political science departments typically employ a mix of professors, some of whom are more in the historical or even rhetorical tradition than eg the statistical one.

That quote is often misapplied. Saying that all sciences are either physics or stamp collecting does not imply that astronomy, say, is stamp collecting. It can just as well imply that astronomy is physics. Which is, for the most part, correct. Exact measurement of the celestial coordinates of a particular star is arguably stamp collecting, and debating whether to call Pluto a planet or a planetoid definitely is, but things like that make up only a miniscule portion of the modern field of astronomy. Determining the redshift-distance relationship, however, is physics.

My takeaway from the study is that political scientists did a hard, by-the-numbers study of how often Congressional and Presidential decisions went against the popular will (i.e., did not elect legislation that was supported by most Americans in polls) as opposed to decisions that were favored by business and economic elites (rich guys of various stripes). The astounding thing was just how wide the gap was, and how far back it happened: there were virtually no public policy decisions favored by the majority of Americans, but plenty that favored the business elites. And the study was conducted from 1981-2002 … well before the time when PACS were a big factor. The fix was in, even way back then.

We are truly, truly screwed. And yet some on this board feel it’s important to vote for Kang rather than Kodos.

I was a “government” major at Georgetown, but we didn’t study anything even called polysci at all, nor anything using any form of social-science methodology (unless you count Robert Dalh’s Polyarchy), we studied history and constitutional law and comparative foreign governments and great-books political theorists from Aristotle onward.