NATURAL EXPERIMENT

Posted in Rants on December 2nd, 2009 by Ed

Two days in a row on political science-related topics. I promise I won't make a habit of it.

People in the social and "hard" sciences like to snipe at one another – they do "real" science with microscopes and Bunsen burners, while we retort that we study things people actually give a shit about rather than tyrosine-specific kinase proteins. One undisputed advantage the chemists and biologists have is the ability to conduct really well controlled experiments. An experiment isn't the only way to study something, of course, but it's pretty cool. Political scientists try to do experiments and some people get a lot of mileage out of it, but you can't really simulate an election or real world decision-making. But we get to do natural experiments. Which is like having someone else do half of the work for us.

If State A adopts voting machines but States B and C stick with paper ballots it sets us up to test hypotheses about the effects of different voting technologies on turnout, wait times, or whatever. Or, to use one prominent example, Nebraska has a unicameral, non-partisan state legislature while every other state has a bicameral legislature with parties. So in comparing the different systems in action we have an opportunity to study a lot of different aspects of the role of parties in the legislative process. Since we can't recreate politics in a lab or control everything we would like in our research, we have to be a little more creative and take advantage of opportunities where they exist.

Now that the President has predictably bowed to pressure and sent another 30,000 people to get shot at in Afghanistan to accomplish…whatever our goal is over there…it is going to be really interesting to watch the poll numbers about the war over the next year. Right now and for the past several years there has been a fairly lopsided partisan distribution in opinions about Afghanistan, with Republicans urging us to "listen to the generals" and send more troops, Democrats opposing it, and independent flipping a coin as usual:

afghanpoll

Something tells me that if we revisit these numbers in December 2010 we'll find that a lot of Republicans are suddenly very dissatisfied with the direction of the war and stridently opposed to committing more resources to it. Are the Democratic numbers going to change as well? I'm a little more skeptical on that one. If anything I think the President is going to find himself increasingly unable to hold his party together, as Bill Clinton did, the more aggressively he reinvents his agenda as Republican Lite, as Bill Clinton did. The specifics of the situation are lost on everyone answering these poll questions, of course – nobody has any idea what's going on over there or what we're supposed to be doing (note this hilarious expression of what Americans believe our goal is). That's pathetic, of course, but why let facts or knowledge thereof get in the way of a knee-jerk partisan response?

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