Longer election campaign poses risks

Appeared July 30, 2015, in the Guelph Mercury.

LISPOP Director Andrea Perrella was interviewed for a news story related to a possible election call and it’s unusually long duration:

Andrea Perrella, an associate professor of political science at Wilfrid Laurier University, said a longer campaign leaves more time for candidates to make mistakes on the public stage.

“A misstep or a gaffe or something that could make a leader look foolish; can mar the rest of the campaign,” he said.

Read more…

 

P.T. Barnum would delight in Trump’s White House run

Published on July 31, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

The metaphor most frequently applied to Donald Trump’s U.S. presidential candidacy is that it sucks up all the oxygen, denying other candidates media attention for their own campaigns.

The media obsession with the self-promoting billionaire and reality show host seems to be having an enormous impact upon the Republican contest, despite hardly anyone taking Trump’s prospects seriously as the eventual winner.

Read more.

Flora MacDonald was an exceptional Canadian

Published July 27, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Please forgive me if today’s column becomes personal.

A great woman, a great Canadian and a great figure in Canadian public life died early Sunday morning. Flora Isabel MacDonald – “Flora” to millions of Canadians even if they had never met her – died early Sunday morning in Ottawa. She was 89 and had suffered from multiple illnesses, including Alzheimer’s, in recent years.

Flora and I worked together to write her memoirs, which for a variety of reasons we were not quite able to finish. Hers is quite a story – quite a life.

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Born and raised in Cape Breton, Flora was the daughter of a Western Union telegrapher, Fred MacDonald, who decoded top-secret messages sent by cable between London and Washington during the Second World War. There was no money to send Flora to university, so after high school she went to business college.

I first encountered Flora in the 1960s when she was working as a secretary at Progressive Conservative headquarters in Ottawa. She had become the liaison between rank and file Tories across the county and the party’s headquarters and leadership. She knew everyone. The grassroots loved her, the leader – John Diefenbaker – not so much. He fired Flora (for suspected disloyalty), which may have been the worst mistake he ever made.

Her dismissal was the flashpoint that ignited a “dump Diefenbaker” movement. A canny Scot, she took a copy of the party membership list with her when she left headquarters and delivered it to Dalton Camp, the party’s national president who would lead the movement to choose a new leader. The drama played out at the PC national conference in Ottawa in the fall of 1966. Camp won re-election as party president, delegates voted to hold a leadership convention – and Flora was elected national secretary of the party.

She went to work to help make Bob Stanfield, then premier of Nova Scotia, national leader in September 1967. Flora took an administrative job at Queen’s University; in 1972, she won the Conservative nomination and was elected to Parliament in the Liberal seat of Kingston and the Islands.

It’s hard to realize today, but she was the only woman in a Tory caucus of 100-plus MPs. As she wrote in her memoirs: “Politics was then (and to a considerable degree still is) a man’s world. Women were tolerated as candidates and as members of Parliament, but the encouragement they received from their male peers was often half-hearted. … [T]hey did not see any compelling reason to go out of their way to enlist more female players.”

The promotion of women in all walks of public life became one of Flora’s passions. In 1976, following Stanfield’s resignation, she decided to run for the leadership herself.

She knew she faced three obstacles. The first was her gender. Although Margaret Thatcher had become Conservative leader in Britain the year before, most Canadian Tories had never contemplated being led by a woman. Second, she did not have what she called a “conventional political résumé.” She was not a lawyer, businessman or professor; she did not even have a university degree. Third, she was a “Red Tory, and proud of it.” She campaigned against capital punishment ; on abortion, she championed a woman’s right to choose – both radical positions to most Conservatives in the 1970s.

Flora did not win the leadership. After the second ballot, she threw her support to the other Red Tory, Joe Clark, who made her his foreign affairs minister when he became prime minister in 1979. Later, she served in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet as, among other things, immigration minister. Her signal accomplishment in that post was persuading a reluctant Conservative cabinet to admit tens of thousands of Southeast Asian boat people to Canada following the Vietnam War.

