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The crisis of positivist, “evidence-based” political science in US

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Right from its birth in the 18th century, the United States of America emerged as one of the most advanced countries, or even the most advanced one in terms of government organization and the ideology of state building. The newly independent British colony got a chance to shed off the past and start from the ground up, and the Founding Fathers, as they are called in the US, used this chance to the max, erecting the three pillars of the American political order – the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which laid out the most progressive ideas of their time: human rights, democratic procedures, separation of powers, trial by jury, broad state autonomy, social contract, free speech, and many others.

The period of the rapid development of these ideas, akin to the French Enlightenment, has since been known in America as the “Age of Reason.” This time period, just like the ideas and principles it generated, is closely associated with empiricism and positivism – the two dominant philosophical streaks of that time, which denied philosophy as such and prioritized a scientific fact, an observed phenomenon, an experiment, logic, and ignored theoretical philosophical constructions, complex models and hypotheses not supported by scientific data. Back then, this new philosophy was the philosophy of science and was conceived as something that would replace the outdated classical philosophy with its interweaving of worldview, morality and faith, and remove ethics from the speculative structure of society, with its characteristic disregard for experiment as a method of cognition.

Today, almost 250 years since the adoption of the US Constitution, many elements of the American state system have not only lost their original progressive meaning but even look downright archaic. The most vivid examples of this are the life-long appointment of Supreme Court justices, who maintain their positions for decades, the electoral system of voting, whereby members of state electoral colleges are not obligated to vote according to the will of the people of that state, and the decentralized legal system, where precedents are superimposed on precedents, and the passage of a new law does not entail a revision of the old one.

Even though this archaism is obvious to any unbiased observer, not only are there no active discussions about constitutional reform or at least new amendments to the fundamental law of the land, but there are heated discussions going in Congress, the media and universities about how to interpret provisions of the ancient document in such a way as to better reflect the founding fathers’ ideas.

Any liberal arts education in the United States, from the high-school level  up, includes a detailed study, not critical, but apologetic, of the history of the founding of the United States, the adoption of the Constitution and the early  period of the US as a country. The personalities of the founding fathers and their philosophical views are front and center in most of these courses, and the higher the prestige of the educational institution, the more diligently the knowledge of the “essential foundations” of American statehood is implanted in the students’ minds.

As a result, the overwhelming majority of America’s intellectual elite leave their universities with deep faith in the sacredness of the US Constitution and the principles embedded in it. They are also steeped in the very spirit of empiricism and positivism of the Age of Reason. These are exactly the philosophical doctrines that shaped the development of humanitarian sciences in the United States and continue to do so today, even though they have long been considered in Europe as limited, to say the least.

This is also why scientific psychology has been reduced to behaviorism and the theory of historical stages has been dismissed, replaced by a civilizational approach and the so-called “evidence-based” or “fact-based” political science, which is the centerpiece of this article.

The seeds of political science and sociology, which fell into the fertile American soil in the first half of the 20th century, were soaked in the juices of the developed political class, their young shoots basked in the rays of a fleeting electoral cycle and an all-pervading electoral system, and their flowers were brighter than anywhere else. Election managers have never experienced any shortage of money and resources, and experts, who were able to predict the voters’ reaction, awaited universal respect and cushy jobs. 

Now, in the run-up to the 21st year of the new century, America has a whole army of sociologists and political scientists, with regiments and divisions “deployed” in every state and in every district of each state. This army is big enough to simultaneously serve the election campaigns of two presidential candidates, dozens of candidates for state governors, hundreds of congressional and senatorial hopefuls, and thousands of candidates for elected positions in local administrations. This 300,000-strong army has its own soldiers – street agitators, and its generals – campaign managers. It also has its own intelligence – sociological institutions and political spin doctors, trying to analyze the voters’ preferences and work out the best strategy and tactics.

It would seem that all this multitude of people, endowed with almost unlimited resources, should have long ago studied the political landscape of every single corner of America and provided an accurate forecast of the locals’ reaction to statements made by a politician, or steps taken by his  opponent. This doesn’t happen, however, and forecasts made by political scientists are disproved by reality. The biggest such flop ever was Donald Trump’s victory in the November 2016 presidential election.

