Post Modern Scientists who Study Politics

The other day I invited the PhD students in my seminar to have a gander at a couple of prints in my office.  I had no idea #TheDress would become a thing later in the week, much less that Dan Drezner would write a fun post about it.  But I invited me students to have a look precisely because I have, for my entire career, held unorthodox views contrary to those held by the vast majority of my intellectual type–scientist–including Drezner.  Photos of the two prints on my office wall are below.

Relativity, by M. C. Escher, 1953

Relativity, by M. C. Escher, 1953

First, the orthodoxy, courtesy of Professor Drezner:

This might be the most depressing conclusion of all. Most mainstream takes on international relations are “positivist” — that is to say, there is an objective reality that is observable and verifiable by others. This is a pretty widespread assumption. Social scientists who believe in the power of falsifying testable theories are positivist.

My academic research into international relations is positivist, and a debate about dress color is not going to change my fundamental worldview. But it turns out that we cannot even agree on the color of a dress. So now all my positivist friends will possess just a smidgen of doubt about whether that objective reality is truly knowable and verifiable. And it will haunt us until our dying days.

Up and Down by MC Escher, 1947

Up and Down by MC Escher, 1947

I held positivist views from the time I was taught about science in elementary school through about my sophomore year in college.  What changed?  I took courses in the history of science and philosophy the led me to abandon positivist beliefs about “facts.”  As a graduate student I pursued the topic further (mostly on my own, outside of seminar reading) and by the time I was taking my preliminary/qualifying exams, I wholly, and without qualification, rejected positivist beliefs about “facts” as, well, sophomoric.

I would debate these issues some with fellow students like David Davis, Keith Jaggers, Sean Kelly, Steve Majstorovic, Sheen Rajmaira, and Jeff Ross, but had the good sense not to raise it in discussions with the faculty.  And I have rarely discussed it with colleagues in the profession (indeed, only when they raise the issue and show genuine interest in discussing it).

So, why raise this with my PhD students?  My motive was to emphasize the importance of theory to the scientific enterprise, and in particular in juxtaposition to some of the otherwise excellent, but theoretically impoverished, research being produced by members of the causal inference zealots in the field.[1]  It turns out that I have drafted a couple of brief, and frankly sophomoric, but still useful essays to share my views on “Observing the Political World: Ontology, Truth, and Science” and “Evaluating Theory in Political Science.”  They are dated, and certainly nothing to submit for peer review (hence my labeling them sophomoric), but should it interest you, feel free to give ‘em a look.  I also pointed them in the direction of A.F. Chalmers’s What is this thing called science?

So, while the vast majority of scientists who study politics for a living hold, to the best of my knowledge, positivist ontological beliefs, not all of us do.  And those of us with postmodern ontological beliefs (bumper sticker: all facts are theory laden) experienced no crisis due to #TheDress.


[1] I have given thought, on multiple occasions, to posting my thoughts about the poverty (and value) of the causal inference zealotry, and one of these days will likely do so.


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Jigaboo, etc.

Following the Oscars, a local news anchor groused on air that it was difficult to hear Lady Gaga’s voice “over all of that jigaboo music,” and then tweeted a faux apology, explaining that she did not know the meaning of the word.

As a public service I recommend to all news readers James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot’s song, “Colored Spade,” which they wrote for their musical, Hair.  You can listen to the song here.

I’m a colored, spade
A nigger, a black nigger
A jungle bunny, Jigaboo, coon
Pickaninny, Mau Mau

Uncle Tom, Aunt Jemima
Little Black Sambo

Cotton pickin’
Swamp guinea
Junk man
Shoeshine boy

Elevator operator
Table cleaners at Horn and Hardart
Slave, voodoo, zombie
A baggie lip

Flat nose, tap dancin’
Resident of Harlem

And president of
The United States of Love
I said President of
The United States of Love

Shiiiiiittt.  You ask me to dinner

You’re gonna feed it

Watermelon, hominy grits
An’ shortnin’ bread
Alligator ribs, some pig tails
Some black eyed peas
Some chili

Some collard greens

And if you don’t watch out
This boogie man will get you
Boo, yeah!  Boo!

