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.


About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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5 Responses to Post Modern Scientists who Study Politics

  1. jjohnson says:

    Sounds like you may need to revisit some of those philosophy courses. First of all, you seem to be conflating Logical Positivism with realism. Logical Positivism is the belief that statements can be split into positive and synthetic statements. Falsificationism comes from Karl Popper who was not a Logical Positivist and who believed that facts are theory laden, but definitely believed that science helps us increase our knowledge about an objective reality.

    In fact I’d argue that most philosophers of science today hold what you term “postmodern ontological beliefs”: all facts are theory laden. That doesn’t mean that they ascribe to the idea that objective reality is not knowable. All it means is that scientific inquiry is imperfect: no scientific theory will perfectly reflect objective truth, but some will more closely approximate the truth than others.

    • Ben says:

      He’s using it correctly.

      “Positivism” in sociological discourse, and “Positivism” in philosophy of science discourse mean different things.

      The latter pays homage to Carnap while the former pays homage to Comte (and have no idea who Carnap is).

      Although the former does draw from the latter, they do so only superficially because they [social scientists labelled ‘positivists’] don’t have the philosophical and logical chops to understand positivist philosophy of science.

      In sum, the word “positivism” is like the word “chips”, which mean french fries for British people and potato chips for Americans.

  2. Niro says:

    For better or worse, he is using the accurate term of positivism when it refers to the sort of social science he is trying to describe. It is important to differentiate between what social scientists call their work and what philosophers/historians of social science (those who study the former) would use.

  3. Pingback: FSU Reloads in IR | Will Opines

  4. Will says:

    From a quick read of the ‘sophomoric’ essays, it seems clear to me that you’re a straightforward subjective Bayesian. Apart from the Lakatosian bit about research programs, the subsection headings are a list of commitments or consequences of being Bayesian in one’s philosophy of science.

    It’s perhaps also worth noting that the causal identification ‘mafia’ are a paradigm case of theory laden-ness and thus comport rather nicely with your views: until you know what the graph is you don’t know what you’re seeing, and that graph does not come from the data.

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