Thought experiments are widely used and widely criticized in political theory. This paper highlights important and largely unnoticed parallels between thought experiments and comparison in the natural and social sciences. This gives us a more precise language with which to assess the strengths and weaknesses of thought experiments. And it gives us powerful tools for improving them, by using ideas like internal and external validity, controlled comparison, omitted variable bias, interaction effects, spurious correlations, testable implications, and parsimony. Focusing on variables is the key. This helps me address longstanding debates about ‘weird’ and ‘wacky’ thought experiments. I do not wish to exaggerate the scientific parallels: there are important differences too. But the similarities raise fascinating questions about the links between political theory and political science, and between philosophy and science more generally.
Dr Adrian Blau is Senior Lecturer in Politics in the Department of Political Economy and Director of Education. He works on democratic theory and practice, including deliberative democracy, deliberative policy-making, electoral systems and party systems; corruption, Hobbes, history of political thought, and research methods.
Adrian was an undergraduate at Cambridge, did his Masters and PhD at Oxford, and has worked at Oxford, at Queen Mary, University of London, and at Manchester, where he was a post-doc and then a lecturer.