Promoting Empiricism in the Age of Alternative Facts
Thank you, President Rose; and thank you for the chance to speak before my colleagues on the faculty and staff, before guests, and especially before the Class of 2021. I’m humbled by the chance to talk with you today.
Let me say first that my thoughts and prayers are with those who have close connections to folks in the path of Hurricane Harvey. Your transition here to Bowdoin, I’m sure, has been filled with anxiety, and I know that the College and its excellent staff will help in whatever way possible.
I’m a political scientist, a member of a discipline that has struggled for years to investigate the noisy world of politics (with its fierce ideological underpinnings and raucous emotions) through the lens of a science (with its hypotheses, data, and methodologies).
My talk is about this struggle between the “fight” of politics and the seemingly dispassionate study of it—about finding the patterns and generalities amidst the din. And while politics is nearly always on my mind, what I have to say is broadly applicable. It’s a general message about how your time “in the Bowdoin bubble” can enhance your life as a citizen and as an active participant in civic life.
I came to the field of political science as a former campus activist. In college, I was inspired by friends and classmates to express my opinions and to fight perceived injustices. One experience still resonates strongly.
It happened over eighteen years ago, on April 16th 1999. I was a senior at Fairfield University, a Jesuit University in Connecticut, and a place where we learned a lot about social justice—much as you will learn here about the Common Good. On that day, at about 3pm, and crouching from the shadows of nearby academic buildings, I, along with thirty eight students, stormed the administration building and occupied the president’s office for 11 hours.
We were acting in response to the administration’s decision to outsource its custodial services to a non-unionized contracting firm. That decision meant lower wages and higher health care costs. It also sent a signal that these critical staff were not really part of the campus community. The custodians organized over the course of a year and presented their request to join a union, but the contracting company refused to listen. As supportive students, we pressured the president of Fairfield to change contractors, but he refused to even talk with us.
In the early spring of 1999, we got fed up. During hushed meetings behind drawn curtains in the dorms and townhouses, we planned the sit-in. We hoped to convince the president that social justice means a living wage, quality health care, and fair treatment in the workplace. The administrators in the building were completely surprised on that April day, and they mobilized in opposition. Campus security cautioned supportive faculty and students outside the building against offering us food through bathroom windows. A rumor circulated that a security guard had held back one supportive faculty member by putting his hand on his holstered gun. A senior administration official strongly warned us that arrest (which the University was considering) could threaten our jobs or graduate school plans.
We finally gave in at 2 a.m., having extracted a vague promise from the administration that they would review their contract. Some time later, the University changed service providers to one that allowed its workers to join and participate in the union. It was a full-fledged victory in our view, and we called our effort “Justice for Janitors.”
Now this talk is not about unions. Nor do I intend to give President Rose heartburn with stories of boogeymen College Presidents.
That fall, I entered graduate school, studying political SCIENCE and was promptly informed that such activism had no real place in the profession. Advocating for a cause was generally seen as out of bounds. If you want to DO politics, someone told me, you are in the wrong place.
This made me uncomfortable, and I worried that I was “selling out”—already at 22!!—by taking a road to the academic ivory tower that would do little to check injustice.
That was eighteen years ago. And while I would not now describe myself as a political activist I have come to see political science as a form of activism—or more accurately, a precursor to activism. I talk about this today not as a defense of my discipline but as a way to make Bowdoin and the journey you have just started relevant to all of the dizzying events happening around us in broader world.
In short, I’m drawn to that distinction between fighting for something and studying it. And on that, I want you to consider the role of data, evidence, and methodology as critical backdrops—as the skeletal structure—of political struggle.
To demonstrate this, I will review a couple of contemporary debates. And I’ll start by pivoting to my own area of research.
We just completed in 2016, in actual dollars, the most expensive election in American history—with all federal elections costing nearly $6.5 billion, depending on what you want to count. If you add state and local elections, the total approaches $10 billion. To many, this is a sign of a deep, structural problem in our political life. In their telling, money corrupts. Corporations and billionaire CEOs buy influence. Election and policy outcomes are bought and sold to the highest bidder. Such views have mobilized activists to push for, among other things, a constitutional amendment banning spending by corporations, the extension of public funding of elections, the use of term limits to throw out long-serving incumbents, the expansion of direct democracy measures, and so on.
The Michael Franz of 1999 would have found a lot to be upset about. We didn’t have social media at that time, but if it had existed, I imagine I would have shared news stories about the cost of the election, probably adding… “So sad.” As a scholar, however, my response to these concerns is different. It is: what do the data say? What is the evidence for such gloomy assessments of our democratic state? What is the cause and what is the effect? And in this debate, it turns out we may need to slow down. The scholarly consensus tells us a lot:
- Money very rarely, and almost never in fact, buys votes in Congress. Money flows to existing supporters, where that incumbent’s vote is already quite predictable.
- Lobbying, for all the billions spent, very rarely changes the status quo. Whatever exists, whether a liberal or conservative policy, is VERY hard to change.
- Expensive elections can actually invigorate voters, spur turnout, and drive up interest.
- Moreover, if we limit political spending, guess who suffers? It’s less well-known challengers who need resources to find voters and make their pitch.
All of what I have just said is the product of years of analysis; and of various and wide-ranging methodological approaches. All told, the data tell a different lesson than what many see as necessary change. So much of the debate on this issue is about how to get money OUT of politics. The product of political science tells me that the better goal is about how to get more people IN to politics.
