Monday, December 15, 2008

What did we learn?

Well, it appears (so far) that I've survived my first semester of graduate school. Now, I suppose, would be as good a time as any to look back and figure out exactly what it is that I've learned.

The first thing I learned was what political science isn't -- it is not comparative history, it isn't advanced civics, and it isn't about rhetoric. This may come as a surprise to no one other than me, but apparently, political science is actually science -- sort of.

Even practitioners of the "social sciences" (sociology and political science, for example) are careful to note the distinction between their field and the so-called "hard sciences," such as physics and chemistry. While the "hard sciences" study the interactions of physical bodies and particles and predict their behavior, doing the same thing to human societies is a little fuzzier... humans, as it turns out, are somewhat less predictable than hydrogen atoms.

Enter statistics, which I got a great introduction to this semester. Skipping over the boring, number-y parts, the value to using things like "normal distributions" and large sample sizes is so that you can get a reasonably good predictor of behavior to a certain level of probability. There are also handy ideas like "rational choice theory," which makes it possible to do a little hand-waving ("Okay, let's just say everyone's going to act in his own perceived best interest when making choices") and aggregate behavior over a whole system. To the extent that it works, it's a useful idea.

Deeper than that, however, is the issue of a philosophy of science. What exactly is "scientific method," and what is it meant to accomplish? Are we adding to the growing pile of human knowledge, or are we merely filling out the latest paradigm by which we understand the world? That still seems to be an open question, so I don't have an answer. But it's an interesting line of thought to follow down the old rabbit hole.

I've had at least one friend suggest that these courses aren't doing me any good -- that this field of study is encouraging my left-leaning tendencies. I don't really blame her for coming to that conclusion, but it isn't the case. My professors haven't made their personal political beliefs particularly secret, but the course material is almost completely sterile of normative political rhetoric or propaganda. Instead, our readings and discussions have focused entirely on theories of political phenomena -- given X circumstances, why does Y happen? That kind of thing. The suggested answers normally involve complicated algebraic formulas, and they tend to treat the workings of political entities like parts of a car... avoiding pronouncements about what is right and wrong.

So I haven't drawn my political views from the coursework -- although I do feel as though I have a better understanding of how things work, and that understanding has helped to reinforce notions I already had.

I'm looking forward to next semester. Now that the initial shock has passed, I think it'll be easier to keep my head above water.