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Social Sciences Should Learn from Physics

A new exhibition dedicated to Professor Emeritus Rein Taagepera, recipient of the distinguished Skytte Prize in Political Science in 2008, opened at UT Library. According to Professor, contemporary social sciences have taken the easy way out and are falling increasingly short of the standards of serious research. Kadri Rannamäe asked Prof. Taagepera a few questions.

You are about to publish a book on the methodology of social sciences. Why is there a need to raise the quality of social sciences?

In many ways social sciences have gone backwards in the course of the last 30 years. Social scientists imagine that they have become increasingly scientific, when in fact quite the opposite has been the case. There has been too much hope that computers will do all the thinking.

But if you ask a computer the wrong question you will receive a correct answer to your stupid question. Since the question that you posed was wrong in the first place, it will not help you along very much - you will have to think for yourself in order to do that.

Social sciences need not only ask how things are, but also how they logically should be. For instance, how many parties can win seats in a 25-mandate constituency? The common answer you would get would be: I don't know; I must gather data on that first. My answer would be: I don't need to gather data; I can use my head and say that it is between one and 25 and by calculating the geometric mean I can make a fair guess that the answer is approximately five. Then we can compare how the reality corresponds to this best logical guess. I adopted this methodology from physics.

The book I published last year presented everything I have written about electoral systems and the new book that will be published shortly will give an overview of the methodology of social sciences. But this doesn't mean that I wouldn't be prepared to start something new: I am not thinking about retirement yet.

Doesn't this method require social scientists to develop a better knowledge of "hard" sciences?

If it were up to me, I would make all students of social sciences undergo a two-year course in physics, so that they could obtain a proper understanding of the scientific method. Only then would I consider them to be prepared to move on to the study of social problems.

The contemporary social sciences are all too often a caricature of serious research. When social scientists decided to become scientific, they turned to the philosophers of science with the question "what is scientific method?". This is insufficient - you need to practice science yourself in order to obtain a proper understanding of how the method works.

The philosophers of science are doing the right thing but this would be the same as to let physicists describe with their formulas why a bicycle stays upright while moving and falls over when it comes to a halt. This may be intellectually interesting but it won't teach you how to ride a bike. In order to do this you need to get on the bike and pedal yourself.

Starting this term I will be teaching a bachelor-level course on creating logical models. I will also use the money from the Skytte Prize to develop this line of research.

For me, launching this new line of research is a unique opportunity, because now I am being taken seriously (smiles). It will also be an equally unique opportunity for the University of Tartu.

Could UT be the breeding ground for a new generation of innovative social scientists?

This could be the case if the University of Tartu has enough courage to make a bold start and not shy away by saying that we are too small a university in too small a country. I don't see any reason why it should be more difficult here at Tartu than at my other university in California, Irvine.

Why did I invest my money in Tartu? One reason is that the Skytte Prize is from nearby, from the other shore of the Baltic.

Secondly, my heart is here. By the time we get things going, the Faculty of Social Sciences will be located in the very house where I was born. This would also be a beautiful new beginning for this building.

You were awarded the Skytte Prize for your analysis of the function of electoral systems in representative democracies. What is your contribution to the study of electoral systems?

I have developed models which enable us to predict with much greater precision the number of parties that will be elected to a representative body and the life expectancy of a coalition government.

It has long been known that the number of seats in a constituency affects the number of parties in a representative assembly. The second factor that influences the number of parties is the size of the representative body. I have developed a formula, which, by taking both factors into account, enables me to predict how many parties will get a seat.

With the help of the second model it is possible to forecast the life expectancy of a coalition government. It is known that the bigger the number of parties that participate in the coalition, the shorter the government will last. But simply knowing this is not sufficient. The fact that objects fall down was known to people already in Galileo's time. The question is how fast they fall.

For example, this formula makes it possible to give recommendations regarding the size of a representative assembly and a constituency to ensure that governments last for a certain period of time.

With these formulas I have taken the research in electoral systems from studies which merely describe the trends to studies which make more precise predictions. These forecasts may turn out to be false and then we need to find out why and see how to improve the model. In any case, we are now able to see the future more clearly than before.

UT Professor Emeritus Rein Taagepera Receives Skytte Prize

Rein Taagepera, Professor Emeritus at the University of Tartu and University of California, Irvine, was awarded the acclaimed Skytte Prize of Uppsala University for his profound analysis of the function of electoral systems in representative democracies.

The Skytte Prize, awarded by the Skytte Foundation at Uppsala University, is often likened to a Nobel Prize in political science and is awarded annually to the scholar who in the view of the Foundation has made the most valuable contribution to political science.

Rein Taagepera has agreed to donate his prize money of half a million Swedish kronor to the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Tartu in order to open a new line of research into the scientific quality of social sciences, inspired by his soon-to-be-published book Making Social Sciences More Scientific: The Need for Predictive Models (Oxford University Press, 2008).

Rein Taagepera will receive the Skytte Prize at a ceremony to be held at Uppsala University in Sweden on September 27, 2008.

About Professor Taagepera

Rein Taagepera was born in 1933. In 1944, he fled Soviet-occupied Estonia. He completed his secondary education in Marrakech, Morocco. He studied physics in the USA and Canada and received his PhD from the University of Delaware in 1965. In 1969 he also earned an MA in International Relations and started to work at the University of California, Irvine, where he stayed for the rest of his academic career in America. In 1992, Rein Taagepera was one of the key figures involved in the establishment of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Tartu and is considered to be one of its founders.

About UT Library Exhibition
The exhibition is dedicated to Prof. Taagepera' s scientific and public work, and presents Professor´s books and articles not only within the field of social sciences, but also nuclear physics and Finno-Ugric languages and cultures. Prof. Taagepera is also portrayed as the founder of the UT Faculty of Social Sciences. Many photos from personal collection add vividness and expression to the exhibition.

Kadri Rannamäe Lauri Randveer
Editor, Estonian edition of Universitas Tartuensis Information Specialist
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