Thursday, August 30, 2012

Miscellaneous Links

1. Egyptian tanks moving out of the Sinai.  Islamists with possible links to al Qaeda have been active in the Sinai since Mubarak's fall, but the 1979 peace treaty with Israel places restrictions on what kind of military presence Egypt can have there, so the Egyptian government's move to combat those groups has raised alarms in Israel.  This is an issue worth watching closely.

2. Indian government to allow a judicial commission from Pakistan to cross-examine witnesses related to 26/11 attacks.  Yet another sign of bilateral relations improving between the longtime rivals.

3. Game Theory 101.  I haven't yet watched the videos or read the e-book, but this looks very promising.  Those of you who've asked me about resources for learning game theory should take a close look.

4. Regime Type and Target Selection.  The notion that democracies are more selective seems born out if we look at all levels of conflict, but not if we focus specifically on war.  I'm not sure what to make of that difference, but since the argument has always been about war, the absence of evidence when focusing specifically on war is big.

5. Evolution of Cooperation and Skew Under Incomplete Information.  I haven't read this yet, but it looks interesting.  I suspect some readers of this blog (paging Matt) will have some thoughts.

6. Who Wins?: Predicting Strategic Success and Failure in Armed Conflict.  I just ordered my copy.  You should do the same.

7. So you want to study political violence?  Excellent advice from Joe Young over at Political Violence @ a Glance.

8. PhD comics on summer "to-do" lists.  Too true.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Should We Teach Political Science Students Political Science?

Read literally, the obvious answer to the question in the title of this post is "Of course - what else would you teach them?"  But most of our students don't actually know what political science is.  And, as my students never tire of telling me, they majored in political science because they are bad at math.1  Insofar as statistical modeling -- and, to a lesser extent, formal theory --  have become so dominant in modern (American) political science that those who lack a basic proficiency in them will be unable to engage with the most influential parts of the discipline, teaching undergrads actual political science necessarily means teaching them a little stats and perhaps some basic game theory.Indeed, many introductory texts now aim to help instructors teach these things to students, and many faculty prepare separate handouts for just this purpose.

Is this a good idea?  Should we all be doing this? 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Terrorism: What's in a Name?

Of late, Glenn Greenwald has been on a campaign against the term "terrorism" and those who study the behavior to which it refers.  His essay is mostly focused on a DC-centered clique, and as such might seem at first to be of little interest to most of us ivory tower types.  But Greenwald has made clear that his gripe is much larger.  He told Andrew Exum on Twitter that "I don't think the problem is a few Fox News cartoons. The problem is the field itself, the concept."

I'll let the "Fox News cartoons" Greenwald has called out speak for themselves.  I won't even point out that Greenwald's allegation that Daveed Gartenstein-Ross shouldn't be taken seriously because he has a financial stake in keeping the rest of us afraid of Islamic terrorism is akin to denying climate science on the grounds that the careers of many climate scientists would be in trouble if we solved all our environmental problems, or refusing to vaccinate our children because many of those who claim that there are important public health benefits to doing so also happen to profit from selling us the vaccines that keep us healthy.  (Well, okay, I guess I am going to point those things out.  Deal with it.)  Rather, in this post, I want to take up the related question of whether we academics should reorient our teaching and research in the ways Greenwald would have us do.  (Spoiler alert -- I don't think so.)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Modeling Preference Change

Yesterday, I argued that it's not very constructive to criticize "rational choice" for being unable to account for preference change. In so doing, I drew a distinction between changes in the underlying utility function and changes in the marginal propensity to choose option 1 rather than option 2. I argued that the latter is easily accounted for within the types of models that are common in political science and economics.

But it's actually trivially easy to account for the former as well. To my knowledge, very few prominent game theoretic models do so. But the claim we often hear is not that game theorists should use their tools differently, but that "the problem with rational choice is that it leaves no room for [this, that or the other thing]." And that simply isn't so. I'll talk more about why this is an important distinction below, but first let me show you how easy it is to model actual preference change.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Rational Grudges

One common critique of "rational choice" is that it doesn't allow for the possibility of preference change. My general reaction to this is that while it would be quite damning for "rational choice" if the underlying utility function governing an actor's behavior changed (rapidly) over time, it is important to distinguish between fundamental changes in the underlying utility function and changes in the marginal propensity to choose option A versus option B.\(^1\)

Let's try to get more concrete.

One example of a behavior that people believe (incorrectly) cannot be accounted for by "rational choice" is holding a grudge. That is, some people argue that states with a history of hostile interactions can tragically reach a point where cooperation becomes impossible for no other reason than because one or both sides refuses to set aside the past. That is, both sides could be made strictly better off if they'd forgive some past wrong that has no bearing on today. Since many people mistakenly assume that rational actors always do what best serves their material interests, such behavior appears to be "irrational." And since these are cases where actors only seem to lose the ability to do what is best over time, it looks to a lot of people like an example of preferences changing.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Enduring Value of IR Theory

The conventional wisdom on IR Theory is that we're rightly "over it".\(^1\) We all feel obligated to reflect on it from time to time, or to force our grad students to do so, but none of us really care anymore, and with good reason.

In light of some interesting discussions taking place lately (see especially this post and this Duck of Minerva podcast), I thought it would be useful to revisit this view. As Dan and Patrick note, the state of IR theory depends on what you think "IR Theory" is. The debate has undeniably changed since the late 80s, but what are we to make of that? I'll argue that the discipline learned the wrong lesson from that debate, and did so because most of us misunderstand the nature of theory itself.

My basic position is that there never were any actual theories of international relations involved in the discussion. A rather interesting, but also extremely frustrating, debate took place, yes, but not over anything that I'd call a fully realized theory. Those who are interested in developing genuine theories of international relations can salvage a great deal from the wreckage of that contest, and indeed, many scholars have been quietly doing just that for some time now, but I disagree with the view that the paradigm wars ended in a stalemate when everyone finally realized that it was pointless to worry about such things anyway.