Saturday, March 10, 2012

"We don't know much..."

As an undergraduate, Christopher DeMuth tried to persuade James Q. Wilson to advise his senior thesis. Wilson declined to do so:
.... As the interview was winding up, I managed to work in a few impressive analogies between his books and the works of earlier political scientists. “That’s right,” he concluded cheerfully as he ushered me to the door. “We don’t know much in this business—but what we do know, we keep repeating.”

That, I would come to learn, was quintessential James Q. Wilson. It was agreeable (“that’s right” was one of his favorite openings), modest, plainspoken, and witty. But then one realized that he had said something important—in this case, crystallizing his realism about the capacities of social science and his conviction that the growth of knowledge is, at best, incremental and laborious. Even an undergraduate could play the J.K. Galbraith game—a sweeping, radical thesis, supported by a few clips from the New York Times and quips from Thorstein Veblen. The Wilson game was infinitely harder, demanding careful study and actual data from empirical measurement and field research, applied at just the right level of theoretical generalization for the problem at hand, to produce a small but confident improvement over what had been understood before. Wilson himself was engaged in numerous such games simultaneously, on subjects ranging from metropolitan development to party politics, from voting behavior to crime control, aiming to discover new knowledge that could help alleviate (he would never say solve) important social problems. ....
Christopher DeMuth, "A Gentleman and a Scholar," The Weekly Standard, March 19, 2012, pp. 25-26.
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