By definition, scientists do experiments. Increasingly, that truism now applies to political scientists, just as it does to chemists or biologists. Rebecca Morton, a professor of Politics at NYU Abu Dhabi, is at the forefront of the development and growing recognition of this new aspect of an old discipline.
"In the last 15 years or so, many political scientists have become less and less happy with the usual observational data. It's too messy," said Morton, a "bridge" faculty member whose appointment is half in Abu Dhabi and half in New York.
"The gold standard in science is experiments, but we used to tell ourselves that we can't do them in political science," she continued. "But now we're saying 'maybe we can.'" Both field and laboratory experiments — practical and theoretical, in other words — are proliferating.
This approach is not altogether new; as far back as 1924, University of Chicago scholar Harold Gosnell was assessing the effect of get-out-the-vote mailings. But such research languished until the 1970s and '80s, when "the increase in cheap and easily programmable computer networking technology" jump-started the field, Morton suggested in a 2006 paper with Kenneth C. Williams of Michigan State University.
Since about 2000, growth has accelerated: in 2010 the American Political Science Association added an experimental research section, underlining the field's growing maturity and acceptance within the discipline. The new section has its own fledgling journal, of which Morton is a co-editor. As president-elect of the section, she will take office when her editorship ends.
At NYUAD, Morton is director of the Social Sciences Experimental Laboratory (SSEL); in January 2014, the SSEL held an inaugural Winter Experimental Social Sciences Institute.
Morton's own work focuses on voting experiments. In a controlled setting — a "laboratory" — subjects are told the rules of an "election" that is purely imaginary, except for the cash payouts: You favor candidate A. If A wins, you'll be paid $25, but supporters of B will get just $5. If B wins, every voter gets $20. Under these conditions, will A's supporters make the "ethical" choice to maximize total payoff and minimize inequality?
The work goes far beyond this simple example: multiple candidates, simulated opinion polls, imposed "campaign spending" effects, majority requirements, runoffs, and voter groups of up to 1,000 can all add complexity.