That grand humanitarian gesture was perhaps Flora finest moment. Yes, she could be stubborn – and she needed to be in the man’s world she set out to conquer. We have lost an exceptional Canadian.

NDP gains across Canada but loses seats in Ontario, Quebec, according to latest seat projections

Published July 23, 2015, in the Global News Toronto

Tom Mulcair and the NDP are still projected to win a small minority government during the October election, according to the latest seat projections.

The numbers, provided to Global News by the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (LISPOP), suggest the NDP would win 10 more seats (129 in all) than the Conservatives, ending Stephen Harper’s 10-year career as Prime Minister, if an election were held today.

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The following projection is drawn from a blended sample of polls conducted between July 3 and 16 among approximately 7500 respondents, produced a seat distribution almost identical to that of the previous month among a completely different set of interviews. The similar totals masked a number of regional differences that largely offset each other. The New Democratic Party performance improved from June in Atlantic Canada and the West, particularly in British Columbia, but it diminished somewhat in Ontario and Quebec.

FSP 2015 07 22

 

More coverage here.

Is municipal de-amalgamation in Ontario the answer?

Published July 22, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Study after study has found that the benefits of municipal amalgamation have failed to materialize.

Costs generally increase after amalgamation, largely due a harmonization of costs and wages, and increases in service-efficiency remain elusive. The transitional costs after amalgamation are often quite high and, in some cases, reduce or even eliminate any anticipated immediate cost savings.

Mounting evidence suggests amalgamation in Ontario has not led to more efficient service production or delivery.

Municipal mergers reduce competition between municipalities, which weakens incentives for efficiency and responsiveness to local needs, while also reducing the choice for residents to find a community that best matches their ideal taxation and service rates. Since municipal mergers rarely result in boundaries that encompass entire metropolitan regions, externalities may still exist in transportation and land-use planning. And municipal amalgamations have sometimes forced rural residents to pay for urban services they do not have access to.

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Do Canadians care about right or wrong?

Published July 20, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

The Jean Chrétien Liberal government, to its credit, made a belated, but genuine, attempt to create a level field for all players in federal elections by creating barriers to prevent Canadian campaigns from sliding into the cesspool of money and special interests that dominate U.S. elections.

The Stephen Harper Conservative government, to its discredit, is striking down those barriers to give advantage to the players who are most proficient at raising money and most devious at fiddling their way around the legal limits on campaign spending.

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Canada’s Election Expenses Act dates to 1974. A pioneering piece of legislation, it imposed limits on the size of political contributions, required public disclosure of the identities of contributors, set limits on the amounts that parties and candidates could legally spend, and reimbursed them for some of their election costs.

Although it was revolutionary for its time, the Election Expenses Act (now incorporated in the Canada Elections Act) was not perfect.

Not long before he left the stage in 2003, Chrétien moved to make the playing field even more level. He tightened the rules on contributions, and he introduced a new subsidy — an annual allowance paid to parties on the basis of their share of the popular vote in the previous election. It was this allowance or subsidy that enabled the Green party to set itself up as a national party.

The allowance is gone now, abolished by the Harper government. Harper did something else last year. His so-called Fair Elections Act (“so-called” because among other things it made it more difficult for students to cast ballots) created a new spending loophole.

One of the weaknesses of the law since 1974 has been that the spending controls apply only during the “writ period” — that is the period, now generally 35-37 days, between the formal dissolution of Parliament and voting day. The exact limit or ceiling is calculated on the basis of the number of registered voters; this year it will work out to roughly $24 million for each national party.

The new loophole courtesy of the Fair Elections Act? If a campaign is longer than 37 days, each political party will be allowed to spend above the ceiling a daily amount equal to one-37th of the $24 million limit — or roughly $650,000 a day seven days a week. For an election on Oct. 19, the writ period would normally start on Sept 12. But Harper could stretch the campaign period out by issuing the writ on, say, Aug. 12, for the Oct. 19 vote. That would add 30 days to the campaign — and nearly $20 million to the spending ceiling.