This discrepancy between spent human and economic resources and the results attained has much to do with the culture of science and positivism that still prevails in American science. The positivist approach to science focuses on the search for objective truth, which can almost exclusively be achieved with the help of empirical facts and formal logic. This logic for centuries prevailed in physics, but even there it has been a subject of scathing criticism as it eventually turned out that the research method can affect the result of the research, and that one and the same object can have mutually exclusive properties, depending on how it is measured. This means that the fact obtained with so much effort is no longer absolute, and formal logic is simply insufficient in its toolbox.

These are the conclusions reached by physicists who study laws that are not subject to rapid change and are independent of human culture – a discovery that seems to have been completely overlooked by US political scientists, who still conduct public opinion polls as if the question never predetermines the answer, even though this is almost always the case. They avoid making assumptions, because they do not know all the facts, and try to objectively measure the immeasurable – the constantly changing moods of the mass of people divided into thousands of groups according to geographic, gender, age, educational, professional and other factors. And each of the millions of people polled represents a mixture of cultures, religions and ideologies and can change his or her opinion on a given issue every day, even a dozen times a day.

Such a system of studying the electorate and the related forecasting method are doomed to failure. Even if the combined forces of sociologists and political scientists were a hundred times larger and at a certain moment in time could collect data on the people’s preferences that would meet the strictest scientific criteria, the next day this information would be no longer relevant, and the whole work would have to be done again… In real life, however, this does not happen either.

Thus, US political scientists, who have always been taught not to invent theories, but only generalize the available facts, are chasing these facts and use them indiscriminately. Can an ordinary Biden election campaign expert run a scientific check on and compare multi-page descriptions of survey methods, when dozens of surveys are conducted each week, and sometimes, each day? Of course not, and so experts rely on the authority and decency of the organization that provides the “facts.” At best, they summarize the results of several surveys, and at worst, they use the one that suits them best.

This is the case at the level of data synthesis and forecasting, based on this generalization, but things are even worth when it comes to research and data collection. In an ever-changing environment, when precious “facts” become irrelevant in a matter of hours, research teams have to rely on the speed of research, rather than its coverage, representativeness or accuracy. This constant race leads to the emergence of such Frankenstein sociological monsters as a poll, where the difference in the candidates’ ratings is less than the margin of error allowed by the researcher, or a methodologically flawed survey, deliberately presented as an All-American poll that less than 1,000 people took part in.

And yet, US sociologists and political scientists still stick to positivism, because positivism is the true-blue American way. Never mind that these principles and methods, invented to study the eternal laws of nature, are now used to “study” the ever-changing mood of the crowd.

The bigger the process that the American system of public opinion research  tries to study or predict, the worse the result: while it works almost impeccably in local elections, at the level of elections to Congress it starts to fail, and during presidential elections things get real bad. A positivist analysis is impossible where you have no positivist facts, which means that the winner will be the one who better applies different methods of analysis. However, such methods are nowhere to find in the American universe, and those who successfully apply them are said to have “guessed.”

According to the American elite, in 2016, Trump “guessed” exactly what the conservative voter wanted. He is “guessing” again this year, while Democrats, also forced to engage in guesswork, use their favorite tactics of “identity politics”: they nominate those who they believe best relate to their typical supporter in terms of demographic indicators – an elderly white middle-aged male, and an African-American woman.

Which of them guessed better the whole world will know very soon.

From our partner International Affairs

Oleg Karpovich, Director of the Institute of Contemporary Studies at the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, MFA ; N. Tretyakov , international journalist

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Why are some Muslims, from India to the U.S Voting against their Natural Allies

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Recent national elections in the U.S. and regional elections in India have presented an interesting conundrum. The numbers show that some Muslims, are voting in a counter-intuitive fashion. Given the rise of Islamophobia and right-wing religious nationalism, both in the U.S. and in India, one would surmise that Muslims would vote overwhelmingly to the left of center. But both, in India and in the U.S., many Muslims have however chosen to send a message to the center-left – your sympathetic rhetoric and your verbal condemnations of Islamophobia is not enough, we want to see concrete policies that improve our political and economic conditions. Neither the promises of Joe Biden, nor the fear of Hindu-nationalism is influencing their vote. These Muslims are, for sure, in a minority albeit a growing one. Politicians on the center-left may ignore them at their own peril.

In the U.S.

