I’m a bit out of the loop here, so only recently was I alerted to Mearsheimer and Walt’s anti-quantitative methods screed. Which has now been skewered more times than the onions at a kabab joint—most notably by Steve Saideman over at Duck of Minerva—but, having been somewhat selectively quoted in the piece , I really should chime in.
Scientific Realism. As I discovered doing background research for 7DS , this apparently useful little term is laden with so much baggage as to be almost meaningless. M&W are apparently using it both to differentiate themselves from the pomos , but also invoking the Ur-source of international relations realism, Hans Morgenthau, who asserted early in Politics Among Nations that realism was a “scientific” approach.
Well, sort of: a name means whatever I say it means, and the term “science” does, of course, have a rather curious history in the systematic study of political behavior. Morgenthau claimed the mantle of “science,” but then so did—actually, with some justification—Karl Marx. But also the “American Political Science Association” in 1903, a good 30 years before its members did anything reasonably scientific. So did Sigmund Freud. So did Mary Baker Eddy. So did L. Ron Hubbard.
The grand theory approach of international relations realism probably falling somewhere between the last two.
I’m shocked, shocked… The bigger criticism of the piece is, well, meh… This is news? Most of these points have been in circulation for at least ten years, if not twenty-five. Saideman and other commentators have also noted this.
Furthermore, the piece ignores Sturgeon’s Law, usually quoted as “90% of everything is crap.” Sure, most of the frequentist hypothesis testing is crap, so what? Read any brilliant new grand theory recently? Right—neither have I.
But the piece doesn’t even get the criticisms right. Does the word “Bayesian” appear once in the article? “Causality”? “Propensity function”? “Robust methods?” “Ward, Greenhill and Bakke”? No. The simplistic frequentist hypothesis tests have been under attack by political methodologists for the last couple of decades—in fact that was one of the primary motivations for the organization of the Society for Political Methodology—but unlike M&W, we are suggesting alternatives.
Pot calling the kettle black dept. A core issue of a “scientific” theory is that it must make accurate predictions. Yes, frequentist models generally fail at this, but plenty of recent work succeeds: Integrated Conflict Early Warning System (ICEWS), Political Instability Task Force (PITF). Accuracy at levels considerably higher than a dart-throwing-chimp , and in operational use in the U.S. government, more than can be said for most neo-this, neo-that contemporary “theory.” (The big theories, of course, are—for better or worse— quite influential, as Keynes noted so eloquently.)
And the track record of the grand theorists of realism…well, not so good, eh? Remember the US response to the OPEC price increases of the 1970s? The annexation of Alberta? The seizure of Mexican off-shore oil wells by the overwhelming power of the US naval fleet operating along interior lines of supply in its historical sphere of influence? Neither do I.
And then we have Mearsheimer’s famous prediction that Europe could only be stabilized by a nuclear-armed Germany. Yes indeedy, the mere prospect of the Acropolis, Coliseum, Prado and Temple Bar reduced to glowing radioactive rubble under the assault of German IRBMs launched from Peenemünde would have kept the PIIGS in line, yessiree Bob!
Quantitative approaches—particularly the misapplication of hypothesis testing methods which make complete sense in the context of survey research but no sense whatsoever in the context of the analysis of one-off populations—may be wrong, but at least we can systematically say why they are wrong. Grand theory?—welcome to the narrative fallacy and that wonderful little hit of dopamine that your brain gives you in response to any coherent story. And that’s all they’ve got to work with.
Virtually every qualitative theory—possibly excepting those citing Derrida and Foucault—will credibly account for most if not all of the available evidence: That’s how argumentation works, and likely has pretty much since the dawn of language. In the slow-moving world of international relations—all the more so at the level of grand theory—these theories may likely be effectively non-falsifiable within a human lifetime. Though realism doesn’t even pass that standard. Quantitative theories, if properly tested in split samples (and, per Achen’s arguments, quantitative models vastly more parsimonious than what we usually see), do not have this problem.
Data. M&W assert that we don’t have enough data. Au contraire, the problem at the moment is that we have way too much data and not nearly enough [competent] analysis. Granted, not always the right data, but more than we’ve analyzed: I was recently involved in a long-term project which cataloged the independent variables it had available, and the total came to around 2,700. [that isn't a typo.] And we can generate plenty more, pretty much in real time now.
