Tag Archives: Political Science

The Science of Politics

I have an opportunity to design and teach a MOOC (massive open on-line course). It will be entitled the “Introduction to the Science of Politics” and is intended for freshman entering college. I want to teach the essentials of what every freshman should know about political science before taking one of my courses. So what is the “canon” of political science? What things should every undergraduate know before entering our mid-level courses?

A MOOC is not just a videotape of a talking head and some powerpoints. I’ve seen some very good courses offered on Coursera and edX. My course will last only four weeks with between 60 and 90 minutes of on-line content each week. I know enough about this type of pedagogy to plan on presenting concepts in 4-7 minute modules. I will have plenty of support at Rice for carrying out the course.

The hard part, of course, is considering the content of the course. This has made me think about what the discipline of political science has to say to the broader public. Here is what I have in mind so far.

Coordination problems. When people have shared preferences but there are multiple equilibrium, they face a coordination problem. Leadership is one mechanism that solves coordination problems that is directly relevant to politics.

Collective Action problems. The provision of public goods and the resolution of commons dilemmas have the same underpinnings. Here private interests diverge from group interests, leading to free riding. Political science has had a good deal to say concerning these problems.

Collective Choice problems. What happens when individuals have heterogeneous preferences, but a choice has to be made that is applied to all? This is the crux of politics. It not only speaks to democracies, but also to oligarchies and dictatorships. In the end, institutional rules matter for outcomes.

Principal/Agent problems. When an agent enjoys an information advantage the principal is put in a weakened position. This provides core insights for Bureaucratic/Legislative/Executive dilemmas. It also goes to the heart of the representational relationship. At the core is understanding the difficulty faced by a Principal in getting an Agent to act on her behalf. Obviously the problem is compounded with many principals and/or many agents.

Inter-group Conflict. This strikes me as a separate problem that is endemic to humans (and most other social animals). We easily develop strong in-group/out-group biases. We often use those biases to coordinate around killing one another (or otherwise subjugating out-groups). This poses a puzzle about when violence can be triggered – whether it is inter-state or intra-state conflict.

I need to do some thinking. In order to get at each of these topics noted above, I’ll have to introduce basic building blocks (utility, preferences, choice spaces, etc.). At the same time I know I’m leaving a lot out.

What is your list of things you would like your Freshmen to know before they enter your course? Obviously I am being provocative and I am staking out a very specific view of Political Science. Still, I am interested in what you might add to my list. What is the “canon?”

Research and Accessibility

A lot of our best basic research often seems esoteric and is rarely approachable to those outside our own specialization. But this need not be the case. Some disciplines are excellent at promoting their work and getting the word out. Consider the search for the Higgs boson and the hoopla when it was found. Most of us don’t know what the Higgs boson is and why it matters (much less being able to see it). Yet we all know it is important and it was a remarkable scientific achievement. The physics community did a great job making their work accessible.

How can Political Scientists make their work more accessible? The question here is how to balance the rigor of our science with making it clear to non-specialists about what we found and why it is important. Rather than complaining that we never make the effort, I thought I would try my hand at short, cartoonish, interpretations of articles that I have recently read and like. My first effort focuses on a forthcoming paper in the American Journal of Political Science by Kris Kanthak and Jon Woon entitled: “Women Don’t Run? Election Aversion and Candidate Entry.” I liked this paper the first time I heard it presented and it has only gotten better. You can see my take on it on YouTube under my channel Politricks.

I am going to try to do more of these over time. Who knows if they will get much attention. However, I see it as breaking out of the usual mold in which we write papers, cite the work and try to teach it to our students. Perhaps this will inspire others.

Others who have done similar work in the social sciences have inspired me. The first I remember seeing was featured in The Monkey Cage. The cartoon was remarkable for being short and exactly on the mark. The article that it translated was a dense piece of formal theory. The cartoon got it exactly right. More recently I was impressed by a very short animation that perfectly points to a problem in decision theory regarding queuing. It is perfectly understandable because we have all been there.

When I teach an Introduction to American Government class, I often use this to explain problems inherent with “first past the post” electoral systems.  While a little long, it is clear and the students get it quickly.

There are plenty of other examples and I’ll post things I like as I find them.