In order for politics to be "scientific", what does it require? Are there existing scientific political ideologues (measurement et al)?

Particularly, because I still feel that a lot around politics is "mere ideologue", mere ideas. But what I'd like to see at some point is "politics based on observation and measurement", not just "people's ideas".


Political philosophy is normative and is about its own normativity. There are some political theories that try to avoid morality, like for example anything that falls under Political Realism, but they still need some sort of prescription which it obviously discusses. Sleat and Rossi, in their taxonomy of kinds of politcal philosophy, would for example say that strong Political Realist theories hold

that it is possible to derive normative political judgments from specifically political values — a position resting on a subset of the view that not all values are moral values, plus the more controversial claim that such political values can and should guide politics, whereas moral values are ill-suited to that task (Geuss 2008). Whether and how either or both components of that claim can be sustained is an issue high on the agenda of realists (e.g. Rossi 2012; Sleat 2014) and of their critics. The controversy largely turns on whether moral normativity is eliminable from political philosophy (e.g. Hurka 2009; Erman and Möller 2013, but cf. Jubb and Rossi 2014; Larmore 2013, but Sleat 2014)

The other kind of theories will use morality in one way or another. Data alone won't tell us which data we ought to prefer. That is, science can't tell us which moral values matter. It also can't really tell us which "politcal values" of Politcal Realist theories matter. But it can possibly inform some implications of positions and inform application of theories.

We could still look at how science affects political theories. But I'm not sure whether it's worthwhile to do this abstractly. If we want to use some scientific finding as a counterargument against a specific political theory then surely we can do so without first thinking about how science can affect political theories in general.

If we want to rule out some group of theories then it becomes complicated. I'm not sure how that would look. Perhaps one could argue against the assumptions of non-ideal theories. Or perhaps one could try to disqualify some theories because of bad assumptions of human behaviour.

Another way in which science is important for political theories is that it opens up problems. For example: without science about climate change there wouldn't be political argumentation about how politics ought to deal with climate change. Surely, theories that disregard existence of climate change we could throw out and call unscientific. But theories that simply argue that we shouldn't do anything about it aren't unscientific but might instead just be wrong on a normative level.

edit: clarified the first sentence

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  • "Political philosophy is normative" Normative for me means the same as engineering: you have some facts, you have purposes, you use facts to achieve the purposes. Therefore there is scientific approach in politics, right as in engineering. The same applies for value theories. – rus9384 Jun 2 '18 at 22:33
  • Hmm, well, you're right insofar "being normative" isn't something special. F.e. epistemic values are normative, and so we could call science itself normative. What I should've written instead is something like "political philosophy is ABOUT its own normativity". The same doesn't go for engineering. (At least in some major and necessary theoretical way.) I disagree on calling "using facts to achieve purposes" a "scientific approach". Then we might as well say that everyday behavior has a scientific approach and that sets the bar rather low. – Marc H. Jun 2 '18 at 23:11
  • The only thing about its own normativity is philosophy of philosophy. Political philosophy is about how to achieve social purposes. Social purposes are not normative, they just exist. They are built-in humans. Many people want X, Y and Z. Few people want A, B and C. So, we'll develop a model that allows to achieve X, Y and Z. Everyday behaviour sometimes has scientific approach. It allows to be succesful. Scientific approach here is the one that is based on facts. Unscientific is the one based on prejudices and guesses. – rus9384 Jun 2 '18 at 23:28
  • Political philosophy problematizes which values should matter politically. Otherwise there'd be no disagreement between political realists and f.e. theories using morality. Therefore it looks at its own normativity. | If many people were to want to abolish rights of few people then how should we deal with this? Now, you did say "social purposes" - so for any other purpose this might not go. Then, how do you differentiate between purposes that are "social" and those that are not? Obv., this can not fit into a comment etc. But you could post an answer with references for the OP. – Marc H. Jun 3 '18 at 2:37

Existing Political/Social Sciences

Sociology and 'political science' (also economics, I suppose) are both social sciences which aim to develop theories about large groups of people and their political organisation based on, like you say, observation and measurement. As it stands, these kinds of studies impact and influence actual politics but perhaps not enough.

It's Can't Just be Science

The problem is, you can't have politics just be about observation and measurement. As someone else here mentions, there has to be some discussion about what our aims are as a group (whether that group be a city, nation, some alliance of nations etc). Once aims are well defined, scientific investigation regarding how to achieve those aims is extremely necessary. But, I would argue, one cannot define aims through the use of scientific inquiry. This is an example of Hume's is/ought distinction. Statements about goals (or values, which are essentially the same thing) are inherently distinct from descriptive claims about the world. You simply have to have some assumed value or aim to work from. Sam Harris might disagree but I think he is terribly mistaken. And much of politics can be thought of as moral debate about our values or aims.

Difficulties With Social Sciences

One problem, however, with social sciences in general is that they're dealing with extremely complex systems. As much as physics seems complex when the equations are stuck up on a board, the systems studied by physicists are very simple either in their nature or because their enormous scale allows certain approximations to be made that are still very accurate. E.g. The Earth is no where near perfectly spherical. There are mountains, rivers, cities, bulges. However, if one 'zooms out' far enough, the earth can be modelled as a perfect sphere which makes computation and theoretical development easier. If you zoom out even further a planet (or even a galaxy!) can be modelled as a point with no spatial dimensions, making computation even easier. It turns out that the only reason physicists are able to be so mathematically precise with their work (such that they can develop very precise mathematical models) is that these systems are simple.

