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Excommunicating Condoleeza Rice.--

Eugene comments on these snarky assertions of a newly minted Harvard Ph.D. at AlexandraSamuel.com:

shouldn't political science have its equivalent to disbarment or excommunication? After all, if we want the term "political scientist" to mean something, then a doctorate shouldn't be a one-way ticket. When political scientists promulgate ideas or institute policies that violate even the most generous interpretations of our collective wisdom, they are not only disregarding their own academic training, but devaluing the intellectual authority and standards of our field. So shouldn't there be some threshold - it can be a generous one - beyond which one loses the right to practice political science?

After spending the last few years at Harvard, Ms. Samuel (I presume that it is she who is posting at AlexandraSamuel.com) seems to be confused about how academics is supposed to work. To my mind, she is doing what she decries: "promulgat[ing] ideas . . . that violate even the most generous interpretations of our collective wisdom, . . . not only disregarding [her] own academic training, but devaluing the intellectual authority and standards of our field." I hope that no one at Harvard tries to implement Ms. Samuel's authoritarian policies, or they might just demand Samuel's Ph.D. back.

Science (and social science) proceeds by free inquiry, not by consensus, as Michael Crichton, a Harvard MD from a different generation so eloquently put it two years ago:

I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had.

Let's be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period.

Crichton then describes scientific consensuses that turned out to be wrong. I don't think that there is anything wrong with talking about the consensus of scientists or social scientists (and I certainly do so myself), but one must remember that it is the quality of the evidence that makes the work persuasive, not the consensus.

But what about examples of social science consensus?

The Case of James Coleman. As part of my Ph.D. work at the University of Chicago, I was fortunate enough to be among James Coleman's last students. At one time or another in his long career, Coleman had been the leading practitioner of several subfields in Sociology: educational sociology, mathematical sociology, and rational choice sociology. In the 1960s Coleman did some of the first large-scale, well designed educational studies. When his early results seemed to find positive effects for school integration, he was lionized by the profession. But just a few years later, when his data started showing problems with the educational effects of busing, he was vilified. Although I never heard exactly what was done to him, Chicago faculty members told me that he was "basically thrown out" of the American Sociological Association (ASA), perhaps analogous to what Ms. Samuel has proposed for Condoleeza Rice. I don't take the claims that Coleman was thrown out literally; probably nothing more was done than open insults, shunning, and expressions that he was not welcome anymore.

When eventually Coleman's work was mostly validated by other researchers, the leaders of the profession were ashamed of their prior actions. I was told by faculty members at Chicago and elsewhere (I have no personal knowledge of these events) that an effort was made to make amends for their shoddy treatment. Twenty years after being excluded, the ASA made him President of the organization. (I apologize in advance to those readers who have personal knowledge of these events; my knowledge is secondhand and thus likely to be in error on some details. Coleman never spoke to me about any of this.)

Welfare Reform. The greatest success of the Clinton Administration--and one that will continue to generate benefits for years to come--is welfare reform. It was a Republican idea, but it took real courage on Clinton's part to get it past the Democratic establishment, both academic and political. I take it that its chief proponents in the Clinton White House were Clinton himself, Gore, and Dick Morris. All sorts of horror stories were told about the scale of human disaster that would come about if even a modest workfare system was imposed. Even less alarmist academics thought that it had to worsen things, but as soon as it passed (even before it took effect), more poor people began looking for and getting jobs. Poverty went down, not up. Now a generation of the poor and the borderline poor are being raised in households with many more employed breadwinners, with positive effects of many sorts.

Arming America. After it was publicly exposed that in Arming America Michael Bellesiles had described the contents of over a hundred documents that never existed, the American Historical Association passed a resolution that specifically expressed support for both Michael Bellesiles AND HIS BOOK! With some of the country's leading historians praising the book, the consensus was so strong that most historians just did not think that they should spend an afternoon in a good library checking criticisms before going public with expressions of support. Later, some of those same leading historians wrote or told me that they were wrong. For several reasons, including because the AHA was embarrassed over having been taken in by Bellesiles, the AHA decided to end its practice of conducting ethical investigations.