international analysis and commentary

The positivist illusion

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The ongoing debate raised by Marta Dassù about the alleged crisis of political science in forecasting crucial events – the unexpected demise of Mr. Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mr. Mubarak in Egypt, with crisis contagion reaching Iran, as the latest cases in point – deserves to be continued and expanded. It brings us not just to speculate over the methods and contents of a specific discipline, but rather to consider the very nature of human reasoning and knowledge. In other terms, the issue at stake reflects the basic, as well as problematical, desire of complex and advanced societies to provide accurate estimates of future events through the means of “scientific” investigation. Is this an achievable aspiration or an unrealistic utopia? By developing her case, Marta Dassù emphasized three puzzles that political science has proved unable to solve and suggested one possible solution to overcome the deficit. They are, respectively: the inability “to envision the timing and the manner” of crises; the inducement to compare a given circumstance with previous situations, even though the latter is somehow different from the former; the weakness of political scientists to be taken into serious account by policy makers when formulating critical advice for current policies; and, the idea to redirect research more on countries’ general features and social processes than on political institutions. The effort to deal with each of these remarks aims to be beneficial in advancing the discussion.

First, Dassù is right in pointing out the difficulty of “political scientists, just like economists”, to predict when and how a crisis takes place. Moreover, scholars often reveal themselves incapable of foreseeing the pace of these facts. The temptation to blame political science for being ineffective is a reasonable one. However, behind this apparent flaw there is what we could define as the “Positivist illusion” of social sciences: the impossibility of fully and successfully employing the methods of natural sciences – behavioralism in particular – in the fields of politics, economics and culture. This way of reasoning is grounded on the conviction that concepts and models elaborated from the study of social reality (pure science) could be directly transferred into policy prescriptions and, above all, predictions of complex events (practical science). There should not be any misunderstanding: political science has developed a great amount of working theories and methodologies in many fields of inquiry. Yet, these tools are limited to the acknowledged lack of recognizable and replicable causal relationships in the social sphere. True, some behavioral laws providing causal explanations of recurrent facts do exist: in international relations, for instance, systemic approaches tell us that the anarchic condition of world politics produces “unintentional results” and “repetitive outcomes” over states’ behavior no matter their constitutional features, ideological belonging, economic performance or geographical position. Paul Kennedy’s book The Rise and the Fall of the Great Powers is a case in point. Unfortunately, all these assumptions are almost impossible to replicate into consistent and on time forecasts because they are based on variables that are barely possible to control. At best human behavior is short-sighted, if not openly irrational. Indeed, political science is not unacquainted with its predicting capabilities; it is just aware of their level of abstractness and looseness, especially in the international sphere.

Dassù also claims that comparing a current crisis with similar past events, especially if extrapolated from other countries and different historical moments, is misleading and unproductive. Explaining the evolution of different situations, characterized by different players sharing different cultures and aiming at different scopes in different theaters, requires relying not so heavily on a similar prescription. The origins and developments of the US military action in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, Dassù argues, can hardly be assimilated into a single universally valid guideline. Likewise, does it make any sense to compare Cairo in 2011 with Tehran in 1979? This is a crucial question since, given the above impossibility to test – not to craft – long-range theories of political behavior, political science has made a strong case for diachronic comparison: assessing facts which occurred in a distinct time period and pertaining to a similar class of events. Our aim, therefore, is not merely to explain specific phenomena, but to compare them in order to check the validity of broad generalizations and middle-range theories. By doing so, we expect to verify two basic results: that “if” some conditions emerge, “then” related consequences are likely to occur; and, that if such a correlation works, this is “because” we observe similar situations generating similar effects in similar contexts, but in different moments. We seek to move from stereotypes to ideal-types, from an unconscious to an informed way of analyzing facts. As political scientists say, comparison is, above all, a method of control, not of prediction.

As a third point, Marta Dassù asks for the reason why it is so hard for a decision maker to consider experts when their opinions dissent from his/her policy choices. Is this due to the weakness of political science as an academic discipline, or to the unreliability of its predicting capabilities? Or, one may add, is it due to the fact that many politicians dislike to be contradicted – a sort of “group-thinking syndrome” – when they make crucial decisions? Once more, Dassù correctly highlights a critical issue: the troubled connection between academic disciplines, political science in particular, and the real world. Some have already responded to this question by quoting scholars who switched to a political career – e.g. Michael Ignatieff and Condoleezza Rice, not to mention Henry Kissinger – and by calling for a more “proactive” stance for intellectuals in political affairs. Yet, there might be a third way in which this dilemma could be worked out: how a country allows, or makes use of, the ideas and prescriptions offered by scholars to influence and shape political decisions. This is to say that in many cases the interplay between leaders and academia is somehow distorted, with the former adopting only fractions of what the latter say, or even manipulating their assumptions and recommendations. This is what happened, for instance, to Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, one of the most cited and, simultaneously, misread and purposely misinterpreted books throughout the world. Turning to Italy, what can we say about the 30-year long, unproductive debate over constitutional reform, or about all the changes in electoral law? The problem, therefore, appears to be a different one. The focus should be oriented to the structural features of a country, in particular the capability (and willingness) of political leaders to establish a working framework in which intellectuals’ insights could be profitably employed for the sake of national community without being manipulated for short-term political quarrels.

Lastly, in order to increase their predicting capabilities, Dassù proposes to switch the hardcore of political studies from “governments” to countries’ basic components, such as “the people, the grass roots” or, one might add, the interest groups, the demographic composition, the religious movements. Sure, a growing part of political science acknowledges that the most radical approaches of formal modeling have turned out to be unable to advance the analytical skills of the discipline as expected. Further, in international affairs the number of studies and courses based on a multi-disciplinary perspective is expanding. While doing so, however, we need to consider the risk of ending up in another dilemma: more variables produce more in-depth, but also more complicated and, above all, indeterminate explanations. By enlarging the spectrum of research, a scholar holds a greater set of descriptive elements that concur in providing a richer analysis; though, since that kind of study widens the number and the frequency of possible causal relations between the actors involved, the predicting capabilities will actually be reduced.

To conclude, Marta Dassù had a great impact in stimulating the debate over the duties and the limits of political science, particularly over its practical utility in the defining moments of world history. Unfortunately, many of the doubts she raised seem to remain unanswered: political science does not have any prophetic power, being largely unable to foresee the beginning of crises, their evolution, and their consequences. Since the aim of political science is not to predict, but to explain facts, it deeply relies on historical analogies, but in many cases still – and ironically – maintains problematic relations with decision makers themselves. Political science is also trying to find an equilibrium between enlarging its analytical variables and not further diluting its explanatory power. It might appear as a negative balance, but recognizing the qualities as well as the boundaries of our endeavor is already a good starting point.

Read also:
Egypt and the political science crisis
by Marta Dassù
The Architects, the Oracles and the Ones
by Pasquale Ferrara
The shocks that always make a difference
by Ian O. Lesser
No prediction failure – but a lack of sound policy analysis
by Gregorio Bettiza
Reading the future: not our job
by Ramon Pacheco Pardo

Read also in Italian:
Previsioni e profezie
di Angelo Panebianco, Corriere della Sera
Per capire la crisi serve una laurea in buon senso
di Raghuram Rajan, Il Sole 24ORE