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The science of politics

Political Science professor David Lazer organizes panel at annual science conference
February 16th, 2013

Until yesterday, I hadn’t thought too much about the term “political science.” I probably first heard it in high school or college, when I accepted it as an item of potential academic study that I would not pursue and went on with my life (I consider politics to be the single most abstract and frustrating element of being a human). To me, political science wasn’t quite politics (although I assumed it to be a potential route toward a career in that field), and it wasn’t quite science. In fact, I never really stopped to think about why that word was even tagged onto the end of the term in the first place — until yesterday.

In a AAAS annual meeting session organized by David Lazer, professor of political science and computer and information science at Northeastern, five researchers blew my notion of political science out of the water. While the session was titled “The Science of Politics,” which puts a different kind of spin on things, I suspect the five speakers would all agree that political science needs to own the science space. And indeed, they argued that with new methods and technologies at its disposal, political science is finally becoming the science of politics. Below are a couple examples from three of the speakers.

Donald Green of Yale University kicked things off by demonstrating the difference between observational studies — the traditional method used in political science — and experimental studies. The latter more closely resemble randomized clinical trials of new drugs or therapies, but instead of testing outcomes of health interventions, they look at political interventions. They allow us, Green said, to get “an objective scientific understanding of political processes.”

Questions like “what impact do direct mailings have on voter turnout?” (answer: very little) and “do our social connections influence our voting tendencies?” (answer: yes) can be tested through carefully designed field experiments coupled with publicly available voting records. The observational approach would gain information about “experimental” conditions by asking people specific questions after the fact (ie., did you receive any direct mail encouraging you to vote?) while the field experiment would randomly separate people into controlled groups. One group would receive direct mail, the other would not. So, instead of having to rely on inherently unreliable memories, political scientists can do controlled experiments that yield much higher quality data.

Brown University professor Rose McDermott‘s talk on the genetics of politics had me a little nervous at the outset but bouncing with excitement by the end. It may not be all that profound to say something like “conservatives are more risk averse than liberals,” but to back that kind of statement up with physiological and genetic data is pretty amazing. McDermott startled us all by showing a ten-foot tall picture of a tarantula crawling toward someone’s eyeball. Turns out conservatives and liberals respond very differently to this kind of image (by the way, she was quick to point out that her studies do not look at differences between American Democrats and Republicans, but rather individuals’ conceptual orientations across a spectrum of ideologies).

Conservatives tend to focus their eyes on the tarantula while liberals spend more time looking at the eyeball, she said. Conservatives’ heart rates increase faster and they sweat more when they’re faced with images like the one she showed us. Other researchers have recently shown that they can predict with 85% accuracy a person’s political leanings based solely on how their brains respond during a risk-taking task having nothing to do with politics at all.

The various ways we respond to frightening information are heritable traits, McDermott said. And if conservatives tend to become more frightened, it’s not very hard to understand why they might be more likely to support things like military spending and the death penalty: those actions will help protect us from “evil.” It’s not that conservatives are more risk averse, as I said above, but rather that more risk averse people tend to be conservatives–an important distinction. Likewise, there is no “conservative” gene or “liberal” gene as the media might like to pretend. “Its not that simple. It never will be that simple,” said McDermott. “These things are multifactorial.” Instead of a single gene, it’s a “constellation of pathways” interacting with our environmental experiences, she explained.

Lazer’s talk focused on the ways networks and big data can inform our ability to answer large scale questions about the spread of political ideology through populations. He specifically spoke about three studies exploring the impact of persuasion, peer influence, and collective action. The persuasion study was an example of the field experiments Green spoke of, with a randomly assigned group being privy to an online town hall event in which participants could directly interact with their political representative. The participants in the meetings were more likely to vote for the member of congress than those who didn’t participate. “We found substantial changes in the directions of the member’s opinions,” Lazer added, showing that the town hall meeting not only influenced the participants’ feelings toward the candidate, but also the candidate’s feelings towards his constituents’ desires.

His peer influence study looked at the changes in political viewpoints of freshman entering college dormitories, in which they would reside for the next four years of college. They asked the students to list how they were connected to all of the other people in the dorm and then looked at correlations between their various political viewpoints. It turned out that esteem and close friendship influenced students’ voting practices, but who they spent the most time with, spoke about politics with, and even disliked, did not influence their political leanings.

Finally, his project Money Bombs, a visualization of how Bostonians gave to politicans during the 2012 election revealed the underlying networks that mobilize money, he said, showing how collective action influences political behaviors.

Susan Hyde of Yale, and Daniel Diermeier of Northwestern also spoke about ways their work is bringing politics into a more scientifically rigorous frame. Diermeier demonstrated ways in which political phenomena can be mathematically modeled and Hyde spoke about her work using field experiments to explain the anomaly that fraudulent democracies invariably invite foreign observers to monitor their elections, despite the obvious cost they incur by doing so.

By Angela Herring


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