Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Starbucks Curse: A Research Design Thought Experiment

starbucks

The face of a stone cold killer.

Answering research questions is one of the hardest and most valuable skills we can impart to students. But we often do this by teaching good research design–demonstrating the ideal, illustrating it with examples of designs that approximate the ideal, and then inviting students to imagine their own ideal research designs.

There are many pedagogical benefits to this method, but it overlooks a central fact: good research design is rare for good reasons.

People, including students and faculty, live in a world in which truth-claims are supported by research designs that wouldn’t pass muster with even the most generous reviewers. We can do a much better service by pointing out how to make a bad research design.

I present one here: The Starbucks Curse.

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Talking Points for Panel on Trump and Foreign Policy

Donald Trump Signs the Pledge by Flickr User Michael Vadon, September 3, 2015

Donald Trump Signs the Pledge by Flickr User Michael Vadon, September 3, 2015

What can we expect from the Trump administration in its foreign policy?

It is difficult to tell. The Trump campaign is perhaps the least vetted on foreign policy since–ironically–the Clinton ’92 campaign. Trump is long on attitudes and chauvinism (in the literal, textbook sense of that word), but he is short on specifics.

Three major trends seem likely:

  1. The liberal trade order will be substantially modified, if not ended.
  2. The U.S.-led alliance system will be substantially weakened, if not catastrophically eroded.
  3. The post-Second World War period of U.S. leadership and hegemony will likely come to a close.

Let me stress that what I am most certain of is the width of the error bars in my predictions, not in the point prediction itself. The Trump administration could be, at best, weakly mediocre in its exercise of U.S. leadership. The depth of foreign distrust and shock in the Trump administration — and in what it represents for U.S. legitimacy — cannot realistically permit anything more than that. The worst-case scenario, to be frank, is the worst-case scenario, and even if that remains unlikely it is much more likely than it was a couple of weeks ago.

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Messy history: David Coleman’s The Fourteenth Day

009-08142011-300x456Freedom, Donald Rumsfeld memorably pronounced, is messy. So too is history, although not the way political scientists do it. For political scientists and international-relations folks, especially in their more traditional security and policy-analytic guises, history is a source of data, a repository of cases, and, fundamentally, a storehouse of facts, neatly waiting to be trundled into a book or paper or rectangular dataset as needed. This is the only mindset under which the common conflation of “case” and “history” makes sense: cases can only be histories if histories themselves are simple and unproblematic once the relevant actors and factors are identified.

Among the most important cases in the study of security and policymaking in IR and foreign policy analysis are such well-worn topics as the outbreak of the First World War, the negotiations at the Conference of Versailles, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Recent scholarship has upended many of the conventional understandings of these events, with the rather salutary effect that scholars know more but “know” less about these traditional cases than they used to. In general, the more political scientists and IR types have adopted historical methodologies, the less they have found themselves trying to prove that a given theory was right. Instead, engaging in conversations with evidence, scholars have found that the evidence should inform the theory, even as the theory tells them where to look for evidence.

Yet with all the progress that has come in recent scholarship, there yet remains a sense that there is a canonical set of cases that not just students but scholars should respect. The trouble does not come from the investiture of a canon; without a shared vocabulary, how could we ever converse? Instead, it comes from the fact that these are canons of cases, and our understanding of cases remains mired in the idea that a case has an outcome and an initiation. If instead we decided to treat cases as investigations of histories–as artificial schemata imposed upon a complex, chaotic bundle–then we would recognize immediately the dangers, and the absurdities, of finding — indeed, requiring — an “end of history”.

In his The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis (2012, Norton), David Coleman does an excellent job of exploding just such an absurdity forced upon us by generations of scholarship, hagiography, and propaganda. Few anymore buy the mid-1960s line that the Cuban Missile Crisis was a “test” the Kennedy Administration “passed”. Our understanding of the October crisis has grown much more nuanced thanks to the opening of Soviet records, a famous Cuban-American-Soviet conference, and, most important, the passage of time that has allowed the issue to be seen outside of the narrow us-versus-them frame the Cold War subtly imposed on everyone.

The textbook version of the Cuban Missile Crisis concludes–literally–with the Soviet pledge to remove the missiles after a tense standoff and (since the 1990s) the secret American pledge to remove US missiles from Turkey. (For one such textbook account, which I have used in class and may use again, see p. 122 of David Patrick Houghton’s The Decision Point.) Here we have a classic “outcome” of a case–a dependent variable that allows us to code a crisis as concluded with a victor and a loser and with a date on which the crisis “ended.”

