Letter from the Chair, Spring 2020

John Wilkerson, Department Chair
John Wilkerson

Social scientists, including political scientists, study the world seeking to develop general lessons about institutions and behavior. These theories are intended to help society better understand and navigate a complex world. The main focus of our classes is to share and discuss leading theories of politics and the evidence for them.

 In my U.S. Congress class, much of the focus is on theories that explain why the institution has such difficulty responding to visible societal problems. This exercise can be disheartening, so I frequently conclude by noting that “nothing is impossible in politics!” followed by a few positive examples – smoking bans; gay marriage; a black (or a reality TV star) president. Each of these outcomes were inconceivable at one time – and yet they happened.

Political scientists do study policy change, but stasis is much easier to predict. All humans tend to view the future in terms of their past experiences. We assume (in effect) that there is no such thing as a black swan because we’ve never seen one (they do exist). Political science is not much different. We study the past to make predictions about the future. Predicting extremely rare events is difficult because there is so little data.

Political science does a better job of predicting how people and political systems respond to dramatic change. One thing we know is that in situations of uncertainty, citizens look to elected leaders for cues. Another is that elected officials look to their constituents in deciding how to respond in such situations. One of the news articles in this Spring quarter newsletter reports on a paper written by faculty and graduate students in our department that finds that these political tendencies are having costly health consequences in the current pandemic.

Speaking of uncertainty. We learned about a week before the quarter began that we would all be teaching on-line – most of us for the first time. Making the transition has been stressful, time-consuming, and also a tremendous learning experience. So far, things are going better than many of us expected (cross fingers). Our classes are mostly full, we are sharing tips, and the technology is mostly working. Everyone in the department stepped up to this challenge in a positive and constructive way and for that I am very grateful!

Commencement and the Political Science Convocation ceremony will be virtual for the first (and hopefully last) time this year. Our 2020 graduates have all been invited to participate in the 2021 graduation ceremonies as well. Our website (www.polisci.washington.edu) will provide additional information about this year's activities in the near future.

I hope that you and yours remain healthy and safe.

John Wilkerson

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