So why do most of the published articles focus on a small number of data sets? Well, Sturgeon’s Law again, and the risk-aversion of the refereed publication system, and a lot of folks are just plain lazy. But is this worse than the realist obsession with the outbreak of World War I, a sui generis “black swan” if there ever was one? I think not.
Boomeritis. Finally, by far the most incongruous bit in the entire article is the note that this whole series of most dreadful and unfortunate events has come about because students are spending insufficient time in graduate school.
For starters, the implication here is that these brilliant new grand theories are going to be developed by graduate students? Oh, wait, no, of course they will: by graduate students working under the
abysmal conditions of indentured servitude enlightened tutelage of Messrs. Mearsheimer and Walt. Yeah, right.
Folks, outside of the realm of post-modernism, the absolute last thing I want to read is a grand theory written by a 25-year-old. Even from the University of Chicago. Particularly from the University of Chicago.
The last thing anybody needs—for themselves—is more years in grad school. Get the basics down, learn enough professional literature to enter into the academic conversation that has been going on for 2,600 or so years, learn how to learn, then get out on your own without someone telling you what to think and countless dark hours spent lying awake and drenched in sweat at 4 a.m. in some miserable apartment wondering how you are ever going to reconcile the contradictory demands of the members of your all-powerful but cruel and uncaring dissertation committee. Write your magnum opus after you’ve got some experience under your belt (and your prefrontal cortex is fully connected). Not in graduate school.
So what is going on here in M&W? Well, let me alert you to a controversial assertion at the core of an ancient Asian tradition that has been hidden from most Americans born between 1946 and 1965: old age and death are inevitable. And poor M&W are facing the experience aptly summarized in this recent Doonesbury cartoon, and no longer seeing Death in the rearview mirror , but damn, that guy in the black cloak has climbed into the car, is sitting in the back seat, and for godsakes is even criticizing how I drive!
Boomers. A theme we will probably return to in future posts.
1. There is no distortion of my work in there—I’ve made it rather clear that I’m not overly fond of frequentist hypothesis-grubbing either—though I note that the authors weren’t interested in quoting my observations in 7DS about bad theory.
2. Post-modernists, a drug-addled Boomer affectation which, as I’ve noted elsewhere, tore through political science like intestinal flu in a day care center, with comparable intellectual coherence and outcomes. If you aren’t familiar with the approach, just think of your acquaintances whose primary objective is to stay stoned 24/7 and enlighten you with observations like “Wow, man, have you ever noticed that when you turn a box of brownie mix upside down and look at the list of ingredients, it looks just like the stars in the Andromeda Galaxy? Like, wow, man…” Expect to see the development of a major focus on post-modernism in Colorado and Washington [state].
4. And again, we know of plenty of alternatives, including the rapid emergence of Bayesian model averaging which is likely to wipe out the cult of incremental frequentist garbage can models. The cult otherwise known by the initials APSR and AJPS.
5. Including that posting on Facebook from your college roommate’s best friend’s ex-wife’s cousin about the cute fifth grade Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanza/Dies Natalis Solis Invicti/Yule choral recital his daughter attended.
6. The saddest sights in that City of Big Shoulders are the legions of Chicago grad students lulled into thinking that another year in school will improve their chances on the job market. Yet year follows year, and eventually the spouse/partner who has been supporting them leaves for someone else with better future financial prospects—a chimney sweep, perhaps, or someone who repairs player pianos—and/or their trust fund is wiped out by an
incompetent typical financial manager. They roam the streets and coffee houses, a lost ghost army of Dunharrow. And still I hear their pale, plaintive voices…when I dial an 800-number to find out why the ice maker in my refrigerator stopped working.
7. Who will only skim the document, if that.
8. The image popularized by Carlos Castaneda’s fictional Yaqui shaman Don Juan Matus. Yeah, fictional. Okay, so it was originally written as a nominally non-fictional Ph.D. dissertation, but then became a cash-cow for the University of California Press, which certainly needs one…well, grand theory…
9. “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”
The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1935) Ch. 24 “Concluding Notes” p. 383