Mentors and Giants: An Interview with Christopher Achen

Christopher Achen is Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Sciences and Professor of Politics at Princeton University. According to his bio, he “was the first president of the Political Methodology Section of the American Political Science Association, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has received fellowships from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the National Science Foundation, and Princeton’s Center for the Study of Democratic Politics. He received the first career achievement award from The Political Methodology Section of The American Political Science Association in 2007. He is also the recipient of an award from the University of Michigan for lifetime achievement in training graduate students. Recent academic placements of graduate students for whom he was the principal dissertation advisor include Stanford, Duke, and the London School of Economics.”

During my first year at Laurier, I was appointed colloquium officer. We had a tiny budget, but I, being fresh out of grad school, was feeling ambitious and was determined to try and bring to Laurier a big name in American political science to spend the day with us. My hope was that this individual would give a public lecture and host a smaller workshop with political science graduate students and faculty members. There was also, at the time, a strong push to help develop LISPOP, and so I thought I would attempt to bring in someone who was a giant in public opinion and/or methodology.

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One of the first names that came immediately to mind was Chris Achen. I remember reading his monograph, Intermediate Regression Analysis (Sage: 1982), at UofT, which, although dated, really helped me get a handle on the logic and math underpinning regression analysis. As well, although I’m sure there were others, at the time I thought he was one of the few “big names” in political science who was rallying against a certain methodological trend of “dumping” as many variables as one could into regression models and magically finding statistical significant relationships. And so I really wanted to meet him!

Happily, Chris accepted my invitation and his public talk and workshop were amazing. As my colleague Loren King mentioned the other day, he was a pioneer in getting to know your data and figuring out how to do matching to establish causality long before matching became a trend in recent days. An added bonus was that Chris was such a nice, humble, and encouraging guy. I made a lot of rookie mistakes during my first year at Laurier, including taking Chris to a bit of a “dumpy” bar instead of a fancy restaurant (darn budget!). But rather than complain, he happily had a beer and burger with the rest of us and told me he preferred the bar to the fancy restaurant (even though I’m sure that’s not true)!

Even though I haven’t spent very much time with Chris in person, I count him both as a giant and a mentor to me. His work and his visit to Laurier had a profound effect on how I have pursued my academic career so far.

Enjoy!

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career

How much time faculty spend on committees and administration, and how important it is to learn to manage those obligations while making sure that teaching and research get the time they need.

The individual I admire the most academically

I have a long list of predecessors I greatly admire, but Harold Gosnell, founder of political methodology, is a personal favorite. He did the first field experiments in the 1920s, he used statistical techniques in the 1930s that didn’t come into common use for another 30 years, and he pioneered among students of African-American politics. I had one memorable lunch with him when he was already in his nineties. Alas, he is no longer with us.

My best research project during my career

I always feel that my current one will be the best.

My worst research project during my career

I spent a summer before Bayesian software was invented, laboriously programming and analyzing a Bayesian model of the representativeness of Austrian mayors.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research

I wrote a paper about rational party identification in 1989 and published it in 1992. The original draft included a footnote saying that if the argument of the paper was correct, the Republicans would become the majority party in the House of Representatives in the not-too-distant future. At that point, the Democrats had controlled the House for nearly all of the last 60 years. The footnote seemed crazy, and I lacked courage. I took it out before publication. Of course, in the 1994 elections, the GOP took over the House, and they have controlled it all but four years since then. The moral: stick to your guns.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance

One year my APSA paper with Duncan Snidal collapsed completely on August 15, two weeks before the convention. We had to work hard and quickly on a new paper, worrying that the argument was all wrong, and hoping that no one would attend the panel. Instead, it struck a nerve and, after considerable revision, became the lead article in World Politics. We were lucky. But there is a moral here, too: sometimes not worrying about crossing t’s and dotting i’s can free the mind.

