Official, unofficial, or simply made up, statistics drive public and policy-maker opinions of the problems and solutions in international relations. Academic research both draws upon and creates statistics, and political science research examining the power of numbers can benefit both the scholarly and the policy community and expand to fields, such as arms control, in which the importance of official statistics in guiding state behavior remains understudied.
Numbers appeal to us for their simplicity and their perceived objectivity. They are especially useful for ranking and for establishing cut-offs, where quantitative differences become qualitative. Our fervor for quantitative evidence has driven scholars and policy-makers to rely upon official counts and rankings. However, interpretation and effective use of statistics can be difficult. Political science research has an opportunity to guide both the scholarly and policy communities in gathering, developing, and interpreting numbers in an informative, intelligent way.
A spate of recent research in political science has concerned itself with the power, as well as the fallibility, of reported statistics. In a recently published article in the American Journal of Political Science, Simmons and Kelley highlight the role of performance indicators in effective international governance. In the current issue of the American Political Science Review, Fariss introduces a systemic change in the way human rights monitors have interpreted information over time. In their 2010 edited volume, Andreas and Greenhill suggested a careful scrutiny of official numbers, which they argue are often manipulated for political purposes or simply innocently misinterpreted. Other working papers point to discontinuities at critical measurement thresholds used for environmental regulation and foreign aid decisions, indicating manipulation of official data. Even when data are not manipulated, however, the use of statistics can have policy implications.
One field of political science in which numbers can play an important role is arms races. Almost by definition, quantitative arms races rely upon quantitative assessments of an opposing state’s capabilities. When these estimates are incorrect or misinterpreted, inefficiency can result. Without official and unofficial estimates of Soviet missile numbers, for example, the alleged “missile gap” of the Cold War would not have been possible. Recent evidence of Chinese anti-satellite missile launches indicate that we may now be in a new arms race. The quantity and type of states’ space capabilities is becoming increasingly essential information. Qualitative and quantitative research, as well as rigorous theory-building, can help to ensure that an arms race in the space domain does not escalate, creating more space debris and unnecessary spending.
One interesting challenge in measuring and studying arms races in the space domain is establishing a unit of analysis by which to compare states. Like many conventional, or even nuclear, weapons, a raw count of assets is not as relevant in space security as a portfolio of capabilities that complement one another. For example, orbital satellites alone are less useful to states without an independent launch site to send them from, and even this may be worthless without the technology and expertise necessary to defend against cyber attacks on satellites. Additionally, some space capabilities may be substitutes for conventional capabilities, such as the choice of using either aircraft or low-Earth-orbit satellites to search broad expanses of ocean for ships. With its conventional weapons advantage, the United States tends to focus on the former strategy, but China has increasingly been developing its capabilities in the latter. Asymmetry makes measuring space capabilities and comparing them between states an increasingly difficult task.
Like conventional and nuclear domains of the past, the emerging domain of space security provides challenges in collecting and interpreting data. The role of data in states’ decisions to arm themselves is an important line of research that has yet to be fully explored. By what criteria will states universally measure each other’s space capabilities? How objective can these criteria be? When and how will states over or under-represent these particular capabilities? To what degree can space technology serve as a substitute for conventional weapons, and which types of states can advantage from that? The answers to the questions will require a lot of work in data collection and interpretation, a potentially fruitful crossroads for policy and political science communities.