Declining intellectual rigor in the social sciences

The conservative press has been targeting academia with greater diligence in recent years. Part of this is, I think, the “low-hanging fruit” phenomenon — it’s easy to attack the defenseless. Another part is the perception of some that America’s classrooms are becoming places where correct thinking is more important than thinking correctly.

For my part, I’m happy to occasionally dabble in bromides against the academic Left, but I’ve never believed in a vast conspiracy. I have occasionally been worried about professors being too lenient toward their students, but I never really feared that our academic disciplines are sliding into intellectual incoherence.

Until recently, that is.

I’ve written earlier about articles in “Quality Progress” and the “American Political Science Quarterly.” But the trend continues — another recent publication of the American Political Science Association featured an “analysis” of the voting patterns of the Catholic cardinals who selected Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to be Pope Benedict XVI.

Without question, an analysis of the politics and procedures surrounding the election of a Supreme Pontiff would be a welcome opportunity for discussion and debate. But the attempt at analysis published in the APSA journal was laughable.

My issue wasn’t with the theories presented by the two professors who wrote the article. I have a BA in political science, not a doctorate, and I will not presume to elevate mere disagreement on my part to the level of an indictment of their competence.

No, what was troubling was the assumptions to which the authors quite freely admitted. They clearly predicated their analysis on the belief that regional blocs among the cardinals would be a major factor in the decision-making process; the theory rested on an assumption that the cardinals in each bloc wanted to see one of their own elevated to the Throne of St. Peter — which might be an interesting approach, had the authors bothered to learn anything about Cardinal Ratzinger’s tenure as Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.

It is a methodological error of the first rank to assume whatever you wish in order to make your analysis work, even if you have to assume facts that are (a) not in evidence or (b) are too inconvenient to research before publishing. The authors made so many assumptions about Church politics that even an amateur Vatican watcher must cringe to see it. Analogously, the work of these professors would be no different from the work of Chinese political scientists analyzing FDR’s four presidential wins without knowing anything about the Great Depression or the Progressive movement. When you supply hypothesis and assume it to be a fact, any theory that would result is simply meaningless. Hell, if I can assume what I wish, then with little effort I can construct a theory of physics that will permit the transmutation of lead into gold with nothing more than a toothpick and a piece of cork. But such assumptions don’t necessarily compel reality to fall into strict conformance.

So, OK. APSA has once again published something that someone with even a limited degree of specialization in the field of study (i.e., the Vatican) could spot as flawed. Does this mean anything?

I think it does. I think there is something significant that ought to be said about junior academics operating on a “publish or perish” tenure track, or senior academics jockeying for greater prestige. And that something is: Quantity is not quality, and any theory is not as good as the right theory.

Political scientists (and philosophers, for that matter) do not serve their disciplines well when they toss out theories uninformed by facts not directly related to the theory. In the case of the Vatican analysis, it makes a very big difference, when accounting for the balloting results for Ratzinger, that in the 1980s the Iron Cardinal had almost by himself destroyed the philosophical bedrock upon which stood so-called liberation theology. It makes a difference that the other leading contenders for the papacy shared liturgical beliefs that stood at odds with many African bishops.

The social sciences are turning into silos, generating theories and texts that make sense from within (provided you don’t ask too many questions about the theories), but which tend to be increasingly uninformed by facts from without. The inevitable conclusion is an growing inability to differentiate between wheat and chaff — and given the climate of academic politics, this may well mean that nonsense will be given carte blanche on our nation’s campuses. To the detriment of future students.

The problem on our college campuses isn’t that the faculty is overwhelmingly Leftist. The problem is that the intellectual rigor of the disciplines — especially in the social sciences — has “gone wobbly,” and there has not yet been a correction. As long as the liberal arts continue to operate on assumption and posturing, students and faculty alike will continue to play the game by the rules in effect at the roll of the dice. We should not be surprised by an all-encompassing relativism that motivates the academic Left, since relativism is the one virtue that protects the status quo from the sorely needed correction. Quite the vicious circle, eh?

Alas, too many opportunists on the Right (save, perhaps, the sainted Harvey Mansfield of Harvard) don’t see the forest for the trees. The would-be slayers of Campus Liberals are focusing on the effects of intellectual decline, and not the causes, so their efforts are unlikely to amount to much.

Long story short … I guess I’m going to read a lot of things in social-science journals that will make me want to cry.

Better buy stock in Kleenex.

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