So you say.


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Food for Thought: DAESH and Media Self Censoring

This is a guest post by Eric Zerkel, a former student of mine and journalist the The Weather Channel, in response to my post “Why is DAESH / Islamic State Executing via Decapitation?

Interesting, but I think you’re actually missing a potential side of the argument here. (Also, not to be a stickler, but media coverage extends well beyond television, and therefore is a lot more complicated than this.)

“This is interesting because MacGinty lives and works in the UK, where the government can, and does, censor news coverage, and thus US news coverage of Islamic State (IS, aka DAESH, ISIS, and ISIL) stood out in stark relief to what he sees back home.”

While I get what you’re saying here, this seems to suggest that the U.S media isn’t censoring the news, which is the furthest thing from the truth.

I don’t think Americans have seen uncensored images of war and violence from the American media since Vietnam (partly because of our government’s control over access) but also because of the FCC and the trickle down effect it has on editors and their willingness to use imagery that is more reflective of the gruesome reality of said war and violence.

For instance, on the most basic level, most news outlets pay for access to photo wire services (like the Associated Press/Getty/Reuters..etc.) which provide an uncensored stream of images from war zones and disaster zones and such. Yet, you, the consumer of news, likely won’t see a large portion of these because of dead bodies, gore…etc.

When I search for “Boko Haram” in AP Images, for instance, I get a handful of bloody photos of bodies strewn about from a recent bus bombing in Potiskum, Nigeria, but on a CNN article (Link ) all I get as a consumer of the news is a single photo of burned out vehicles.

Even at The Weather Channel we use this sort of discretion. During natural disasters, Typhoon Haiyan being the deadliest in recent memory, I sifted through hundreds of wire images to build slideshows and had to cautiously look for, and omit, photos with dead bodies.

Same thing goes for the Islamic State executions. I watched NBC Nightly News after the first public beheading and remember hearing Brian Williams describe the gruesome nature of the act, but then he said something to the effect of “we obviously won’t be showing that on here.”

From my POV there seem to be sort of four different levels of media censorship: state-run (North Korea), Omission (selectively deciding NOT to cover a story for the “greater good”) (U.K.), hybrid-censorship (covering violent news, but in the least gory way possible (U.S.)) and unfiltered news (which speaks for itself).

All that being said, I don’t want to speculate here, but I’d be curious to know if there’s been any research done on the political impact of terror attacks in countries with different forms of media censorship. My gut says that if people in America were a little more desensitized to gore we would react in a different manner, but I don’t have any research to substantiate that assumption.

On a different level, all of this really doesn’t matter because even if you don’t show it on television you can seek out and find the video on the internet. BREAK and other sites carry the executions. (There’s a reason that the Islamic State has a youtube page, too). But that’s a completely different discussion involving internet censorship which is much more involved on the government level than an editorial level.

Anyhow, food for thought, Will. 

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Why is DAESH / Islamic State Executing via Decapitation?

If it bleeds, it leads.Armstrong Williams.

Roger MacGinty recently visited the US, and shared the following on his blog:

I have been in the US for a few days. When there, I was exposed to quite a few hours of Fox News, CNN and other news channels…  Usually the sound was turned down, but it was very clear what the top story was: IS. The news channels seem obsessed with it… If an IS strategy is to gain media coverage in the homeland of their enemy then they have won that part of their war – for free.

This is interesting because MacGinty lives and works in the UK, where the government can, and does, censor news coverage, and thus US news coverage of Islamic State (IS, aka DAESH, ISIS, and ISIL) stood out in stark relief to what he sees back home.

Terror attacks create “eyeballs on the set,” which is the currency of news.[1] And groups with little visibility know this. To get the attention of a powerful actor, like the US, a group needs to mobilize the public and persuade that public that it is powerful and scary. If that happens, democraticaly accountable politicians have an incentive to rush in and gesticulate about their commitment to keeping the public safe. The challenge of the little known group is: how does it project that image? Hiring a PR firm, the tactic pursued by corporations and celebrities, is not viable.

