As citizens and as engaged intellectuals, we all have the right—indeed, an obligation—to make moral judgments and act based on those convictions. As political scientists, however, we have a unique set of potential contributions and constraints. Political scientists do not typically have anything of distinctive value to add to a chorus of moral condemnation or declarations of normative solidarity. What we do have, hopefully, is the methodological training, empirical knowledge and comparative insight to offer informed assessments about alternative courses of action on contentious issues. Our primary ethical commitment as political scientists, therefore must be to get the theory and the empirical evidence right, and to clearly communicate those findings to relevant audiences—however unpalatable or inconclusive they might be.
That’s a manifesto of sorts, nested in a great post by Marc Lynch at the Monkey Cage. Marc’s post focuses on analysis of the Middle East, but everything he writes generalizes to the whole discipline.
I’ve written a couple of posts on this theme, too:
- “This Is Not a Drill,” on the challenges of doing what Marc proposes in the midst of fast-moving and politically charged events with weighty consequences; and
- “Advocascience,” on the ways that researchers’ political and moral commitments shape our analyses, sometimes but not always intentionally.
Putting all of those pieces together, I’d say that I wholeheartedly agree with Marc in principle, but I also believe this is extremely difficult to do in practice. We can—and, I think, should—aspire to this posture, but we can never quite achieve it.
That applies to forecasting, too, by the way. Coincidentally, I saw this great bit this morning in the Letter from the Editors for a new special issue of The Appendix, on “futures of the past”:
Prediction is a political act. Imagined futures can be powerful tools for social change, but they can also reproduce the injustices of the present.
Concern about this possibility played a role in my decision to leave my old job, helping to produce forecasts of political instability around the world for private consumption by the U.S. government. It is also part of what attracts me to my current work on a public early-warning system for mass atrocities. By making the same forecasts available to all comers, I hope that we can mitigate that downside risk in an area where the immorality of the acts being considered is unambiguous.
As a social scientist, though, I also understand that we’ll never know for sure what good or ill effects our individual and collective efforts had. We won’t know because we can’t observe the “control” worlds we would need to confidently establish cause and effect, and we won’t know because the world we seek to understand keeps changing, sometimes even in response to our own actions. This is the paradox at the core of applied, empirical social science, and it is inescapable.