Now don’t misunderstand. I am not arguing that wealthy interests are powerless—or that our system is unaffected by income inequality or influence peddling. Problems abound. But these problems are complex ones, not always easy to see or measure. The commonly heard solutions, moreover, are often unlikely to fix the problems people want to fix and can have unintended consequences.
My point is this: we must know the problem first. And getting there demands good analysis. It means informed study. It crafts a role for political and social science; for the natural sciences; for history; for any discipline that amasses an evidentiary record. That work should inform what activists do, not just happen parallel to them or outside their frame of vision:
Consider a few other issues just recently in our collective consciousness:
- Is there widespread voter fraud? Enough to have cost Donald Trump the popular vote? The evidence is overwhelming…voter fraud is incredibly rare, almost non-existent. The scholarship on this question has largely settled the debate. Should we be vigilant about voter fraud? Yes. Should we create a presidential commission to investigate it? Almost certainly not.
- In the debate over the “one person, one vote” standard—this is THE standard we hold so dear, where your vote counts the same as mine, as Ivanka Trump’s, as Bill Gates’s—the Court in the 1960s looked closely at—and was persuaded by—substantial social science evidence that states were gerrymandering districts in very unfair ways. Just recently, the Court considered a contemporary challenge to the “one person, one vote” standard, and it again was met with extensive social scientific analysis.
- As we debate Confederate War memorials, it is important to remember that social science has devoted considerable effort to conceptualizing and measuring contemporary levels of racism. How can ANY conversation about race not address the question of how racial attitudes are formed and perpetuate? Such conversations demand the work of good scholarship.
Examples abound, actually—and on all manners of contemporary questions and controversies.
I have three points that I’d like you to consider.
First, we must contribute to political debate with the tools of scientific inquiry. I was taught that we should form our hypotheses and study the data without regard to our own view of the outcome. An empiricist can often find common cause with liberals and conservatives.
My own research has found its way into Senate testimony in support of greater transparency in campaign finance (a liberal position). It has also been used in support of conservative arguments in opposition of efforts to limit or direct speech in elections. In neither case did political advocates misuse my analysis.
Second, finding the necessary evidence is incredibly hard. Sometimes, the existence of certain rights will blunt even compelling evidence. The First Amendment is incredibly clear (“Congress shall make no law…”), as is the Second Amendment (“…the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”) Whether we should enact certain policies must consider seriously the inviolability of these rights.
I should note also that values are important. There may be no evidence that will shake my devotion to certain principles or beliefs. But even here, we can still consider the positions and evidence of others and be open to persuasion.
Beyond this, identifying causal relationships make our arguments open to serious critiques. The advantage is often to the data skeptic. Maybe we measured things incorrectly; failed to collect enough data; confused correlations with causations. Such concerns will always be present. My argument is only that we should advocate for change armed with an abundance of evidence. Whether activists are successful or not will come in part from whether that evidence is strong enough.
Third, I have a simple trick for you. I use this question a lot. I often ask: “How do you know?” You should ask it often. You will hear all manners of assertions and conclusions:
- Negative advertising is the cause of low voter turnout
- Climate change is not real
- Health care mandates will lower premiums
- Drone strikes deter terrorism
- Transgender military members cost the government a lot of money
- Both sides are to blame for recent violence
Before you jump into the fray on these and other debates, remember this: you will become a better citizen if you ask often, “how do you know?” And if you seek out the tools and foster the intellectual curiosity to collect and weigh out the evidence.
I hope that your time here will train you well in this regard. We have a serious problem in this country. We suffer from extreme polarization, and of extreme distrust of our institutions. One poll this summer left me stunned, as it showed that 58% of Republicans see Colleges and Universities as having a negative effect on this country. Bowdoin should be a place where you learn about history, literature, science, philosophy, and so much more. You will have incredible conversations on this campus. Give yourself the time for these. I recall one debate with friends in college that lasted for 4 hours and that revolved around one simple question: Does a match contain within it the power to destroy the world? Think about it. I remember to this day the passion we brought to this absurd debate.
This is explicitly a call for us to slow down. But it is not a call for a blanching of our passions. You can and should march in the streets when the times compel it. You can and should run for office or start an advocacy group. I only ask that you review the evidence for your positions. Collect the data if the evidence is scant. Listen to the skeptics of your claims. Ask for their evidence.
I’m sad to say that this idea is not novel. But we may have forgotten it.
And this is not a story where science simply provides the raw material for others to use in their advocacy. As a scholar I avoid making political arguments in the absence of data, but the data may lead me to certain political perspectives that invite or demand entrance into the realm of political back-and-forth.
There is a story that’s often told. “Upon exiting the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was approached by a group of citizens asking what sort of government the delegates had created. His answer was: ‘A republic, if you can keep it.’”
How do we “keep it”? How do we heed Franklin’s warning? We show up. We take part. We argue about the direction of the country. And we honor the sacrifice of others. But we do not show up armed only with “beliefs” or “feelings” or partisan labels; but ALSO with evidence and analysis. With an open mind. With the best intentions, informed by the work of others and with careful consideration of consequences. I keep thinking about that poll. I’m pretty sure that your time at Bowdoin will not be harmful to the country. I’m confident it will make it stronger, in fact. I’m excited for you all. Your next chapter begins today. Thank you.