• The political scientist as citizen

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    ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

    ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

    (Republished from Tuesday for a fuller version)

    This is my introductory opinion piece with The Manila Times, and I thought it proper to begin by making it known to the public where I am coming from.

    As a political scientist, I consider myself as a proud inhabitant of a marginalized space in my discipline.

    You see, unlike most of my peers, I do not believe there is a scientific way to study politics. Politics is such a subjective construct that any attempt to make it predictable, as if it follows some natural law, would fail.

    We try to quantify the political world by applying scientific methodologies to the study of the political phenomenon. Many of us focus on the observable and the quantifiable, and we try to establish numerical indices of political constructs such as justice, corruption, democracy and good governance. Success is achieved by some when they are able to establish mathematical models, by correlating variables, but most of which are not precise measurements but are, in fact, perception indices drawn from a scale measuring the level of agreement to a statement. The domain within which quantification reigns supreme is in the conduct of political opinion surveys, but even here, what is measured are perceptions. Some studies rely on indicator variables that are easily quantifiable to stand for others that are not, like the number of journalists killed is considered a proxy for the absence or presence of press freedom.

    However, and no matter how hard we try, attempts to turn political science into a quantitative endeavor will always be challenged for their social authenticity and mathematical rigor. This is because the political phenomenon is either just reduced to a qualitative perception that is scaled to appear numerical but yet is not precise and, therefore, not reliable. Or that it is just replaced by other variables that do not fully reflect or explain the phenomenon at hand and, therefore, may have validity problems. For example, while the number of journalists killed is an indicator of lack of, or if not a challenge to, freedom of speech, one will be confronted with the case of Singapore having very few media killings, but our press in the Philippines, where such cases would be higher, is seen as less controlled than the Singaporean press.

    I deal with this conundrum as one whose undergraduate academic background of Forestry is steeped in the natural sciences, where quantitative analysis occupies a prominent role, but has realized that there is a casualty that goes beyond the problems of reliability and validity in quantifying political phenomena. It lies in the admonition that in order to be scientific, one has to be objectively detached and should suspend one’s biases.

    I consider this as incompatible with the political civic enterprise, and with the concept of critical citizenship. It behooves one to ask if it is even possible to suspend our biases. Right now, “bias” has turned into an ugly word. Journalists are being admonished to be objective in the same manner that we in academe are taken to task for expressing our biases.

    I have been accused of being biased. Some even went to the extent of writing, anonymously, my University to demand that I be censured, or in the words of the letter-sender, “disciplined,” when I joined David Yap to expose the anomalies in the results of this year’s vice-presidential elections.

    Of course I am biased, which is the path traveled by social scientists who are conscious of being also a citizen. I am less as a scientist, and more as a citizen who happens to understand politics from an academic perspective. I even subscribe to the belief that our academic authenticity will be enhanced if we begin calling our discipline as simply “politics,” and not “political science.”

    I take comfort in the principle of academic freedom that protects those of us dwelling inside academe, as long as we can support our arguments with our own set of warrants and standards of rigor. After all, I do not pretend that I will produce truth, or report it. I am a political scientist, and not a journalist. I only make a truth claim based on my own biases.

    In a world where there is a need for informed yet engaged citizenship, I could not afford the luxury of just looking at electoral fraud as mere data, which a detached, dispassionate political scientist would study. I had to engage it passionately using whatever academic privilege I have earned in my discipline.

    Faced with the challenge to be critically relevant, the best I can do is to produce learned and carefully studied opinions, which is exactly what I will be doing in this space three times a week starting today. In a world of political uncertainty and bounded rationality, that would be as good as truth itself.

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