Tags: Education | biological | chemistry | mendeleev | science

Advance Progress by Making Political Science Like Chemistry

can political science be made formulaic like chemistry
(Maksym YemelyanovDreamstime)

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Tuesday, 16 October 2018 02:20 PM Current | Bio | Archive

Political scientists and lawyers — the two professions concerned with analyzing government — have never identified a small set of simple, core concepts whose permutations and combinations get to the essence of the matter.

Instead, both professions have been blessed (or cursed!) with a great multiplicity of terms and concepts, all of roughly equal importance, whose meanings and mutual relations are extremely complex. For fifty years I have been trying to do something about this problem.

Although I am a political scientist, I have always respected chemists. Unlike political science and law, chemistry's conceptual complexity is manageable because it is the result of the simple interactions of simple elements. And two chemists had a major influence on my career.

During my early years at Adrian College my colleague and friend, Charles Glassick — a Princeton Ph.D. who later became president of Gettysburg College — taught chemistry.

One day I discovered that he was reading a book about some political subject while I was reading about Dmitri Mendeleev's discovery of the periodic table of the chemical elements.

This is great, I thought to myself.

Adrian College not only promises to give students a broad liberal education, but its faculty members themselves are interested in more than just their own narrow specialties.

Adrian's small, broadly oriented faculty made it an ideal place for us to pick up interesting ideas for our own work during conversations with members of other departments.

I probably never could have developed my principle innovation in political analysis — oddly enough a "periodic table" of human associations — if I had taught at some other college.

During my second year at Adrian, I talked once in the faculty coffee room with Paul Koehn, a physicist. Learning that I was curious about how gravity works, he asked if I had read Dewey B. Larson's book on gravity, "Beyond Newton."

"Who is Larson?" I asked him. He didn't know, and didn't know what to make of Larson's book. He loaned me the very unorthodox book, which interested me enough to get in touch with the author. In one of his other books, Larson discussed a concept which I need not go into here but without which I could never have developed my own "periodic table."

Several years later my chemist friend told me about a fellowship program at the National Science Foundation that helped finance my sabbatical at the Harvard Law School, where I began the work ultimately resulting in my periodic table.

Before arriving at Adrian, a chance discussion at Johns Hopkins University with an undergraduate chemistry major had led me to devise a formula for analyzing decisions and actions: A——> X + Y. In plain English, this says that action A, taken in pursuit of goal X, also unfortunately causes side effects Y.

Since this expression resembles how chemists depict chemical reactions, I may have subconsciously been trying to speak to this student in his own professional language.

In any event, the formula invented during our discussion turned out to be extremely helpful in my class presentations. My college political science textbook , published in 1981, was organized in terms of categories suggested by this formula and by some of its derivatives. And the formula also was a necessary step on my road to discovering the periodic table of associations, since associations must be defined in terms of a classification of actions.

It may be a bit much to generalize from two critical turning points in my career, but if political science were to be put on a more sound basis it could do a lot worse than to pattern itself on the science of chemistry.

Chemistry and physics have produced spectacular accomplishments: artificial fabrics, lasers, microwave ovens, TV, atomic bombs, pesticides, cell phones.  . . . A similar takeoff in biological science is shaping up. But where do we see any signs that political science is having an impact on the world?

Mainstream political science today resembles the incoherence of chemistry before Mendeleev discovered his periodic table of the elements, which put enough conceptual order into chemistry to allow it to take off and produce a continuous and accelerating stream of spectacular accomplishments. It is my hope that making political science more like chemistry, with a periodic table of its own, will allow it to make equally spectacular progress.

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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PaulFdeLespinasse
Mainstream political science today resembles the incoherence of chemistry before Mendeleev discovered his periodic table of the elements. It is my hope that making political science more like chemistry will allow it to make equally spectacular progress.
biological, chemistry, mendeleev, science
825
2018-20-16
Tuesday, 16 October 2018 02:20 PM
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