MacGinty, a peace research scholar, knows this, and that is why seeing American cable news coverage in airports, bars, and restaurants stood out to him. “WTF?!?” he was essentially asking himself. “Don’t these Bozos know that they are playing directly into IS’s hands? Can IS shout “Dance!” and then sit back and enjoy the show?”

MacGinty’s post stands out to me because I was drawn to politics as a 10 year old watching ABC Sports’s live coverage of Black September’s kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.[2] Mark Spitz won seven gold medals in swimming and the genre we now know as 24 hour news coverage was born due to a handful of Palestinian nationalists who recognized the symbiotic relationship between (American) news and their need for the world’s attention.

I was 23 years old when I first had the experience MacGinty posted about. For me it was TWA Flight 847, which Hezbollah hijacked. The image below is one of the best “made for TV” moments in the history of terror attacks: it is a screen shot from footage ABC news shot as a Hezbollah operative told the world of their demands (he also allowed the pilot, John Testrake, to speak). Still photos, like this one, were reproduced around the world in newspapers and magazines.

Source: ABC News

Source: ABC News

We didn’t say “WTF?!?” back in 1985, but the acronym effectively captures my reaction. “Why would any American news organization play into the hands of this goon squad? Don’t they know that if they ignored the hijackers that the tactic literally couldn’t work?!?”[3] I was on the Greek Island of Ios at the time, taking a whack at writing the great American novel.[4] UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in particular was critical of the American press for their coverage, but the American networks defended their decision and the American public’s “right to know” (e.g., see coverage here; for exemplars of American print coverage of the event, see these examples from Time and People).

I am a passionate defender of freedom of speech, press and assembly, and would not swap the British government’s authority to shackle those freedoms for what we have in the US. As such, I am squarely in league with Paul Wilkinson, whose coverage of this issue in the “The Media and Terrorism” chapter of his book I strongly recommend. Nevertheless, I would like to see the US media exercise restraint, and view the executives, producers and on-air talent with contempt for choosing to cover this topic the way that they do.

The weary, macho-militaristic American slogan “Freedom isn’t Free” aside, freedom of the press is costly when it comes to conflict. The reason is straight forward: political conflict is a strategic interaction[5], and political actors will pursue opportunities to advance their agendas.

The Islamic State is cutting off peoples’ heads, recording it, and posting the content online because you are watching.


[1] Lest anyone think that this is limited to television news, or contemporary America, the other day at lunch a colleague told us of his experience as a rookie reporter for a Chicago newspaper in the 1960s. It was his first night on the City Desk and a report of a murder came over the wire. He tore the paper from the machine and excitedly asked his editor for permission to cover the story. “What’s the address?” the editor wanted to know, apparently not looking up from what he was reading. When my colleague told him the address, he responded: “That’s the black side of town. Nobody cares.” #BlackLivesMatter

[2] Some friends have questioned whether as a ten year old I was really paying attention to the Olympics. My father placed 13th in the 1968 US Olympic Trials for the Finn, a sailboat. So, yes, the Olympic games were a major event in the family I grew up in, and we attended the 1976 games in Montreal.

[3] TWA was an American airline and the flight had a majority of American passengers. Oddly enough, a woman I had known in college, Laura Bergman, was a passenger on the flight, and was among those released midway through the event. I learned this via news stories that listed the passengers on the flight.

[4] I learned that I am not a novelist.

[5] See research articles about strategic dissident – state interactions here and here.

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A Visit to the May 4th Center


This afternoon I had the pleasure of receiving a personal tour of the May 4th Center at Kent State university by Jerry Lewis, Emeritus Professor who was not only present when twenty four Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire killing four and wounding nine, but had been standing in the parking lot roughly 10 yards behind Sandy Scheuer, who had been about five yards behind Allison Krause.