The Conservatives can surely afford an advertising-intensive $44-million campaign; the Liberals and New Democrats surely cannot.

In a piece last week, Conservative columnist John Ivison of the National Post, who has a pipeline to and from Tory central, describes this as a “cunning plan” by the Conservatives “to drain the resources of their relatively impoverished opponents.”

Not being privy to the “cunning plan,” I can only report what I hear. This is that if the first televised debate, to be presented by Maclean’s magazine in Calgary on Aug. 6, goes well for Harper, he would take a few quick polls, then ask the governor general to dissolve Parliament. His schedule is clear; he has already cancelled his annual August tour of the North. If the debate goes badly, he waits.

But isn’t this twisting of the election law unethical? Doesn’t it amount to trying to steal the election?

I might say it does. But I’m not sure the public cares. There was no public uproar when the Harper government pumped millions of taxpayers’ dollars into thinly veiled partisan advertising this season. They escaped damage in the robocall scandal in the last election and in the advertising in-and-out scandal in the election before that.

The laws are weak. The lust for victory is strong. Who cares about right or wrong? Ethics are for losers.

A campaign of confusion thus far

Published on July 13, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

There is only one word to describe our infant federal election campaign. The word is confusion.

There is confusion over the leaders’ debates – how many there will ultimately be, what the rules will be, who will be invited to participate, and who will show up and who will not.

There is confusion over the polls. They muddy the water more than they clarify it with layers of seat projections, predictions,  forecasts, scenarios and now – a new wrinkle – “Monte Carlo’ simulations, based, it seems, on algebraic logarithms (a torture most of us hoped we had left behind in high school math).

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Finally, there is confusion over when the election will actually be held. The fixed-election law says Oct. 19, but the prime minister has the power to change that. The rumour in Ottawa last week was that Stephen Harper, worried about sagging Conservative poll numbers, an economy that has gone into recession, and the appearance of Nigel Wright as the first witness when the Mike Duffy trial resumes on August 11, will reschedule it for just after Labour Day – meaning most of the campaign would be in August when voters might not be paying much attention.

Let’s start with the debates. The main ones, sponsored by the television networks are scheduled for Oct. 7 (French) and Oct. 8 (English) – assuming the election has not already happened by then. The prime minister has said he will not participate. Whether that’s because of his distaste for the CBC or his disinclination to be a punching bag for the other leaders so close to the election is an open question.

So, it seems, is the participation of NDP leader Thomas Mulcair. The NDP has agreed in principle to the English and French debates, but has not confirmed their leader’s presence. If Harper is not there, the New Democrats are not at all sure they want Mulcair, the perceived front runner, to become a surrogate punching bag for Justin Trudeau, Elizabeth May and (in the French debate) Gilles Duceppe.

Harper may yet change his mind and agree to debate, but if neither he nor Mulcair is there, why bother?

Both leaders say they plan to take part in an early debate to be organized by Maclean’s magazine on Aug. 6. How that debate goes will, I suspect, help determine whether other projected debates, to be hosted the Globe and Mail, the Munk Debates and by the private French network TVA, get off the ground.

Next, the polls. About all that can safely be said is that the race looks desperately close – a three-way race in which the NDP is slightly ahead of, or slightly behind, the Conservatives, with the Liberals still within challenging distance.

Everyone is trying to get into the act with projections, predictions and forecasts. Last week, the Globe and Mail unveiled what it called, “an interactive election-forecasting tool that analyzes polling data and helps make sense of it all.”

Sense to some perhaps, but not so much to me. After feeding polling data into a computer, the newspaper’s guru, Paul Fairie, a political scientist at University of Calgary, ran “simulated elections” in all 338 ridings. This is where the “Monte Carlo” factor apparently comes in.  The outcome: a 51.9 per cent probability of an NDP win with a 0.9 per cent probability of a majority government. The paper published six “random examples” – three NDP minorities and three Conservative minorities. Two of the NDP minorities had the Liberals as the official opposition; the third had a Tory opposition.

