by Judith Curry
On academic misconceptions of politics and the policy process.
The previous post Climate of Failure(?) highlighted the failures of climate policy; failures particularly in the eyes of many academic scientists who have been urging action (e.g. the AGU). In his recent NPR interview, Kevin Trenberth stated:
“This is very much in the role of the politicians who are supposed to do what’s in the interests of everybody as a whole,” Trenberth says. “And I’m not so sure many politicians understand their role in this.”
Well, maybe it is the academics who don’t understand their role in all this.
The latest issue of the Political Quarterly has a very interesting and relevant article by Richard D. French entitled The Professors on Public Life [link to abstract]. Some excerpts:
Here, I want to explore academic misconceptions of politics. I then want to outline, in counterpoint, three features of public life whose consequences, I suggest, vitiate the practical implications of much well-intentioned analysis and advocacy from the university world.
Politics: the view from the academy
Large portions of research and scholarship ground their enterprise at least in part on its potential to contribute directly or indirectly to the making of public policy. Yet to the extent that this work does not come to terms with the role of elected officials in policy making, any pragmatic justification will be heavily mortgaged, and the enterprise will proceed in the shadow of that liability.
The first tradition in question assumes that important improvements in policy making would ensue if only policy makers would attend to the knowledge which researchers of all sorts produce and possess. The idea is that policy addresses states of the world and that empirical research identifies causal relationships which can alter states of the world. The former should obviously benefit from the latter, but fails more often than not to do so. The reason for this failure is ‘politics’. This tradition assumes that what meets the epistemological standards of the various empirical disciplines merits privileged status in policy making.
JC comment: This is the so-called knowledge deficit problem, at which communication efforts are targeted. There is the academic presumption that if the public really understood the problem and solution as they understand it, then they would agree with the urgency for action.
A second tradition assumes that policy makers need guidance as to the ethical status of various policies, typically as measured against some single overriding value such as justice, virtue or liberty. The substance of policy can be weighed against the standards established by a series of deductions from that ethical guidepost, and this chain of logic should define a regulative ideal for policy makers: politics is applied ethics, or ‘the priority of the moral over the political’. This tradition assumes that explicit ethical reasoning must play a central role in policy making.
All of these traditions slight policy making in electoral democracies. Contemporary politics, they claim, is uninformed, unreflective, impulsive, personality-driven and myopic, leaving citizens vulnerable to demagogy and deception.
To the extent that politics in every democracy involves a continuous struggle for power among competing politicians and parties, these traditions are antipolitical. They deny the autonomy of politics, and the agency inherent in representative democracy, by trying to discipline citizens and politicians.
To the extent that they want to base politics on public reason, in which policies are to be judged against an explicitly logical, transparent version of some public interest, they reconstruct politics as a quest for truth and substitute academic for civic judgment.
To the extent that they want to ground policy making exclusively in evidence and/or values, they misconceive policy making as a search for means to achieve predetermined ends, when in fact it is a dialectical process of identifying and reconciling ends in light of the means which may turn out to be available and acceptable.
To the extent that they wish to purge politics of passion, power, ideology and interest, and imagine policy making as an idealised set-piece reflection on facts and values, they indulge in an heroic and utopian denial of human character and motivation, and wish away the contingency, complexity and contention inherent in public life.
To the extent that they treat citizens and politicians as so many anonymous students whose logic and knowledge is to be graded, or as interchangeable bearers of no more than those characteristics tractable by demography, they abrogate the critical role of personality and particularistic ties in the multifold local milieux of electoral democracy.
To the extent that they imagine policy making in terms of a single mind tackling a single problem in its entirety, they fail to understand the collective, disjointed and sequential nature of most policy making.
To the extent that they prioritise the justification of substantive policy in terms of transparent impersonal standards and ignore the persuasion of citizens and politicians by one another, they are antirhetorical, severing logos from ethos and pathos.
JC comment: And climate activists wonder why their policy and communication strategies aren’t working. Above are 7 good reasons why they aren’t working.
Not the immaculate conception of policy
The cardinal facts of public life are extreme degrees of competition, publicity and uncertainty.
[T]he key differentiator among politicians is not respect for knowledge, or ethical lucidity, or a commitment to disciplined dialogue—although all can be valuable. It is the capacity to adapt more rapidly than one’s peers.
In this world, the currency of information is far more important than its epistemic status, and gossip is an essential part of the working day.
Deliberative disciplinarians want public debate to consist of arguments based—at a minimum—on evidence and principle. Politicians instinctively understand that control of the public agenda depends not on achieving the kinds of standards which reign in classrooms, tenure committees and the editorial boards of learned journals, but rather in being seen and heard, ideally in the construction of meaning and the incarnation of authenticity rather than in a claim to truth. For them, it is more important to induce trust and belief than to try to educate citizens on the facts and principles.
