What Are Your Politics?
April 30, 2009


Reductionism is everywhere. It is one of the fundamental principles underlying modern science, so most people with scientific inclinations and/or training are pretty strong reductionists. (This includes me, although I try to resist it.) Applied to nature, reductionism has been incredibly fruitful (see: all of science), with limited exceptions such as emergent phenomena and complex adaptive systems. Reductionism is much less successful when applied to human endeavors, from economics to political science to history, sociology, anthropology, or art. This is obviously because consciousness is emergent and human societies are complex adaptive systems. Too bad for science!

However, reductionists are relentless. Or pathological. Looking at some of the myriad dimensions political scientists have invented to encapsulate the range of political thought, I’m leaning towards the latter characterization. Having said that, I’m now going to embrace my pathology and discuss some reductionist approaches to political science. The project here is to provide a simple and quantitative way to express the entire possible range of political perspectives people can have. Most thoughtful people can quickly answer whether they’re ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’, for example; this is a one-dimensional way to characterize opinion, and has been quantified in excruciating detail by the DW-NOMINATE system (-1 = very liberal, +1 = very conservative).

Hopefully, you will agree with me that this system has some gigantic shortcomings in terms of expressing political opinions: what would you call Joseph Stalin, for example, or Ron Paul? For this reason, people use a two-dimensional diagram called the Nolan chart. If you haven’t seen the chart before, I highly recommend taking the five-minute online test or the one-minute online test and finding your place in its space. The rest of this post contains some of my opinions on the chart, including lots of spoilers, so go take the test before continuing on here!