PIIE Blog | North Korea: Witness to Transformation
The Peterson Institute for International Economics is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan
research institution devoted to the study of international economic policy. More › ›
Subscribe to North Korea: Witness to Transformation Search
North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Beat Up the Intellectuals II: Down with Political Science!

by | May 11th, 2013 | 07:00 am

Last week, we wrote a stand-alone post against new sanctions on Iran that require academic journals to turn away submissions from Iranian officials, defined broadly to include scientists and engineers employed by state-owned enterprises. We thought this was a bad idea; science thrives by drawing on the entire human talent pool. Not to engage Iranian researchers capable of making serious contributions is not only gratuitous but positively counter-productive.

But skepticism about—and interference in—academic research is a time-honored American tradition. In a recent interview with NK News, Tony Namkung—a long-time North Korea insider who helped broker the Schmidt-Richardson trip–offered this piece of advice for American policymaking:

“We ought to get rid of all the so-called North Korea experts, especially the ones who graduated with degrees in political science. They know nothing about social mores; they think the truth is reality that is objective, and out there for you to analyze and describe, when it may be in your head.”

For the record, we think that anyone who claims that they know what is going on in North Korea—including Namkung and this blog—is lying. Social science is hardly the only way to understand North Korea. We should be throwing everything we have at the problem, from cultural studies to political science, from business and NGO insiders on the ground to outsiders staring at satellite pictures, interpreting economic data or doing content analysis. But relying solely on the alternatives—intuition? divination? drinking with your North Korean buddies?—seems equally perilous to us. American foreign policy is littered with fiascos caused by insiders who claimed that they “really” knew what was going on, when in fact self-interest and disinformation subsequently proved paramount. Remember Ahmad Chalabi?

Sadly, the challenges to the social sciences are not just the standard jibes from knowing insiders. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) was the chief sponsor of an amendment to eliminate NSF funding of political science altogether. When that effort failed, the sponsors succeeded in limiting funding only to projects that “promote national security or the economic interests of the United States.” At a hearing in May, Republican lawmakers kept their goal alive by promising to examine the NSF’s incredibly successful and rigorous peer review process. The ironies are depressing, and replay the sad saga of skepticism about climate science or tobacco and gun violence research. In this case, partisan political attacks against a single discipline are being launched in the name of investigating bias in the review process.

Its easy to mobilize sentiment against basic research by picking on odd projects. But social science—like all science—is a venture capital enterprise; you take risk and not everything will pan out. But what is not right gets weeded out through scrutiny and debate. Why, pray tell, is truncating our knowledge about North Korea—or anything else—good for what America values?

For the latest on the NSF flap, with links to other stories, see Inside Higher Ed.  On the collateral damage for minority students, see The Monkey Cage.