From the Desk of a Political Scientist (Part I): “I’m in Waste Management”

Tom Knecht

Associate Professor of Political Science

Westmont College

January 2016

“When you fly, never tell your seatmates you’re a political scientist. Tell them you work in waste management instead.” I never understood this advice from one of my graduate school professors until I spent several miserable cross-country flights discussing my profession.

I enjoy talking about politics, especially as I study American public opinion, a field entirely devoted to what other people think. But most people eager to talk politics show little interest in hearing what I have to say. A relative recently cornered me at a family gathering to vent about President Obama issuing more executive orders than any other president in history. When I explained that Obama falls near the middle of the pack when it comes to executive orders, this family member became incensed and implied my doctorate was worthless.

It’s not just me. Political scientists in general lack a vital public voice. When we speak out on issues, we’re often dismissed as ivory tower eggheads who don’t understand how politics work. Few professions experience this degree of anti-authoritarianism. When I meet someone from another field—say a cardiologist, a botanist or an artist—I tend to defer to their judgement because they’re experts, and I’m not. I’d never think of telling my cardiologist she should “start performing percutaneous mitral valve repairs for all mitral regurgitations.” I’m inclined to think that politics and coaching football are the only two professions where the laity is absolutely convinced they know more than the experts. The phrase “Monday morning quarterbacking,” or second-guessing the quarterback or coach after a game, fits politics so well that nearly every president since LBJ has used it.

People don’t listen to political scientists for several good reasons. First, our work is largely inaccessible to the outside world. We use complicated statistical models that only a handful of scholars understand, our prose reeks of jargon, and we focus on the minutia of politics. Simply put, we’ve insured our irrelevance.

Second, people doubt what political scientists say for partisan reasons. Democrats in political science outnumber Republicans nearly six-to-one. Many Republicans depict academia as an untrustworthy liberal bastion, which is why congressional Republicans have tried repeatedly to cut National Science Foundation grants to social scientists.

Third, politics is more accessible to people than many other endeavors. As citizens, we’re expected to participate in politics and hold opinions on the pressing issues of the day. By contrast, we the people aren’t expected to perform open-heart surgery or fix the fuel exchanger of a Boeing 777 engine. We’ve no need to develop working knowledge of these—or most other subjects—and must defer to experts.

Fourth, it’s dangerous to defer to the authorities because they often get things wrong. Political scientists excel in many areas, but we’re not especially good at predicting when ethnic conflicts will turn violent, when groups will resort to terrorism, when revolutions will occur, or when wars will start. It seems like we should foresee these things, and when we don’t, it’s understandable that people wonder if academics know anything at all.

Finally and most importantly, a fundamental disconnect exists between the ways the general public and most political scientists view politics. The public typically considers politics through the lens of “what ought to be” (e.g., “we ought to cut taxes”; “we ought to do something about climate change”; “we ought to elect Ben Carson”). Political scientists, by contrast, gravitate toward questions such as “what is?” and “why is it so?” This focus puts the science in political science. As such, we probably won’t tell you who you should vote for in 2016, but we can predict with fairly good accuracy, who will win the presidential election next fall.

Despite public skepticism, I think political scientists have some interesting things to share, including some provocative claims:

• Elections aren’t what you think they are.
• Political campaigns rarely matter.
• Negative media coverage rarely hurts candidates.
• Direct democracy (e.g., initiatives, referendums, and recalls) and term limits are bad ideas.
• Money doesn’t buy a politician’s vote.

In the upcoming months, this column will explore these and other things many political scientists believe but you likely do not. Although I may not convince you of the validity of these claims, I hope this column will give you something to think about. But if you happen to see me on your next flight, I’m in waste management.

TOM KNECHT is an associate professor of political science at Westmont College

Read Part II: “You’re Voting Wrong"