In the U.S., President-Elect Joe Biden’s campaign outreach to Muslims went far beyond that of any presidential candidate in the past. Biden’s campaign had a manifesto for American Muslims and a designated outreach person. Biden spoke at Muslim conventions and even quoted from Islamic scripture. He dropped an “inshallah” in the debates. Biden promised to end the so called ‘Muslim-Ban’ on day one and has repeatedly condemned Islamophobia. Biden spoke up for Uyghur Muslims in China and Kashmiris in India and has opposed the annexation of West Bank. He has promised to resume relations with the Palestinians and restore aid to them. Even Imran Khan, the PM of Pakistan, a self-proclaimed champion of Muslims, does not have such an impressive pro-Muslim curriculum vitae, he has repeatedly refused to speak up for the Uyghurs.

While a majority of American Muslims campaigned very aggressively for the Biden-Harris ticket and raised millions of dollars for the Democrats, the exit polls indicate that only 69% of American Muslims voted for them. On the face value that is a huge win, but if you look at in comparison to the past it is troubling. Despite the fact that Biden went far beyond any other candidate in his outreach to Muslims, and the Islamophobia of President Trump is well documented, Biden has garnered the least percentage of votes by a Democratic presidential candidate in the last four elections according to exit polls conducted by the Council on American Islamic Relations.
 A possible explanation for this relatively weak performance is that, for some Muslims his “iron-clad” support for Israel and his willingness to work with pro-Hindutva operatives in the U.S., make his opposition to Islamophobia sound less credible.  Words are not enough. If his electoral promises do not actually translate into actual policies, one can expect further decline in Muslim support for Democrats. American Muslims are a rapidly growing and politically engaged community that is over represented in swing states.

A closer reading of the exit polls suggest that things are worse than they seem. The exit polls show that while 17% American Muslims voted for Trump (up from 13% in 2016), 11% declined to reveal who they voted for. It is possible that they lean heavily towards Trump, hence the secrecy. That would mean that in spite of all his Islamophobic rhetoric, Trump may have doubled his support among American Muslims. One Trump supporter told me he voted for Trump because Trump did not invade a single Muslim country in four years unlike Biden who supported the invasion of Iraq.  

YearCandidateMuslim Vote
2008Barack Obama88%
2012Barack Obama85%
2016Hillary Clinton74%
2020Joe Biden69%

In Bihar

The recent elections in Bihar has an interesting story to tell. The state is clearly polarizing as most gains have been made by parties on the extremities. Prime minister Modi’s right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) went from winning 53 wins in the 2015 elections to winning 74 of the 243 seats in 2020. A significant swing in favor of Hindutva ideology. The Communist Party (CPI-ML) gained 9 seats, it had 3 seats in 2015 to 12 seats in 2020. The communist parties combined had a 400% increase, they went from 4 to 16 seats. The parties in decline are the so-called secular centrist parties. The Rastriya Janata Dal (RJD) which is the biggest single party in the state lost five seats (80-75) and the Indian National Congress (INC), the grand old party of India, also lost ground (27-19).

Clearly the secular center is shrinking. The biggest surprise of the elections was the performance of Asaduddin Owaisi’s All Indian MajlisIttehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), a Muslim party, which in the past five years has gone from 0-5 seats. The Majlis won in predominantly Muslim area of Seemanchal and is being accused by commentators of stealing the secular vote away from secular parties. Some are describing Majlis as BJP’s B-Team.

It is interesting that now in Indian politics, the code for Muslim vote is ‘the secular vote’. Indian Muslims are now the last line of defense for the rather rapidly shriveling secular space. The criticism of Owaisi and the Majlis for denting the prospects of secular parties in Bihar is both misplaced and inaccurate.  The question that is important is not why Owaisi’s Majlis, a party historically based in Hyderabad (South India) is contesting elections so far in the North of India. The key question is why are Muslims in Bihar voting for Majlis? A party that has no record of governance in their region.

In a speech months before the elections, Owaisi predicted a tectonic shift in Seemanchal’s politics and he said that it was coming because of the profound injustices and inequities that plague Muslims of that region. If secular parties that have governed the state for decades had delivered good governance to Muslims, Owaisi would have stayed at home.

Muslim Disillusionment

Muslims are increasingly disillusioned by secular and left politicians. Islamophobia was on the rise even before Trump became President and 37% of American Muslims, pre-covid pandemic, were found hovering near the poverty line. There is much discontent. I think just as 17-25% American Muslims voted for Trump rejecting the centrist politics of Democrats – many Muslims in Bihar too are frustrated by the failure of secular parties to improve their material condition. The region of Bihar where Owaisi’s party won five seats is the poorest and infrastructurally the least developed area of the state. Voting for secular parties for decades did not help them much. They have been voting without hope. They too are tired of the lip service.

