Why political science is not a science, and how to make it one.
Many great minds have noticed the repetitive cycles of history:
“History doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes.”
— Mark Twain
“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”
— George Santayana, Winston Churchill
These sayings have percolated through the centuries because they are largely true. Just like a poem rhymes because of similar syllabic sounds, history rhymes because of similar historical events. Across cultures and eras, the melodic fluctuation of revolution and authoritarianism is a commonly found refrain.
Poetic rhymes can be classified by frameworks such as iambic pentameter, while attempts at classifying historical rhymes fall under political science. But despite the use of the word “science”, political science is less a science than an art.
The field’s most influential political “scientists” include figures such as Karl Marx and Max Weber who relied more on personal interpretations of history and self-inspired intuition to offer forth forcefully argued, but personally biased ideas.
The scientific method has been applied to practically anything that can be observed, from astronomy, to nature, to economics. But it has yet to be applied to history in any significant way to create concrete rules that can predict the future instead of just interpreting the past.
As a result, political science’s lack of science means it can’t be taken seriously as a science.
Coaches don’t play & critics don’t paint.
Instead, political science mostly consists of personal suggestions from men in ivory towers. And these personal suggestions should be ignored, as suggestions on how to govern from men who have never governed lack credibility. The exception would be Henry Kissinger, who went from analyzing history as a Harvard professor to creating it as the most influential Secretary of State in U.S. history.
It’s even hard to take political science seriously as an art form. If history is considered an art, then political scientists are merely art critics. Artists don’t sit around waiting for art critics to tell them how to paint; politicians don’t sit around waiting for political scientists to tell them how to shape history. As such, political science has been relegated to those who seek to be armchair historians.
The uselessness of political science is a shame, for politics impacts civilization perhaps more than any other field. Good governance can add value to billions of lives. Bad governance could lead to the end of those lives.
So how do we make political science a science?
Political science is very political, but not very science.
The scientific process consists of offering forth a hypothesis and testing it in a controlled experiment to come to a conclusion.
In this regard, political science has been utterly undisciplined. Instead of offering forth hypotheses and testing them, political scientists have just offered forth personal conclusions.
Instead of political scientists, we’ve had political philosophers such as Aristotle, Ibn Khaldun, Machiavelli, Locke, Rosseau, Hobbes and Marx, who all came up with conclusions that can be traced back to their own life experiences and dispositions.
These conclusions represent personal interpretations as opposed to universal rules; their political doctrines tell you more about the author’s personal worldview than how you should view the world.
In that sense, political science is as political as politics. It provides intellectual ammunition that opposing political parties can wield as ideological justification for their actions. Many atrocities have been blindly carried out in the name of ideology (e.g., communism); perhaps even more than religion (e.g., the Crusades).
Political science therefore brings more bias to politics instead of providing much-needed clarity. Clearly, political bias must be removed from political science. This is easier said than done because political scientists tend to be political.
Creating islands of objectivity in a sea of subjectivity.
One way political science could be saved from a sea of subjectivity is by creating islands of objectivity. Literally — there is an initiative to propagate Seasteading: the creation of many self-sustaining islands floating through the Pacific, each composed of its own unique and independent political system.
Individuals who believe in a certain ideology could flock to the seastead which corresponds to their political beliefs, and incorporate a new political experiment a la the American experiment. These seasteads could practice anarcho-communism, Christian democracy, neoliberalism, or any other ideology that has enough adherents to start a seastead.
If these political experiments all incorporate at the same time, we could have a controlled experiment that allows us to see which political system actually performs the best.
By holding constant temporal and geopolitical factors, we could isolate the impact of political factors to see which political system yields the best results. History is a good source of data for observing the results of political systems, but the data set isn’t clean — two states with the same political system may have significantly different outcomes because of differing temporal and geopolitical factors.
With a clean data set, we could conduct a political machine learning experiment to figure out the best system, and potentially run subsequent tests for the most successful political systems to continuously iterate and improve these political systems.
The independent variable would be the political system, and the dependent variables could be factors such as GDP per capita, productivity, happiness, inequality, and a slew of other metrics.
Perhaps we should consider developing new metrics to measure political effectiveness, because the ones currently in use were developed for economic analysis rather than political analysis. The lack of metrics for political analysis can be explained by the lack of political analysis in general — so these metrics would have to be invented.
By relying on empirical tests instead of the personal beliefs of a few political philosophers, Political Science would finally be an actual science.
Short answer: transcend the arbitrary barbarism of animals.
This political experiment could provide inspiration for governments around the world — they could adopt new policies or political systems that have been shown to be effective in seasteads.
Thus far, the selection of political systems has been subject to the whims of history. For instance, the U.S. has successfully exported republicanism and capitalism for two reasons:
- Capitalism and republicanism have helped the U.S. become strong and stable, so the U.S. serves as a political testimonial for these two political ideologies.