Lewis was a young faculty member at Kent State that day, and during the period following the shootings he played a central role in preventing even greater bloodshed.  In the minutes after the shooting a large number of students staged a sit-down protest, thus defying the Guard’s order to disperse and vacate the area.  Lewis and other faculty were serving as Marshalls, and had been trying to de-escalate tensions prior to the 13 seconds of gunfire that loosed 67 bullets on the unarmed protestors on campus.  The Guard had threatened to fire again, and was reforming a firing line when Lewis and his colleagues finally convinced the protesting students to obey the order to disperse.

The Center opened in 2012, and if you find yourself in the Akron, OH area, I urge you to take a ride out to Kent and spend half an hour or more touring the Center and the grounds where the protests of President Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia, the burning of Kent State’s ROTC building, and ultimately the shootings took place.  The Center is very well conceived and powerful.

To have had the opportunity to be accompanied throughout the space by Lewis, and then led outside and told about the sequence of events, and stand by the memorial to each student who died and hear his personal account was moving and wholly unexpected.  After showing us the fourth of the set of memorial lights which mark the location of the fallen students, Lewis walked about 10 yards deeper in the parking lot, then turned around and pointed back up the hill where the Guardsmen had stood that day.  We followed his pointed finger and then heard him say “This is where I was standing when they opened fire.”  It sounds almost hokey to say, but that simple sentence made me feel like I was transported from a cold day in February, 2015 to a warm day in May, 1970.  He then asked one of us, Christine Sierra, to stand next to him, shoulder to shoulder, so he could illustrate how that group of 24 guardsmen, who had been walking away from the protestors, turned back and opened fire.  He explained that he saw the smoke from the rifles before he heard the sound, and, having served in Vietnam, knew what that meant, and dove for cover, scrambling behind a nearby car.   From that vantage he got his first view of Scheuer, dead on the ground, and then Krause, who had been felled by three bullets in her back.

Anonymous letter expressing anger at the protestors and defending the National Guard troops.

Anonymous letter expressing anger at the protestors and defending the National Guard troops.

If you would like to hear Lewis and others discuss the shootings (and the further shooting of unarmed protestors 10 days later at Jackson State), check out this NPR episode from 2010.  Lewis co-authored an essay with his colleague and fellow Marshall that day, Tom Hensley.  They have also co-edited a book on May 4th.


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Paying Chuck Forward

This landed in my email recently.

Your comments have shown me where I can improve on presentation and clarity, which is very much what this project needs.  I am also stunned that you are willing to read people’s work out of sheer good will (no pun intended). I feel like I owe you a beer, or at least a handshake.

The context is that Christian Davenport and I did not accept that paper for the Spring Conflict Consortium Virtual Workshop (CCVW), and we decided that we needed to get those papers some feedback, so we each took half of the papers and then wrote comments, getting everyone who submitted some feedback.

I wrote this in reply:

Hi, during my second year in grad I snail mailed a working paper to Chuck Tilly.  Eight months later I received written comments.  The working paper was horrible.  He gently said so, but also encouraged me.  His comments were pretty brief, but he did it.  You can’t pay that back.  But you can pay it forward.  We are a community, and that’s why Davenport and I created CC in general, and of course CCVW is an homage to Tilly.

Oh, and if you are wondering, yes, I am happy to accept a beer at a meeting.


[1] I met Chuck for the first time in 1993, when I was an Asst Prof at UC, Riverside.  I did the “You probably don’t remember…” thing as we shook hands, and he cut me off, saying (roughly) “Of course I remember.  You sent me that paper on xyz six years ago.  What happened to it?”  I would love to have a video of the look of shock on my face.  Oh, and please do not expect me to pay that forward.  As my PhD students will attest, the first thing they need to do when we meet to discuss their work is remind me that the project is.  Yeah.  It is in my brain, and I can recognize, but struggle with recall.

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Page #s in Academic Citations

In academic work one sometimes encounters cites without page numbers (e.g., Gurr 1970) and other times with them (e.g., Gurr 1970, pp. 61-3).  How does an author decide which is appropriate?

The rule is simple. If the claim you are citing is the major point of that work, then omit a page reference. Why? Because there is no single page number that it would make sense to reference. If, however, the reference is to a point other than the major point of that work, then it is important to include the page number(s) so that readers can know where in that work to find the claim you ate citing.


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