Muslims of Bihar are fortunate that they have an alternative in Majlis and they are able to reject both Indian secularists and Hindu nationalists unlike some American Muslims who feel that they are stuck between Republicans who are Islamophobic and Democrats who promise much but deliver little. The minority of Muslims who appear to be voting counter intuitively, seemingly against their own interests, either for Donald Trump in the U.S. or the Majlis in Bihar, are clearly sending a signal to secular politicians – do not take our vote for granted, you need to earn our vote.

The center-left may be a natural ally of Muslims, but if it does not deliver for Muslims, they may lose their vote in ever increasing numbers.

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Which Coronavirus Policies Succeed, And Which Fail: N.Y. Times Analysis Confirms Mine

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According to an analysis by and in the New York Times on November 18th, which is headlined “States That Imposed Few Restrictions Now Have the Worst Outbreaks”, “Coronavirus cases are rising in almost every U.S. state. But the surge is worst now in places where leaders neglected to keep up forceful virus containment efforts or failed to implement basic measures like mask mandates in the first place, according to a New York Times analysis of data from the University of Oxford.”

At Strategic Culture, on May 21, I had published my own analysis, which was based upon tracking the data globally and within countries, and within the various states of the United States, which analysis concluded that countries (and states) which apply the least-stringent regulations in order to keep as low as possible the spread of the virus are failing the most to contain or limit that spread. I labelled those the “libertarian” countries, and I noted that what I called the “socialist” countries — the nations which were the most strictly imposing scientifically confirmed regulations in order to keep those numbers down — were having the best success at limiting the spread of this virus. My study was global, and its headline was “Ideology and Coronavirus”. Unlike the Times article, I was forthright about the ideological implications of the coronavirus data — because those implications are vastly important. (The handling of this pandemic is providing reams of data that test the effectiveness of the various locales’ predominant ideology at dealing with a global life-or-death years-long public-health emergency in regions throughout the world. This is like a global laboratory experiment testing the two opposite ideologies: libertarianism, which is against government regulation, versus socialism, which applies government regulation. No government is purely one or the other, but those are the two poles.)

The analysis in the Times article shows a chart, and represents on it almost all of the states, as dots that indicate both the amount of regulation which has been applied, and the lowness of the infection-rate which has resulted; and, at the upper left corner on it, are the two Dakotas, as “Weak recent containment measures and many cases,” while at the bottom rightmost corner is Hawaii as “Strict measures and fewer cases.”

The Times chart is showing, only locally within the United States, during just the past few weeks, what my analyses had shown, regarding not only the international and longer-term data, but also within the United States itself and recently, not only longer-term and internationally. One of my articles, on November 1st and titled “The Highest Covid-Infection-Rate States”, showed the infection-rate for all 50 states, and noted that, “In 2016, the top 17 [the states with the highest rates of this infection in 2020] voted for Trump, and the bottom 5 voted for Clinton. All but 3 of the top 24 voted for Trump, but from numbers 25 to 45, there was a political mixture. The highest infection-rate state, North Dakota, has a Covid-19 infection-rate that is 14.6 times higher than the lowest Covid-19 infection-rate state, Vermont.” Of course, the Republican Party (Trump’s Party) is the more libertarian Party, and the Democratic Party (Clinton’s Party) is the more socialist (though actually just as totalitarian) of the two Parties. (Both Parties represent only their billionaires, who also own and control the media; and this is the way that America’s aristocracy controls the Government. For example, the very pro-Democratic-Party website PoliticalWire quoted from and linked to the NYT’s article, but always fails to include any of mine, because I am critical against both Parties. Truly independent news-media are almost non-existent in the United States.)