Social sciences and economics, however, may be dealing with very large groups of people. A volatile environment in which patterns and quantitative relationships between variables are difficult to find. What happens if I invest X amount of money in to this certain kind of industry? Answering those kinds of questions accurately requires extreme care and consideration of many different factors including the state of consumers within that industry, the interactions of this industry with others and perhaps it could even be the case that the actions of key individuals in the industry really matter. In some ways, this may make things even harder since with large populations you might be able to make certain assumptions or approximations (like physicists do) to make your model more simple but you can't really 'approximate' the behaviour of individuals- there's an innumerable amount of important variables involved in our decision making processes that some extreme advances in neuroscience must be made before we can hope to 'model' the behaviour of an individual. It's typical in science that the more complex a system of study becomes, the less mathematical formalisation is present. For example, mathematical modelling is used in biology but not as much as in physics or chemistry and for this exact reason.

To make things worse, you have this kind of 'measurement-effect' where simply observing some population or designing a model of their behaviour may actually change their behaviour. For example, if you have been observing some specific market's behaviour and created a model which is predictively successful in seeing the rise and fall of value in shares (or whatever it is), you or someone else who knows about your model may use it and invest loads of money which would alter the "natural" behaviour of the market. Therefore, we have to wonder if we will ever be able to model the behaviour of these kinds of systems when the model itself effects the system. It may be the case that it's literally impossible for a model to be able to predict its own effect on the system being modelled (seems kind of circular, doesn't it?).

Further development of mathematical and observation tools are simply required before this can be made a reality. The complexity problem seems to be the largest hurdle to jump (obviously)

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  • Well, politics is more engineering than science. Engineering's aims also are not dictated by science. One, for example, just wants automation. This goal is not dictated by science. But automation is about engineering. – rus9384 Sep 1 '18 at 13:09
  • @rus9384 What's your point? – Joe Lee-Doktor Sep 1 '18 at 14:23
  • Well, can you call engineering scientific or not? – rus9384 Sep 1 '18 at 14:30
  • @rus9384 Engineering isn't strictly a science. The term 'scientific' is poorly defined. Engineering is certainly an application of scientific knowledge. – Joe Lee-Doktor Sep 1 '18 at 16:46

For as long as it remains the case that there are no means by which to empirically verify even a statement as mundane as "I feel fine" then there will be an epistemic limitation upon verifying falsifiable hypotheses rendering conclusions from psychology and the social sciences as nothing more than statements of opinion, i.e. not the confirmation nor advancement of knowledge claim.

That said, even astrology is based upon observation and peer review and the conclusions of economics, for all it's metrics, nothing more than opinion.

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Political science, as you probably know, is a social science, allied with psychology and sociology.

Psychology is commonly regarded as somewhat...shall we say "flaky"?...because it's hard to accurately measure and analyze emotions, cognitive biases, etc. Political "science" is even crazier because philosophy (notably ethics) and opinion are such important components.

Trying to make political philosophy and opinion scientific is probably a lost cause, but we can at least endeavor to create a framework based on facts.

For example, we know that the Romans conquered other peoples, building an enormous empire. We know that John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Libya was invaded by NATO and West Virginia was created out of Virginia during the Civil War era.

We could list thousands of other facts, then connect related facts, similar to a connect-the-dots exercise. Hillary Clinton is thus linked to Walmart and the invasion of Libya.

I don't know if one could classify a collection of facts linked together as science, but it does give us a good starting point - somewhat analogous to an evolutionary biologist's tree of life.

We can now bring other tools into play, like historical patterns. The first great empires arose thousands of years ago. The Greeks built a notable empire that was eclipsed by the Roman empire. During the colonial era, the Spanish, French and British ruled ever bigger empires. Today, the U.S. effectively rules the biggest empire ever.

Which brings us to measurement. We can measure various historical events using a traditional time scale (hours, years, etc.). But how can you measure freedom or corruption?

Even if precise measurements are impossible to obtain, we can make comparisons and chart relative values. Thus, the United States is arguably more democratic now than it was when slavery flourished. On the other hand, U.S. citizens in general have lost many of the rights they enjoyed two centuries ago. That obviously complicates what turns out to be an overly simplistic view, but the same general idea applies.

Another thing that makes political science relatively unique is propaganda. Propagandists have certainly taken a bite out of science and philosophy, but the political arena is ground zero for propaganda.

This leaves us with an ironic predicament: In order to make politics scientific, we need to exorcise the propaganda that is almost synonymous with politics.

This can be achieved in part by simply brainstorming strategies for distinguishing between truth and propaganda.

In summary, political science will never be a precise science like mathematics, but it isn't a lost cause. Scientific principles can indeed by applied to the political arena.


I should also mention political principles, which often take the form of maxims (e.g. "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely").

Such principles may be generalities, similar to other scientific principles, but they help us make sense of things.

So we have a framework made up of countless facts, a series of political principles and various tools for measuring and comparing things.

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