Politics are unpredictable and unscientific

From the dawn of the 20th century, science has been the “it” word. Soon, anything academic had to be labelled “science,” even if it did not approach the definition of science.

It is no surprise, then, that this university, established in the golden age of this etymological disaster, would dole out department names inconsistent with reality. I’m thinking mainly of the Department of Political Science, although the misnomer of Social Science is just as aggravating.

Science gives us an image of unquestioned authority and unflinching detachment. Research scientists, outside the scientific community, are treated as modern day oracles. It is only natural for academic departments to want this kind of respect, but the label often comes at the cost of accuracy.

Social sciences, for the most part, are not sciences at all. Some psychology certainly deserves the title, but the label is primarily unwarranted. The scientific method is certainly a powerful technique for observing a range of phenomena, however, applying the scientific method is not enough to make something a science.

First of all, in the natural sciences, experimental variables can be placed and controlled in an idealized setting. This is not possible in social science.

At times experimentation has been tried, but ethical considerations denied the experiments’ true validity. The most famous example of what happens when people are treated like variables is a case of a mock prison at Harvard University. A psychologist wanted to experiment on social control, so he divided a group of college student volunteers to run a mock prison. Guards and prisoners were chosen at random and, to make a long story short, the experiment was stopped because the guards were excessively cruel to the inmates.

The second elemental aspect of science is that it provides us with technology. Political Science in particular has produced little technology of late. It has co-opted technology from mathematics and statistics in one of its main tools, the public poll.

Lastly, science makes prediction a possibility. If one listened to American political pundits two or three weeks ago, John Kerry’s victory in the Iowa caucuses would seemed like a miracle. Politics are simply too chaotic to conform to scientific methods.

The most conspicuous technology other than the public poll is the development of different voting systems, from first-past-the-post to more proportional systems of representation. These systems haven’t even had a fraction of the impact of technology brought forward by science. Furthermore, there are no signs these novel systems actually improve the state.

I think it is an insult to the study of politics to call it science, the department should be renamed Political Studies. We investigate politics; we may take measurements from time to time but that fact in no way qualifies us as scientists. Not because scientists are superior, but because the study of politics is, more often than not, separate from scientific inquiry.

Politics are too ephemeral, too arbitrary, and too complex for it to yield to the power of the scientific method. The laws of nature are constant, while the laws humanity has made for itself are constant in only a few cases. Even the most constant prohibition, murder, is often overridden.

In short, we should reinstall sincerity in our academic community and realize politics are only partially accessible to science, but still worth studying.

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