Political Science: Neil Malhotra

Neil Malhotra is the Edith M. Cornell Professor of Political Economy in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. He also holds a courtesy appointment in the Department of Political Science. He serves as the Louise and Claude N. Rosenberg, Jr. Director of the Center for Social Innovation at the Stanford GSB.

He has authored over 60 articles on numerous topics including American politics, political behavior, and survey methodology. His research has been published in the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Politics, Science, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, among other outlets. He currently serves as an Associate Editor of Public Opinion Quarterly and the Journal of Experimental Political Science.

He received his MA and PhD in political science from Stanford University, where he was the Melvin & Joan Lane Stanford Graduate Fellow. He received a BA in economics from Yale University.

1. How do you describe your main lines of research, past and present, and how would you think they relate to one another?

My early research agenda was on retrospective voting and democratic accountability. How do voters evaluate politicians and what can this tell us about whether democracy is functioning optimally? I then moved on to studying political polarization, and how affective polarization spills over into domains of our life outside the narrow realm of politics. Currently, I am examining how stakeholders respond to corporate self-regulation. I'm not exactly sure what ties these research lines together, but they all tend to focus on public opinion and political preferences and the implications for democratic society.  

2. I'm not sure if you know that within the field of Philosophy of the Social Sciences there is relatively little work devoted specifically to political science. I personally think this is a very exciting discipline that philosophers of science could look more into. Could you give us a quick summary of the methodological advances in the discipline since the early 2000s?

One of the most important papers published in political science was by Alan Gerber and Donald Green in 2000 in the American Political Science Review: "The effects of canvassing, telephone calls, and direct mail on voter turnout: A field experiment." It was a prominent, early field experiment published in political science. After publication of this article, there was much more emphasis on causal inference in political science, and this also extended to non-experimental studies as well. I still think the field is experiencing the echos of that article, even as there has emerged exciting areas such as data science and computational social science. 

3. As you note, causal inference seems to be a now at the center of political science, partially   thanks to the increases in lab and field experiments. Do you see challenges to this “experimental turn” in the near future? What might make political scientists turn their backs on experiementation, and would this be a negative outcome?

I already sense a turn, but experimental research will always be an important part of political science. Just maybe not as dominant as it once was. The new trend is in computation social science, which is understandable given the massive amount of data and computing power now available to researchers. One challenge experimental research faced is that we have a lot of individual, well-identified effects. But it was hard to get a sense of how they accumulated theoretically.

4. Your research also features a lot of surveys with embedded experiments (where one randomly manipulates an aspect of the survey for some respondents and not others). This seems to be an increasingly popular approach in the study of political behaviour. Do you see limits to the growth in this approach?

This is popular, but I think the market for research is oversaturated with survey experiments. The cost of running these kinds of studies has plummeted as online data collection has become cheaper. This has introduced a host of challenges including a proliferation of undertheorized and underpowered experiments that are subject to publication biases. 

5. You did your BA in Economics and then your Masters and your PhD in Political Science. There has been considerable interest, within the Philosophy of the Social Sciences, regarding Economic Imperialism, or the idea that economists have colonized neighbouring disciplines with their methods. What do you think of this idea?

I think the idea is sensible. Alan Gerber has a PhD in economics from MIT, and I believe influenced Donald Green's work a lot after he arrived at Yale. Much of political science in the top journals looks a lot like applied microeconomics applied to political questions, and is indistinguishable from what you might read in the Quarterly Journal of Economics or American Economic Review.  

6. You have studied polarization and populism recently. These are important challenges to advanced democracies. What questions about these phenomena should political scientists be asking, and what types of studies would you like to see more of?

I would not call myself an expert on populism, but I am fascinated by it. I think the main challenge facing democracies is the dismantling and decline of a centrist, neoliberal consensus that fundamentally agreed on markets and globalization. The emergence of right-wing and left-wing populism as competing ideologies will be interesting to observe. I think we want to know answers to basic questions like how strong each of these ideologies is in the public, and whether democratic processes will lead to the rollback of neoliberal policies.

7. Political science is now beginning to tackle more directly the question of climate crisis. You have recently done some research on corporate responsibility. Could you explain if this research is linked to the question of the climate change, and if so, how it might help our understanding of how to address climate change?  

We studied whether private regulation by companies reduces the demand for stricter public regulation. We find that it does. We are extending this research to examine greenwashing, which we are finding to be also effective at reducing support for public regulation. This is a potential threat to addressing climate change, as many had hoped that the private sector would self-regulate in the absence of government intervention. Given that companies appear to gain much of the PR benefits from self-regulation via greenwashing, this likely makes it even more important to have public policies combatting climate change. 

8. You recently participated in the 2019 MetaScience Symposium, which has, as a subtitle: “The Emerging Field of Research on the Scientific Process. For a philosopher of science, this would count as a description  of part of their field, i.e., metascience looks a lot like what is traditionally our job, though it might be different when done directly by practitioners. How do you explain this interest in metascientific questions, thus defined, and what do you expect out of this movement in the next few years?

I was surprised that there were very few philosophers (and historians) of science at the meeting. I think the metascience movement needs to do a better job incorporating those scholars and their insights. I think the movement is very much focused on reforming the process of the production of scientific research---grantmaking, publishing, etc. 

9. What types of reforms to the process do you think the scientific community in poli sci should consider? I´m thinking specifically of your work on publication bias. 

This is a tough question, but I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that most (if not all) research should be done in the "registered reports" format. The design---blind to results---should be evaluated first, and papers should be accepted in principle before the data are collected and analyzed. This is challenging for non-experimental research, but it's possible. The focus then is on questions which are interesting regardless of the results, rather than studies whose publication potential depends solely on the results. 

by Maria Jimenez Buedo

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