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Salient.Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 32, No. 17 July 23, 1969

Mr Mulgan – Political Science Dept

Mr Mulgan – Political Science Dept.

One way of finding out what the scientific method is might be to examine what the scientist actually does. But though this approach would work reasonably well in the case if the natural sciences it would not be suitable for the social sciences, especially political science, because it begs what is usually considered to be the vital question, i.e. to what extent is the method of political 'science' really 'scientific'? In other words, it is the natural scientist who seems to set the pace while the social scientist is then judged on how successfully he keeps up (or back?) with him. We must therefore start with some motion of what science is before we can assess the role of scientific method in political science. It would be disingenuous to try to give an account of the attitude of political scientists in general to 'science' and the 'scientific method' for the simple reason that there is no such general attitude. What follows will therefore be very much a personal view.

Scientific knowledge must first of all, I assume, be 'objective'. It must be based on evidence which can be tested according to generally accepted standards. 'Mr Holyoake is the Prime Minister of New Zealand' is an objective statement because there are generally accepted ways of proving or disproving it. 'Mr. Holyoake is a political wizard' is more suspect because there may not be clear agreed criteria for deciding the truth of this statement in which case it becomes 'unscientific'. Science obviously involves more than such propositions about isolated particulars. It aims to establish generalised knowledge about classes of event or object and, where possible, to construct scientific theories which will explain why particular phenomena occur by fitting them into a general pattern. Ideally, a scientific theory gives us a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for the occurrence of a particular type of result (if and only if What will happen (given conditions a, b, c, … then result x will follow). It is worth noting that obtaining predictions need not be the main purpose of such a theory. We may want to use a scientific theory to explain past events which we already know to have happened. The point is that if we have given such a scientific explanation of such a past occurrence, it follows that, with the aid of the knowledge we now have, we could have then predicted the result.

Not all scientific theories, however, need be of this type. There are, we are told, some areas of the natural sciences where it has proved so far impossible to construct theories which, even with the help of an 'other things being equal' clause, will fit all observed instances. The best that can be done is a statement of the probability with which a particular event is likely to occur. (Given conditions a, b, c. … there is a particular probability that x will occur.) Though such propositions may seem less satisfactory than the 'pure' form of scientific theory, if they are constructed reliably and objectively there is no reason other than sheer dogmatism, for saying that they are 'unscientific'.

The 'scientific method', then, is the method of arriving at scientific knowledge, involving such procedures as the construction of possible theories (hypotheses) and testing them objectively. What part does this method play in the study of politics?

We will begin with the question of evidence. Difficulties arise even with the initial classification of the subject matter. Categories such as Labour party member, voter, MP and so on cause no bother. They are clearly objective because there are precise ways of finding out who belongs in any of these categories. But we may want to use categories like 'Communist sympathiser' or 'authoritarian' where more caution will obviously be needed. If anyone uses such terms in the analysis of politics we will expect him to give explicit criteria which do not depend merely on the whims or intuitions of the writer so that the terms can be applied in the same way by other people and the results of the observations based upon them objectively tested. Such criteria might be membership of certain organisations or the performance of certain types of action. But often we will want to go further than this and take into account attitudes or opinions which can only be discovered by questioning the individuals concerned. Here the difficulties of being objective are greatly increased.

In fact, the political scientist in his desire to be objective and scientific is commonly faced with a dilemma. If he wishes to examine, say the extent of people's interest in politics, one way of doing this might be to stick to clearly observable characteristics such as participation in elections, subscribing membership of political parties, etc. The trouble is that he will then be accused of using crude and misleading indicators of what we really mean by 'political interest'. If, on the other hand, he starts to examine opinions and attitudes, the objectivity of his results will be questioned.

But we should not overemphasise these difficulties. Human beings are it is true, particularly complex objects to classify and describe—they are capable, for example, of deliberately misleading the observer. But this only makes scientific observation especially difficult; it does not necessarily make it impossible. Social scientists are becoming increasingly aware of the pitfalls in their subject and have evolved techniques for minimising them. Unless we adopt the implausible and philosophically dubious scepticism of those who say that it is impossible ever to know the attitudes or opinions of others, there seems to be no reason why such problems cannot be overcome. (That the difficulties are merely minimised and not removed altogether should not be taken as an objection to the claims of the social scientist to be scientific. All observation, of non-human as well as human phenomena necessarily involves a certain amount of unreliability and uncertainty.)

Scepticism is perhaps more justifiable when political scientists go beyond mere scientific classification and description and attempt to construct scientific theories about politics. Some people hold that it is in fact impossible to provide a scientific explanation of human behaviour because human being possess free will which means that their actions are outside the realm of cause and effect. What 'free will' means, whether or not we have it, and if we do have it, whether or not it is incompatible with 'determinism' are highly intricate and hotly disputed philosophical problems. At any rate, whether or not it is in principle possible to explain human action in terms of a scientific theory, there is no doubt that no-one has yet managed to do this with political action. Not that there is any lack of suggested theories. Quite the reverse. There are a large number of them but no theory has yet been found which is capable of explaining even a small segment of political life.

