Perception’s not Reality

Riker (a famous political scientist) once said that political science was dismal science, simply because you could not trust perception in the social world the same way “the real scientists” could reveal the laws of physical science. People can change their minds.

Like, while “real scientists” can tell you the distance to the moon as well as the gravity there for the average Joe; political scientists can’t tell you how far Planet Liberalism is from Planet Republicanism. They cannot tell you how those cultures (i.e., social gravity) affects the average Joe (without bias)–coming from America.

A 1999 published speech had the right tone for the music regarding the state of the discipline (italics mine below):

When we read the morning papers or watch the evening news on television, we see a steady stream of bad news from around the world– riots and death sentences in China, violence and bloodshed on the West Bank, starvation in the Sudan, floods in Bangladesh, super-inflation in Argentina, to mention just a few of the recent horror stories– and we get the impression that the world is in chaos, that impossible problems loom everywhere, and that our very survival is in doubt.

But I am convinced that this perception is not reality. I am convinced that, almost without our knowing it, a very positive sea change is taking place in the world. For the first time since World War II, the bitter, dangerous confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, a confrontation which dominated world affairs and threatened peace and security and stability everywhere, has all but disappeared.

Let me remind you of some of the specifics. An arms control treaty to reduce the number of nuclear weapons has been completed with the Soviets and is now being implemented and a second treaty is well on its way toward completion. Rather than wait for negotiations on a conventional arms treaty, the Soviets have announced unilateral dramatic substantive arms reductions and we have responded positively ourselves. The Soviets have cooperated in reducing regional tensions around the world. They have finally withdrawn their troops from Afghanistan. They have helped to bring the Iran Iraq war to an end. They have influenced their friends in Cuba to agree to withdraw…

My point is that perception is not reality in political science. In America, for example, there are “republicans” who are not represented by the two “liberal” parties (i.e., like me). I, and other republicans by definition, are Independents. Our political reality is very different from any given “liberal’s political reality.”

I suspect political scientists will learn to move past Riker’s dismal science in the 21st century; well, mostly for those who chase down reality; knowing full well that it is not their perception.

Article Title: The Place of the United States in the World Today
John C. Whitehead. Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 4, Foreign Policy, Human Rights, and Political Alignment, 1789-1989 (Fall, 1989), pp. 703-704. Published by: Wiley on behalf of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress


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