Whereas the Times’s chart of “Avg. new cases per 100,000” failed to include Vermont, Vermont is the state that has, for the longest time, been among the best three on not only cases per million but also deaths per million, from this virus, and substantially better even than Hawaii, and both states are among the two or three that in recent decades have been the strongest for Democratic candidates, and the weakest for Republican candidates. However, Vermont especially is politically independent, and, so, it has a Republican Governor, Phil Scott, whose record on containing this virus has been the best in the nation; and he was just re-elected in a landslide, 69% of the votes (largely because of this terrific record). Right now, however, the number of daily new cases has shot up suddenly about fivefold in just the past week; so, Phil Scott’s record is in jeopardy. If that surge quickly ends, then he could become the strongest Republican to run against Kamala Harris or Joe Biden in 2024. He would not only receive almost all Republican votes (since that’s his Party), but also at least a third of Democratic votes, and almost all independent votes. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that he would be the likeliest to win the Republican nomination, because (just as is true about the Democratic Party) that Party’s billionaires will be making that choice. (It was blatantly true also with regard to Biden and Harris.) This epidemic will be a major political challenge both in 2022 and in 2024. Anyone who wants to see Governor Scott’s press conferences regarding this crisis, so as to know precisely what his coronavirus-policies have been, can see them here. His November 20th press conference is here. He and his governing team receive and answer there many intelligent questions, so that the policies which have led to the best results in America are amply explained there.

On November 16th in South Dakota (and then repeated nationally on National Public Radio on November 20th), reporter Seth Tupper headlined “Two States, Different Paths: Vermont Keeps Virus Low While Rivaling SD’s Economy” and provided a thorough report, including graphs of infection-rates over time, comparing two states, South Dakota, which has the nation’s second-highest infection-rate (after only North Dakota’s 9%) of 7.8%, versus Vermont, which has the nation’s lowest infection-rate, of only 0.5% — one-fifteenth as high. Tupper explained the different policies that the Governors of those two states had applied, and how those policies produced vastly different results for the infection-rates and the death-rates in their states’ populations, but only moderately higher increase in unemployment in Vermont than in South Dakota, which at the peak in April had reached 16% unemployment in Vermont, versus only 10% peak in South Dakota; and, by the time of August, both states had nearly identical low unemployment-rates. Whereas the death-rates from the disease soared around a thousand fold, between April and November, in South Dakota, the death-rate remained virtually flat, almost no increase, in Vermont, throughout that entire period. However, both states were now experiencing soaring infection-rates during the current, second, wave of the epidemic.

Author’s note: first posted at Strategic Culture

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Trump’s Election Shenanigans Pale Before The Threats From Melting Polar Glaciers

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Despite Joe Biden exceeding the magic number of 270 that guarantees a majority in the electoral college, President Donald Trump has not conceded.  Does he have a plan to overturn the wishes of the electorate? 

According to Trump he did not lose, he was cheated out of a legitimate win by voter fraud and ballot stuffing.  Accordingly, he has filed lawsuits in those critical states with narrow margins of victory for Biden — so far without tangible success — to block certification of the vote and persuade Republican legislatures to overturn the state vote as fraudulent and award the electoral votes to him. 

Trump’s window of action is narrowing.  A major target state was Michigan with 20 electoral votes.  However, Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer has now certified Biden’s victory meaning he should get its electoral votes. 

While Trump’s shenanigans continue, the world faces a real danger of melting ice sheets and glaciers.  A long term denier of global warming, Mr. Trump now accepts it but believes the earth will right itself without any effort by humans. 

Scientists meanwhile are particularly concerned with the Florida-sized Thwaites glacier in the Antarctic.  Its collapse they fear could destabilize surrounding glaciers eventually causing catastrophic global sea level rises measured not in inches but feet. 

The glacier rises 60 to 75 feet above water across its 75 mile face.  Remembering that 90 percent of it is under gives some notion of the quantity of ice.  The Nathaniel B. Palmer research vessel is conducting a survey this winter for the first time as part of a five-year international research program to learn just how fast the glacier is melting and how much it might be adding to rising seas. 

The problem is the shape of the glacier under the water and the warming waters eating away that core while the ice on top gets thicker and thicker as the glacier retreats inland.  At some point the glacier is likely to collapse of its own weight into the ocean.  Scientists who have modeled the scenario fear the process is unstoppable once it starts.  Worse it puts much of the West Antarctic ice sheet at risk of following it into the sea.  Any wonder then that Thwaites is also known as the Doomsday glacier. 

At the other pole the Greenland ice sheet had a record-breaking 2019, shedding the most ice since 1948 — an estimated 532 billion tons.  It of course increases coastal flooding along the eastern seaboard particularly the Carolinas and Florida.  Fortunately for the residents, the 2020 melt from Greenland, while well above the 1981 to 2010 average, was lower than recent years particularly 2019.

Donald Trump does not believe he lost the election and he does not believe in global warming.  Christmas is just around the corner and it’s reassuring to know he believes in Santa Claus . . . and the tooth fairy.

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