The elusive quest for political truth


Thanks for seeking my advice on the story about Obama appointing two devout Muslims to posts with Homeland Security.  I have hesitated to respond for fear of setting off another round of political discord.  But on reflection, what are friends for if not to share our views on controversial political matters?

I don’t pay much attention to stories circulating the Internet like this one or the one you circulated recently  about the welfare mom ripping off  the taxpayers to the tune of over $100K annually.  Are these and other such stories really true?  Possibly, but the sources are questionable, to say the least.  I have checked the most reliable source I know — more about that below – and I can find nothing that confirms the Internet stories that you have passed along.

Perhaps you will find interesting and enlightening a story that dates from the very beginning of my graduate studies in political science some 42 years ago.  During a class in political analysis, I was told the following (which I can only paraphrase now):

“Forget most of what you think you know about politics.  The world is full of political ideas, commentary, and assertions disguised as some sort of ‘knowledge.’ Most of that is non-vetted nonsense.  If you are to succeed as a political scientist, you must pay attention to what appears in the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, and the Journal of Politics — and pay attention to only those journals.  They are the only ones that have a sufficiently rigorous review process to ensure that the ideas contained in their articles are important and have been analyzed with sufficient care that the results can be replicated.  If an article does not provide information and a process for reproducing the information that a reasonably intelligent “disinterested” reader (one with no axe to grind) could follow to come to the same results, the conclusions are dubious (regardless of how provocative and intuitively satisfying that they are).

“But if you are to succeed as a professor of politics and engage your students successfully, you will have to connect what’s in these journals to current political events.  And the ‘information’ that is available about current events is far more suspect than that which clutters the lesser journals of political science.  Almost every source has an agenda and an axe to grind that compromise their contents.  There is only one newspaper that has the resources to thoroughly vet an article before publishing it and that is the New York Times.  Their editors and staff carefully check out all sources and assertions to verify authenticity and accuracy; their reputation and thus their prized status depends upon it.”

(The Times subsequent treatment of the Watergate story confirms their high standards.  Their reporters had the essentials of that story before Bernstein and Woodard broke it in the Washington Post, but the Times editors refused to run it because they could not confirm such things as the existence of Deep Throat and other key sources and the veracity of their claims. The Washington Post, however good that paper is, simply had lower standards).

I continue to depend on the NYT and its vetting process.  Thus, the quick method I use in checking out dubious stories is to go to the NYT website (, enter key names and terms from the dubious story and see what comes up.  In the case of the two devout Muslims you mention, nothing comes up, so I think its best to assume that the story has no legs.

An even simpler technique that is available to you is to pay attention to whether or not information about sources is provided.  If there is no mention of any sources, there is no way to check the validity of what is being written.  And some articles, especially on the Internet, do not even provide the name of the author.  Anonymous authors cannot be held accountable for their “facts,” and thus one should be leery of their claims.

Much has changed since I received that initial lecture on validity. I have found much credible work outside the top three journals (and some of my best work has been published in places other than these journals!).  Beyond the New York Times, a few other periodicals and newspapers have developed quite rigorous vetting processes.

That takes us to the negative side of what has happened since I received that initial lecture in political analysis.  Political science (and much of academia) has become infected with three major trends that compromise our capacity to provide replicable — that is to say, valid or “scientific” – knowledge.  First, specialization on topics of minute importance has become the key to academic success, and thus the work that must be vetted is accessible to only a very small number of similar specialists, and so friends and acquaintances can dominate the vetting process in ways that compromise confidence in it.  Second, many academics have sold out to those who fund their research, in ways that compromise their disinterested (no axe to grind) integrity.  Third, and most significantly, many “scholars” have given up the search for valid knowledge; the “post-modernists and post-structuralists” among us maintain that there is no such thing as political knowledge, just a large variety of different viewpoints.  These perspectives were initially prompted by concerns that the innovative and creative ideas and views of women, minorities, and gays had been marginalized by the demands of the vetting process.  But in recent years, various radical and extremist voices have taken the post-structural claim to mean that politics is not a search for inter-subjective agreement about good and just governance, but rather is a debate among different views in which the object is not to find truth but to make outrageous claims that appeal to the prejudices, emotions, and fears of voters. The Internet is a perfect medium for the dissemination of their unvetted views.

Such trends lead me to the hypothesis that civilization (the process of peacefully reconciling our differences by putting aside our personal interests and prejudices and seeking the public good and justice) is nearing its collapse.  Of course, this idea cannot be vetted and so it is just my own fearful opinion (but not only mine).  Until recently I had not been fearful; indeed, I still have a reputation as an optimist and try to project that side of my persona.  It bothers me a great deal that I have become gloomy.  Is America, our universities, and our democracy really going to hell?  Or am I just becoming another crotchety old geezer, unable to free myself from old ideas and ideals?

Nevertheless, I still see my job as getting people to seek political knowledge that is far  more capable of “inter-subjective agreement” than the nonsense that passes for political discourse today.  That agenda, I believe, makes me not a “radical” or even a “liberal,” but the true “traditionalist” here.  Today’s radicals are often found in the Tea Party (and more recently in the Trump administration). They make claims that are, minimally, beyond confirmation and often simply outrageous.  Of course, there have always been a lot of outrageous groups in our history.  But it is scary that more Americans than ever seem to be buying this stuff.