We should, however, be careful not to exaggerate, as some social scientists do, the accuracy of scientific explanation and prediction as found in the natural sciences, Scientific explanations cannot take into account all the different factors which may vary from one situation to another and they will always contain, explicitly or implicitly, an 'other things being equal' clause. The difference between the natural and the social sciences seems to be one of degree. In the former a considerable degree of accuracy can usually (but not always—vide meteorology) be achieved by ignoring all but a few variables, whereas in the latter 'other things' are usually so unequal, the excluded variables so significant, that the particular explanatory theory is very likely to be highly inaccurate. Similarly, when political scientists try to establish 'probability theories of political behaviour, their results are comparatively less accurate because of the complexities of the subject matter.

Most political scientists take this relative lack of success simply as a spur to try harder in applying scientific method to politics. There is still much that can be done in the often boring but useful work of testing hypotheses gathering accurate and reliable information. The difficulty in achieving any adequate body of explanatory theory may, some argue, be due to trying to answer the wrong sorts of questions about politics. Questions such as 'what are the conditions of political stability?' or 'why did Hitler come to power?', which have been the traditional concern of political scientists are too complicated. Though they may one day be explicable in scientific terms, scientific progress is more likely to be made by looking at simpler and more manageable problems, For example, some political scientists are now concentrating on the politics of small groups, local communities, small towns, etc., where it is thought, one is most likely to find those conditions, a combination of a small number of significant variables and a large number of particular examples, which have proved so helpful in the advance of the natural sciences.

But not everyone who is engaged in the academic study of politics would agree that the questions should be tailored to fit the method. For them, the method must suit the questions. Because science has not yet provided answers to the traditional questions, it does not follow that new questions must be put. Rather, these questions are, it is felt, so interesting and important that they must be answered with the best means available even if this involves using other methods besides the strictly scientific. Not that this necessarily involves a complete rejection of scientific method. Scientific method is to be used as far as it will go but other methods will be employed to supplement it. For example, in the case of evidence, objective evidence is valuable when it can be acquired but where it is not available, such political scientists will not feel impeded from making an assessment of, say, the motives of politicians or the subjects discussed in an unreported meeting.

Similarly, in the case of explaining politics, the political scientist will see what 'insights' are provided by the various 'models' that have been suggested. These vogue words, 'model' and 'insight', reveal the limited use that is being made of the scientific method. A 'model' is like a scientific theory except that it is explicitly defined as an abstract construction, that is it does not pretend to make any claims about what phenomena are actually like or how they actually work. This is not to say that the social scientist does not build his models with an eye to applying them to the real world. The point is that by explicitly defining the model as abstract, he removes the possibility that it may be invalidated by the discovery of counter-examples. If it is to be a 'useful' model it will certainly accord with reality to a certain extent and the more it accords the more useful it becomes, but it is not disproved as a scientific theory proper would bo as soon as it is falsified. The cynic might say that the model is a device by which the social scientist may indulge his yearning for the trappings of science—tables, formulae, mathematical elegance—without having to worry about the truth of what he is saying. Building castles is such fun that it does not seem to matter whether they are in the air or on the ground.

But as long as the model is tested as rigorously as possible and its limitations, the points at which it does not square with the evidence, are fully recognised, it can by an invaluable aid to understanding politics by giving us certain 'insights' or clues towards understanding a particular phenomenon. But since, for example, no single model of federalism is likely to provide the whole answer to the question why the Central African Federation broke up, the political scientist will often find the most satisfactory explanation to be one which combines a number of different 'insights' drawn from different, incompatible models.

Once he does this, he stops using scientific method and starts to behave in the same way as a historian who, if asked for the explanation of a complex event, say, the causes of war, will produce a number of different factors—political, economic, social, psychological and so on. None of these factors individually provides an adequate explanation and an important part of the hostorian's craft involves assessing the different weight to be given to these different factors. The word 'craft' is important. This exercise of assessment is a matter of individual judgment and is unscientific in the sense that it is not necessarily susceptible of objective proof or disproof. Of course, some such explanations may be proved wrong if they are based on false evidence but not all disagreements will be of this type where there are agreed criteria for settling them. This does not mean, as is sometimes said, that such judgments are completely 'arbitrary' as if they involved a completely random decision such as could be made by tossing a coin or drawing lots. All of us, in our everyday lives, continually make such judgments or assessments of people or situations and we recognise that they involve skill, experience and perspicacity.

Photo of Mr Mulgan. Political Science Department

True, such intellectual virtues are not susceptible of the same rigorous tests as scientific statements are but they are not for that reason therefore worthless. In many areas of our lives they are all we have to go on. If they are the best means at present available for answering certain important and interesting questions about politics then they should be used. Many political scientist, including the present writer, would even make a virtue out of necessity and value their subject as one which combines rigour of a science with the judgment more characteristic of the arts. Meanwhile, the efforts of the political scientists proper, as they would, not unjustly, describe themselves, are watched with interest. That their researches will add to our knowledge is beyond dispute. But whether all important questions about the workings of politics will ever be able to be answered satisfactorily solely by means of the scientific method is still very much an open question.