A research project I wish I had done

Using political science tools to understand the Weimar elections that led to Hitler. The electoral patterns are quite complex and varied across German subdivisions, as Weimar historiography makes clear. Just mushing the electoral units together statistically at the national level was a very helpful starting point twenty-five or thirty years ago, but it has long been clear that something more locally informed is needed in the twenty first century. A serious command of German and of regional history and politics, a good deal of time in archives, and many years of patient investigation would all be needed, but the result would be a tremendous contribution. I hope someone will do it.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be

retired from playing middle linebacker for the Oakland Raiders in their glory years. Alas, I am small, slow, and talentless, so I had to go into poli sci.

The biggest challenge in American politics in the next 10 years will be

managing the growing specialization into subfields—political behavior, institutions, American political development, public law, race and politics, public policy, and much else. The important problems and the most interesting intellectual challenges cut across those divisions.

The biggest challenge in political science in the next 10 years will be

making experimentation and other forms of causal inference become as fruitful on the big, longstanding theoretical issues in the study of politics as they have been in political psychology and public policy.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is

listen to wise advice, but follow your heart.

Public Opinion, Precaution and Toxicology

There is news today that a coroner in New Zealand formally ruled that the excessive consumption of Coca Cola led to the untimely death of Natasha Harris three years ago. Harris, it seems, developed a nasty habit of drinking up to 10 litres a day. “I find that when all the available evidence is considered, were it not for the consumption of very large quantities of Coke by Natasha Harris, it is unlikely that she would have died when she died and how she died” is what the coroner determined.

So what does this have to do with a blog about Canadian, politics and public opinion? Because this tragic incident illustrates a bedrock principle of toxicology that citizens, journalists and politicians often forget when our attention turns to issues of concern with possibly toxic substances. That principle is “the dose makes the poison.” It was formulated in the 16th century by the Swiss-German chemist Paracelsus and it holds that all substances (Coca-Cola included) are toxic in some quantity. Even something as seemingly innocuous as water can be toxic when enough has been consumed. This poor soul died from the excessive consumption of water during a brutal hazing ritual in New York. From this observation, the traditional role of toxicology has developed which is to ascertain at what level of exposure any given substance causes adverse effects.

With the rise of concerns about toxic substances in the post-World War II era, scientists have discovered some substances that deviate from this principle (see tamoxifen, an important drug in chemotherapy). But these effects are rare, difficult to demonstrate and the scientific debates that surround them are heated and complex. But when issues shift into the public and media spheres, the complex science behind these assertions, sadly, usually gets lost in the shuffle.
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There are multiple reasons for why this is. One reason is our own inability to perceive risks rationally. There is so much literature on the psychology of human risk perception that it is difficult to know where to start, but I might recommend this thispaper or this book. The long and short of the field of risk perception is that humans get very frightful about lots of things that actually present very little danger. After September 11th, Americans turned away from planes for their long trips and hopped into their cars, leading to a sharp increase in traffic fatalities in the months following.

Chemicals are one of those things that people fear a great deal. Ask people if they think the colourless, odourless chemical dihydrogen monoxide (the ingestion of which is the cause of thousands of deaths each year) should be banned and you’d be surprised (and a little concerned) at the number of people who would agree.

So when the public and the mass media turn their attention to issues of possible harm from exposure to chemicals, fears can be stoked, perspective can be lost and can lead, ultimately, to over- and unnecessary regulation of products and activity. For example, I was able to show in this paper that within-state newspaper coverage of Bisphenol A was positively linked to the chance that a US state legislature would introduce or adopt legislation banning products made with BPA the following year. It showed (again) the important role that increased media salience can have on policy changes. This, even though, scientific information suggests that exposure to BPA is hundres, if not thousands of times lower than the level at which there is a consensus that it causes adverse effects in rats (see here).

This research area is rife for investigation and it’s become a long-term project I’m working on, so I’m going to have a lot more to say about this in the future. I thought the news about Ms. Harris’ tragic death due to the excessive consumption of Coca-Cola was a useful way to set the stage for more thoughts and research to come.