“More than 900 political scientists call on Congress to pass the For the People Act,” reads a tweet from a Berkeley Ph.D. candidate about a new open letter going around on the left. Looking at the signatories, it’s a bit of a stretch. Plenty are graduate students.
I am a graduate student. I know lots of graduate students. Graduate students should not make public policy.
But these open letters raise an interesting question: How many political scientists need to support a policy before it’s good enough to be put into law?
If it were nine political scientists supporting this, that’s not worth a headline. Ninety, who cares? But 900! That’s news. Where’s the line exactly? Is 200 enough? 500? 678 and a half? The absolute lower bound seems to be 100, from this June 1 Washington Post headline: “A frantic warning from 100 leading experts: Our democracy is in grave danger.”
The framing of these things always emphasizes how many academics sign on, as if that’s supposed to add weight to the claim being made. From January of this year: “Over 1,000 political scientists sign open letter calling for Trump’s immediate removal.” From March of last year: “Over 900 U.S. political scientists are worried about democratic elections in November.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics says there are about 7,000 political scientists in the U.S., so a pure majority rule would mean we should wait until they accumulate 3,501 signatures. To clear the Senate’s filibuster, they’d need 4,200 political scientists. For a veto-proof two-thirds majority, they’d need 4,667.
All of this is, of course, very silly because that’s not how policy is made in the United States. It doesn’t matter in the slightest how many political scientists support a bill for it to become law. The political scientists who sign these open letters know that. But they do seem to think that saying they all agree with each other will have some persuasive effect in public discourse.
Proper scientific findings don’t need open letters signed by hundreds of scientists to be taken seriously. Translate this headline format to other sciences and you’ll see how unrelated the number of signatories is to the claim being made. “Over 900 chemists say water molecules are two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen.” “Over 900 physicists say an object in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force.” It doesn’t matter how many people say those things. They can be demonstrated and shown to be true.
Nobody can scientifically demonstrate that the For the People Act will be good for the country. That’s not a criticism of this bill in particular (although there are plenty of good criticisms). Nobody can scientifically demonstrate that any piece of legislation will be good for the country. We debate these things and elect representatives to vote on them. There’s a zillion different interests to weigh against each other. Oftentimes, legislation that seemed very promising when it was passed turns out to be harmful later. Lawmaking is an always messy and often unsatisfying process in a representative democracy.
So when these political scientists sign these open letters like this supporting Democratic policy proposals — and they only ever go one way — all it shows is that they support Democratic policy proposals. That’s their right. But those of us who don’t support Democratic policy proposals have the right to not take them seriously when partisan political scientists try to act as if politics is a science in which they happen to know all of the right answers.