Coleman’s signal contribution is to show that the case never really ended, nor was there ever an outcome that defined the entire crisis. Khrushchev had pledged to remove offensive weapons–but did that include aging bombers as well as the new MRBMs? Would Soviet troops be allowed to remain? How could verification protocols be agreed? Who was really in charge of anti-aircraft missile sites? Would the Soviets and Cubans collude to bluff their way through a sham dearmament phase but then suddenly reveal they had never removed the weapons at all? These questions had to be addressed–either resolved or consciously ignored–after the crisis had “ended”. And, as is so often the case, the participants on all sides of this trilateral arrangement often only found their negotiating positions once they were in the thick of the talks.

Coleman uses a variety of sources–principally Kennedy’s then-secret, now well-known tapes–to investigate how the White House handled these issues. (He also delves into some significant digressions in the course of this relatively slim book.) Not only does he show that the “tidy” resolution of the crisis was anything but, he productively relates the post-crisis resolution to the sudden disappearance of Berlin as an issue (Berlin was a hostage to the Soviets, but Cuba now became a hostage to the Americans, defusing both). Political scientists should make much more systematic use of the various administrations’ taped conversations, not least because they show presidential horse-trading and issue-exploring in the most unvarnished terms we will ever again have access to.

Yet Coleman’s impressive work is not only limited to such sexy sources. He has also done the hard work of cross referencing what people said and what they did–as well as what they knew and, moreover, what they could(n’t) have known–to show how public statements exactly misled or how US policymakers’ information was dangerously incomplete. This is less glamorous than hearing JFK say provocative or revealing things, but it is equally valuable in helping to make sense of messy histories in which every participant is acting strategically on the basis of incomplete information.

The downside of this intense engagement with the messiness of facts is that the book itself hangs together less well than one might hope. Since all of this is an epilogue to a well-known story, Coleman must try to bring along those who don’t know every facet of the burgeoning sub-literature on the crisis as well as those who do. At the same time, because this is history and not a “case”, there are a plenitude of potential outcomes and themes to pursue, from the political ramifications of the crisis to the crisis’s effect on Kennedy’s view of international relations to the very real questions about the proper relationship of democracy and truth in a time of crisis. I wouldn’t say the book is muddled, but its short chapters and quasi-thematic, quasi-chronological organization did leave me adrift at points.

Notes for Undergraduate Success

Some notes prepared for an undergraduate group-mentoring session.

There’s no great mystery to college success. All–or almost all–professors want you to succeed. All–or almost all–students want you to succeed. All–or almost all–of the people in your life want you to succeed. The only things you have to do in order to succeed is to build on that foundation in order to put the time and effort in to mastering course material, figuring out what you want to study, establishing how that relates to your goals for success later on in life, defining what “success” means to you, paying for college somehow, having a social life, broadening your horizons…

Well, you get the idea. At the 100,000-foot level, college success is pretty simple. You’re among the most favored people in the history of the human species. But up close and personal, the fact that you can afford to spend four (or however many…) years investing in yourself and your society doesn’t change the fact that succeeding in college is still hard.

It’s a time-honored tradition for older generations to try to pass down their hard-won wisdom to the young. You should be aware, as always, for all of the biases of advice. People rarely give you the whole story–and they even more rarely put themselves in a light that makes them appear bad. People gloss over difficulties and reaffirm platitudes, even though difficulties crop up when the platitudes fail. And everyone forgets to update their understanding of social context to account for the fact that decades (or, perhaps, just one decade) has passed since they last went through the ritual they’re describing.

With that said, here are my notes on how to succeed in college–from the standpoint of a current professor and a former student. For study tips and more traditional guidance, I highly recommend Cal Newport’s blog. For the social sciences, I tend to agree with Chris Blattman, but not on everything.

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Analyzing the End of the World

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Hieronymus Bosch, via the excellent Tumblr “What the End of the World Looked Like” (here)

A message to participants in my class on The Politics of the End of the World.

How should we understand the “end of the world”? Answering this question matters. We can imagine plentiful ends of the world. This might seem like an oxymoron: how can there be more than one end of the world? On reflection, however, ends of the world are all around us (and behind us and in front of us). There have been several different “ends of the world” for life on Earth: the BBC lists five major extinction events, for example. Moreover, ends of the lines for species are commonplace: roughly 99 percent of all species that have ever existed are extinct. And if we turn to the future, we can mark out several different physical impending ends of the world, from the cessation of Earth’s ability to sustain life to the dissolution of stars to, in a hundred billion years or so, the likely heat death of the universe. All of these, and more, rank as “ends of the world” from one vantage point or another.

So the first task we have to do is establish the vantage point that we want to take in discussing various ends of the world. In doing so, we don’t want to participate in the sleight of hand that STEM-y types often unconsciously (or not) engage in: the equation of “the end of the world” with some physical or biological process that leads to the death of the human species, or near enough as to make no difference. We also want to consider the social processes that can lead to ends of the world. Sometimes, these are equally cataclysmic. Consider the fate of Yiddish-speaking civilization. Despite the valiant efforts of survivors and revivalists, Yiddish culture was largely extinguished during the Holocaust (the site is propaganda, but the point at the link isn’t really). If we take the broader point that the death of a language means the end of the worldview and culture associated with that language (a debatable point, but a not unreasonable one!), then we are faced with the fact that more than 90 percent of these social worlds have ended or will soon.

