Drezner Picks on Historians

Thanks to Dan Drezner for exposing Tom Coburn’s ridiculous initiative to cut National Science Foundation money to political science… except in Drezner’s nightmare vision of a world without political science funding, historians would be one of the few remaining sources, along with (parodying Coburn) “CNN, pollsters, pundits…candidates, and political parties”, of knowledge about political behavior.


As an academic discipline, history is sometimes considered an art, sometimes a “science”, which says more about the intended readability of the discipline’s output than anything else. In terms of philosophies and practice of history, there’s a disciplinary truism, wie es eigentlich gewesen – telling it like it is – that many would argue is more “empirical” (not quantitative, which is something else) in its reading of evidence and “scientific” in its rigorous adherence to scholarly method, than a lot of the political “science” that gets pushed out. Lumping historians in with the media and punditocracy  is just as silly as Coburn’s argument that knowledge of political behavior should be limited to those fields.


  1. John Matthew Barlow

    “Silly” doesn’t do Drezner justice here, lumping historians in with “CNN, pollsters, pundits, candidates, and political parties” is just plain stupid.

  2. I’m sure if Dan was to step in here, he’d mention that, as with most things, he was being tongue-in-cheek. Though, maybe not…

  3. John Matthew Barlow

    The first time I read his post, I thought he was tongue-in-cheek, the 2nd time, I wasn’t so sure. But I hope he is.

  4. History is a craft, not a science. Most historians adhere pretty conservatively to empirical methodology, but they do not have the sort of physics envy that so frequently afflicts economists and other quants to make them imagine that they are experimentalists working at Argonne, Fermilab or Sandia. Or at least not to nearly the same degree.

    I think Drezner was just quoting Coburn initially and was so irritated by Coburn’s nonsensical bill that he did not pause to consider he might be offending most of his colleagues in a cognate field at his university by lumping them in with shills, politicians and other non-scholars. Or that historians, if they were feeling mean spirited, could easily throw a few well-aimed rocks at poli sci, especially the goofier permutations of IR.

    Ideally, history and poli sci ( both qual and quant) are complementary approaches. To reiterate an argument I made last spring (again, triggered by Drezner) over at Drew Conway’s ZIA blog, quantitative analysis is sharpening the focus of the telescope or microscope. Qualitative analysis is knowing what’s worth looking at.

    Being trained as a historian, I’m a qual dude but quant tools can tell me when I’m on target or by how much I may be off. Or if I am full of crap. On the other hand, quant scholars can be like drunks looking for their car keys under a streetlamp because that is where the light is. Quants need data and not every significant variable is the one that is easiest to isolate and measure. Or measure beyond mere correlation. Or at all.

    Quant-Qual can never be either/or any more than we should try walking on one leg.

  5. Political ‘scientists’ should perhaps not be surprised that if they present their work as scientific in the image of the natural sciences and consequently receive funding from related national bodies, the soft and highly contestable results they generally produce will make them vulnerable to being the first cut in times of financial drought.

  6. John Matthew Barlow

    Exactly, history is not a science, but to reduce our output to “craft” isn’t quite right either. Mike is correct to note that we do have a strong methodological approach, going back to Herodotus, to “tell it like it was.” But to quantify history as a science doesn’t work, either.

    Quant methods are certainly part of the historian’s tool box, but unless we’re talking about the hard core statistical analysis popularised by social historians in the 60s and 70s, most of us use our quant methods and data within the context of a larger qual approach, the data is contextualised in ways social scientists don’t do. I have always found it ironic that it was an anthropologist who came up with the term “thick description,” as that is how historians generally approach their craft.

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