- The U.S. is the reigning global hegemon and can propagate the spread of their ideas through geopolitical clout.
An example of the former is Singapore: Singapore’s republican government was no doubt inspired by the American experiment and its republican variations throughout the world in the past two centuries. As a result, their political system is a more modern republican system that has outperformed expectations, albeit at the expense of a few personal freedoms. But if their citizens are willing to give up these personal freedoms for historically unprecedented growth, who are the rest of the world to judge?
An example of the latter is South Korea, which was an ancient civilization with millennia of independent culture and politics. But once they had to ally with the U.S. to protect themselves in the Korean war, they became politically reliant on the U.S. This allowed the U.S. to export republicanism, capitalism, and even Christianity into South Korea, transforming it from an Eastern Confucian state into a Western Christian state within a few decades. And they in turn have become evangelists for Christianity themselves — some ideas are too good not to share.
As an American, I am grateful for U.S. hegemony. But this arbitrary, “might makes right” approach to determining which political system to use seems like it could lead to unnecessary violence over ideological differences.
Oh wait, it already has. If history rhymes, perhaps we should stop rhyming with our past cycles of unnecessary violence.
Fighting over ideological differences is especially tragic when we don’t even know which ideology is truly right — throughout history, we’ve tended to argue about ideology by fighting wars instead of engaging in debates. History seems like a debate tournament where the debaters just decide they can’t settle their differences and start throwing hands.
Beating another state with force doesn’t mean your political system is better— it just means your state is more powerful, which is more likely the result of geopolitical happenstance than political effectiveness. While tribes, city-states, empires and now nation-states have traditionally functioned as entities which provide protection-as-a-service, we are now at a point in history where protection matters less because the advent of nuclear weapons leaves us all vulnerable anyway.
Human history is just an overhyped sub-field.
Unfortunately, the tribalistic instincts embedded in the homo sapien psyche have been around for billions of years as a result of evolutionary necessity, and seem to stick around like a mental appendix.
So even when nuclear apocalypse is the logical conclusion of escalation, our inherent evolutionary bias towards competition inevitably results in escalation.
A commonly held idea in the 1990s following the conclusion of the Cold War was that conflict would cease because it no longer made any sense to wage war. Humanity had reached “the end of history”, as Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed.
This overly idealistic claim from one of the leading political thinkers of the time shows just how useless the field of political science is. This argument — which was widely accepted at the time — completely ignored the fact that history has been violent for millennia, and human nature had not fundamentally changed in the course of a few decades to go from world war-waging warlords to peaceful pacifists.
And while it is hard enough to break free from the cyclical violence of millennia of human history, it is nearly impossible to break free from the competitive instincts that helped us survive billions of years of evolutionary struggle. Many forget that humans were basically animals only 10,000 years ago, which is the blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things (10,000 years is 0.0003% of the 3.5 billion years that life has existed on Earth).
Perhaps we are still animals that are just pretending to be human. Or perhaps, humans are more base than animals — while competition is prevalent in the animal kingdom, committing mass genocide of one’s own species is an uncommon occurrence in the animal kingdom.
The point where homo sapiens will truly evolve from animals to humans will come when we are able to suppress our animalian competitive instincts and avoid the unnecessary conflict that has plagued humanity and all life thus far.
Perhaps making political science a science is the watershed moment that will create this change in human civilization, and that’s why I think it’s important.
You gotta play the game to change the game.
Making political science a science could be great for improving political systems, but only if it’s allowed to develop and doesn’t get crushed by existing nation-states, which will seek to defend their monopoly on the business of politics.
The lack of scientific advancement in true political science is largely due to the power dynamics between scientists and politicians. Put simply, politicians are more powerful and it is not in their incentive to allow scientific theories to second-guess their decisions. Archimedes was bodied by a Roman soldier, Galileo by the Catholic Church, and Socrates by jealous politicians.
Scientists have been bodied by politicians for too long, which is a shame because their ideas are usually right, whereas politicians just have might. Unfortunately, might makes right.
This is a chicken and egg problem — the only way for scientists to establish true political science is to gain sufficient political power, but the only way for scientists to gain sufficient political power is to establish true political science.
Having great ideas is great, but of what use is that to society if they are stifled by the state?
I will refrain from promoting a technocratic revolution, as I have not explored the complex implications of whether or not that would even be good for society.
However, I do know that allowing politics to continue under the dictates of empires instead of empiricism is a moral hazard that imperils billions of lives today, and trillions if political systems continue to be built by the most powerful instead of the most enlightened.
I acknowledge that there is a parallel between the aims of this argument and the aims of Marx’s: a supplanting of the political status quo with one that is supposedly more righteous.
But actually, I don’t care about civilization being righteous. I just want civilization to run right.
Might makes right, but that might not be right.
Left or right, fight or flight, violently demanding rights
Left to our own device, divisiveness is all that’s left.
Let’s try to get this right before we have nothing left.