Boris-exit & Brexit: A sign political science should rightly be called art?


political scienceHarvard professor and former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers believes so. “After BrexitTrumpSanders and the misforecast British and Canadian general elections, it should be clear that the term political science is an oxymoron,” he has written. (Click here for his blog.)  “Political events cannot be reliably predicted by pollsters, pundits or punters,” he goes on. ” All three groups should have humility going forward.”

Presumably, they should also be dumb with shame as well as appear suitably pale and distracted?

Professor Summers goes on to warn, “In particular no one should be confident about the outcome of the US presidential election.”

In other words, Donald Trump could really really win. Off the backs of all those cunning American voters who mislead pollsters and then pull the lever for the xenophobic orange blob in the privacy of the polling booth.

Is Professor Summers right? Should political science be renamed political art? Or perhaps more realistically, political studies, a neutral enough term that doesn’t pretend to offer any sort of accuracy or rigorously tested theories, just a series of stream-of-consciousness ideas?

Of course not, and Professor Summers knows it. Political science may have become a subject of study a couple centuries ago, but it’s been around from the time of Plato and Chanakya and 2,500 years later, we’re still consulting what they said for guidance on how we politick, win elections, legislate and govern.

That said, the predicament of pollsters (and pundits) seems rather dire right now. They seem unable any longer to gauge the electorate’s feelings; to read the voting public’s mind and feel the impulses of its heart. I was trying to think why this might be happening and remembered how we used to predict elections in India. By the “hawa”, the wind. Which way is the wind blowing?

This was not some superstitious Indian mumbo jumbo. It relied on the very basics of journalistic practice. Walk and talk through a constituency. Find out (and from more than the guy at the tea shop) which candidate is drawing the most goodwill. Who’s the talk of the town? Who excites admiration, sympathy or empathy? Who’s the talk of the town for all the wrong reasons? What’s the gossip about the candidates? Is there any? If not, why not? Are they seen as uninteresting? And so on and so forth.

Funnily, barring the odd surprise and the occasional upset, the message borne on the “hawa”, the wind, often proved accurate.

I’m wondering if the loss of predictive accuracy is because most of the trade increasingly relies on pollsters rather than the snapshot offered by real stories heard on the trail?

Additionally, here’s something pointed out by Nate Silver, the American statistician and writer who’s considered the heavyweight champion of the “science” of polling.(Should that too now be called an art?)

Response rates to telephone surveys have been declining for years, points out Mr Silver, and there’s no particular protocol established yet on internet polls.

But more to the point, he says, “the views of pollsters, polling aggregators and pundits may feed back upon one another, even or perhaps especially when they’re incorrect.”

It’s the herd mentality.

In journalism, as in polling, it’s best not to try and unite to beat back reality and coax it into its cage.

But that still doesn’t mean political science is dead. Or that Donald Trump will definitely win.