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Phoenix, Arizona: A Quasi-Conspiracy Theory About Names

arrested_development_california_arizona_lucilleLike many people on the Internet, I enjoy selected conspiracy theories (for the record, my favorite remains the ones concerning Denver Airport). Read what follows in that spirit–except that I’m also quasi-serious.

I think the name of Phoenix, Arizona, reflects crypto-Confederate propaganda hiding in plain sight. My evidence for this is entirely circumstantial, but it seems a much better story than the received wisdom that it commemorates the rebirth of civilization on a site originally settled by the Hohokam people.

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Indulging Predators or Divorcing Research from Researchers

(What follows is speculative, and I reserve the right to retract it if I’m, well, wrong.)

One of the many ways in which institutions have been shown to have abused the trust placed in them concerns the manner in which universities have conspired to enable and to protect male professors who sexually prey upon women in their orbits.

The fact that (almost always) male professors have long been able to act with near-total impunity toward their (almost always) female victims is unambiguously bad. The fact that institutions are being forced to reconsider their positions and policies toward these tendencies is unambiguously good. The further fact that taking sexual harassment seriously will help to sustain careers and (more important) the wellbeing of women is even better. And the fact that we cannot undo the harms that have been done is a call for serious reflection and unambiguous regret.

These cases have also demonstrated, again, that sexual predation and violence is endemic, and flourishes wherever trust exists to be abused. Consider the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s analysis of sexual assault cases involving doctors and patients, for instance. Parallel discussions involving campus sexual assault (usually stylized as student-against-student) have reshaped, however incompletely and imperfectly, the way that universities as institutions deal with such issues among the studentry.

But there remains a question about how we will deal with scholars as scholars once we have determined that they have committed sexual abuse. This will, over time, play out in myriad ways, from debating whether to rename scholarships, named chairs, and prizes given in the name of scholars found to be responsible of committing such abuses, to deciding whether professors and graduate students can socialize in the presence of alcohol. One core problem, however, will be this: scholars produce work that exists independent of themselves, and we will want to decide on whether their theorems, proofs, articles, and theories should continue to be employed, taught, cited, and honored after the scholar who produced them is found to be a predator.

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Pop culture and International Relations: Stop geeking out

Attention conservation notice: Semi-structured thoughts on an emerging genre of IR/political science studies.

Disclaimer: I reserve the right to distance myself from any and all ideas in this essay.

I’ve been reading stacks of books about popular culture and international relations recently. Let me grossly simplify the warrants that such pieces often provide for the time that their authors spent writing them and the time they want their readers to spend consuming them:

  • Popular culture/science fiction provides a great way to introduce students to concepts in international relations and political science.
  • Popular culture/science fiction changes the way that people think about IR/political science already, so we should understand what it is saying.
  • Popular culture/science fiction gives us greater shades of meaning about how people think about core topics in IR, like war, peace, and even the nuclear taboo.
  • Fictional universes enable scholars to engage in theorizing that gets at the core of topics related to social science, thereby potentially helping us to understand the real world.

These are strong claims, and they merit attention–if popular culture matters to a lot of people (and it does), and if popular culture tells us something about how people see the world (which seems plausible to me!), then it follows that IR and political science as a field are paying too little attention to a major part of the constitution of world politics.

Yet despite my great sympathy toward these projects, I find many of the actual engagements along these lines deeply lacking.

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Writing a New Class on the End of the World

Coming to a classroom near you, Fall 2016.

Coming to a classroom near you, Fall 2016.

I’m writing a new class about an enduring topic: the end of the world. Here’s the draft syllabus. This first iteration of the course will be an interdisciplinary one-credit course for Honors juniors; we’ll see what future iterations look like. This version of the syllabus is a draft; all rights reserved etc, but I’m sharing it for feedback and also to inspire others dealing with cognate subjects.

Re-post: Thoughts on Teaching Intro to International Relations

I’m re-posting a short essay I wrote in 2013 on my experiences teaching introduction to IR as a graduate student/ABD at Georgetown. My thoughts on these matters have changed a little bit, but I wanted to bring some of my better posts back to this site.

When I was hired to teach the class for the first time, I had a clear vision: I wanted to teach theories that were relevant to helping undergraduates explain the world as it is and as it is likely to become. Instead of recounting the details of the First World War or expounding upon the design of the post-Second World War institutions, I would only invoke those events sparingly. Instead, I would focus on unipolarity and its consequences, structuring the course around the implicit question of what would happen once the current era was over.

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