JC comment: The stars of the Climategate saga never seemed to grasp why the emails mattered, even if they didn’t change the science one iota. Its about authenticity and trust.
In this kind of public arena, it is not principally precision (logos), but conviction (pathos and ethos, emotion and character) that are being sought. In contrast to the expository style taught to generations of undergraduates, analogy, narrative, ambiguity, ridicule and obloquy, and a measure of hypocrisy, are likely to dominate political discourse. In a complex, rapidly evolving and demanding world, it is instrumentally rational for politicians to seek commitment rather than consensus, and it is prudentially rational for citizens to assess character and personality as well as, and often rather than, policy.
Politicians would be delighted if research or ethics or citizen deliberation could stem the uncertainty of policy making. Sometimes they can. No one would like to jettison science in the service of regulation of pharmaceutical products or pesticides, for example, or principled analysis of human rights or legal doctrines. But even in these cases, what the average politician will retain is the high level of controversy that remains after the academics and researchers have done their jobs, controversy often arising from the work of other academics and researchers.
The advancement of the discipline, the promotion of a certain type of reform, the domination of a market segment by innovation, often have no common measure with the construction of a political challenge eventually thrust before ministers. Politicians know that policy and politics are the domain par excellence of unintended and unanticipated consequences.
They grasp implicitly what researchers tend to ignore: that the rigorously demonstrated cause and effect relationships are usually far distant from the messy problems on the public agenda, and that today’s knowledge may well be discarded tomorrow. They know that, in any case, implementation takes so long and is so uncertain that the downstream substantive consequences of policy may most often be considered by the proximate policy maker as a matter for credit or blame for successors, not for him or her.
[In] post-industrial democracies, the role of the courts, and the impact of globalisation and of multilevel governance mean that any given government will more often than not inherit only a fragment of a policy problem at a stage in its lengthy ‘resolution’; the degrees of freedom imagined by a second-order reconstruction of the issue are usually a vast overestimation of those open to any given political actor at any given time and place. Outcomes are often determined by a series of decisions over a period of years by any number of authorities (and by contemporaneous events), and end up representing the preferences of none of them.
JC comment: The author, Richard French, has a background that provides a very interesting perspective on this issue:
Richard French is a faculty member in Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. In his last public appointment, Richard French was vice-chairman (telecommunications) of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), a position he left in July 2007. Prior to his work at the CRTC, French had a distinguished career in both the public and private sectors. Holding a D.Phil. from Oxford University, which he attended as a Rhodes Scholar, he taught at McGill University before entering provincial politics in Quebec, which lead him to serve as a Member of the National Assembly as well as Minister of Communications. Upon leaving public life, he held several senior executive positions in the private sector, including vice-president of Bell Canada and CEO of Tata Communications, a mobile communications firm located in Andhra Pradesh, India.
Insights from Paul Cairney
Paul Cairney has a relevant post at LSE blogs, entitled Evidence matters when policymakers accept it and have the motive and opportunity to act on it. The bulk of the article compares tobacco and alcohol policies in the UK. A broadly relevant excerpt:
The evidence does not speak for itself’ is a truism in policy studies. Evidence based policymaking (EBPM) is about power: to decide what counts as evidence; to ignore or pay attention to particular studies; to link the evidence of a policy problem to a particular solution; and, to ensure that policymakers have the motive and opportunity to turn a solution into policy. Indeed, an attempt to portray EBPM as a technical or scientific process is often an attempt to exercise power: to rule some evidence in and most evidence out; and, to use particular forms of evidence to justify political action.
I think that Richard French and Paul Cairney provide some important insights that are relevant for the climate change policy conundrum. The frustrations of the climate community advocating urgent action are substantial. They seem to think that ‘better communication’ is the solution. The climate problem has suffered from analogy with the tobacco policy issue – relatively simple problem and simple solution. By contrast, climate change is a wicked problem: substantial scientific uncertainties, conflicting values, and costly solutions with unintended consequences. ‘Better communication’ about the science isn’t going to help much.
In my statements about advocacy by climate scientists, I have remarked not only on the issue of responsible advocacy, but also on the need for scientists to understand the policy process and the associated politics. Over the past 8 years, I have worked to educate myself on this topic. While I’m still a neophyte in all this, I understand enough to have concluded that the best role for myself as a scientist is (from my NPR interview):
“All we can do is be as objective as we can about the evidence and help the politicians evaluate proposed solutions”
Doing more than this, and being effective at it in terms of actually influencing policy, requires from scientists something different from alarmism, urging action, demonizing your opponents, and improving ‘communication’ and ‘messaging.’