Why you should never trust Polity.

Chris Bertram suggests that the democratic peace (pretty much the strongest empirical regularity in political science) is in at least a little danger, “since both Russia and Georgia rate as 7, “fully democratic” on the Polity index.”

Paul Gowder suggests that that’s one of the more amusing things he’s heard recently.

For those of you who are (blessedly) innocent of international relations datasets, Polity classifies, based on a variety of factors, states on a scale from authoritarian to democratic, as well as various other things. It’s not very accurate or very capable of fine distinctions, to say the least. There are several IR data sets that have similar levels of, uh, uselessness. My very favorite is the MIDS data set, which supposedly provides data on military conflict between states (scaled to various levels of intensity), but actually, or so I’m told, classified fishing boat seizures on the same level as border skirmishes.

This is not to cast aspersions on IR: there’s a reason these data sets are hard, namely, it’s really difficult to get the data on all these things, judge what goes where, manage the huge amounts of information, etc., etc. Polity and MIDS and the like are actually major services to knowledge.

But it’s a little loopy to say that Russia is democratic because it happens to have gotten a high score on Polity. I mean, this is the country that poisons people who disagree with Putin (that is, accuse him of arranging yet another murder, of a journalist critical of the regime, Anna Politkovskaya). That has its very own reincarnation of the Hitler Youth. That provoked respected election observers to stomp out in a huff. (Of course, the elections are rigged.) The country that was ranked 144/169 in Reporters Sans Frontieres 2007 world press freedom index, just below, Sudan, Singapore, Afghanistan and Yemen (Here’s why.). The country that disappears people in Chechnya.

In short, Russia is a democracy like I’m a WWII flying ace.


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