New simulations published on the newspaper’s website yesterday, showed the Conservatives winning by seven seats, the NDP winning by 34 (with the Tories and Liberals tied for second) and the NDP winning by two seats over the Conservatives.

We will have to hope Stephen Harper is up on his algebraic logarithms and Monte Carlo simulations when he decides whether to have the election at Labour Day or to wait until Oct. 19.

Methodological and Theoretical Pluralism: Good or Bad?

Last week I was in Milan, Italy attending the International Conference on Public Policy.  Unlike many of my colleagues, I had yet to attend an international conference so this was a very exciting experience for me on a number of levels.

Anyway, a number of things struck me as a result of this conference (and I don’t mean the unbearable heat of Italy in July!).  One was the sheer number of people from different disciplines studying public policy.  On the one hand, it’s a strong sign of a healthy subfield, right?  On the other hand, it seems that a powerful consequence of size and diversity is theoretical and conceptual fragmentation.  In almost every panel I attended, there was significant disagreement about concepts and assumptions within very established theoretical traditions.  For instance, in the panels on “co-production”, presenters and audience members used the terms “co-management”, “co-creation”, “co-construction”, among many others, interchangeably or as meaning different yet similar things.

In one of the plenary sessions, political scientist Bryan Jones noted a similar phenomenon.  He believed that the literature on agenda setting, a concept that he helped invent and pioneer, had seemingly lost its way.  Much of the new literature on the topic, he argued, was no longer in sync with the original theoretical micro assumptions that he and others had originally grounded the work in, with predictably negative consequences. Continue reading

It seems to me that the trends Prof. Jones noted in his talk and the lack of conceptual agreement at the panels I attended were partly the result of the growth and democratization of the academy.  In the past, there were fewer journals, fewer scholars, and fewer students entering and finishing PhD programs.  The result, I think, was a smaller set of high performing scholars writing about public policy (and political science) issues. The demands to keep up with the literature were smaller and the people contributing were the best of the best (I think?!).  As a result, political science and public policy fields and subfields perhaps had more internal conceptual consistency or at least more consistency in terminology. Today, however, with the explosion of new journals and PhD programs, the sheer amount of literature is impossible to read and keep up with.  As a result, you get conceptual fragmentation.

In that same plenary panel, Grace Skogstad gave a powerful defence of methodological and theoretical pluralism and to some extent I agreed with her. Who doesn’t like pluralism when it comes to publishing our research!?  On the other hand, an important and negative consequence of pluralism that rarely gets mentioned is this trend towards fragmentation.  Embracing pluralism means embracing conceptual blurriness, to some extent. For instance, I use co-production but Bob uses co-construction. Do we mean different things? Well, it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that I cite and speak to the people who favour co-production and Bob cites and speak to the co-construction people.  I may try to come up with a new definition of co-production that encompasses co-construction, or I might invent a new term, but there’s no guarantee that anyone will adopt my new definition or term.  Even if some people do, others will continue with their preferred term or definition.  Why? Because we embrace methodological pluralism.

What’s the alternative to methodological pluralism? I’m not sure.  Maybe radically fewer journals?  Then again, if you believe in the work of John Stuart Mill, then methodological pluralism is perhaps the only way to ensure truth wins out eventually.

Learning from the Kelowna Accord

Published on July 6, 2015, in Policy Options

If you open a newspaper or listen to the radio, it is easy to get discouraged about the relationship between indigenous communities and the government of Canada. Aboriginal Canadians lag far behind the Canadian average on almost every socio-economic indicator, including housing, education, unemployment, child poverty, and health and well-being. Many blame the federal, provincial and territorial governments for not doing enough to address these issues, and they criticize these governments for failing to establish good working relationships with indigenous communities. These are not new criticisms; almost all federal, provincial and territorial governments in the past have been criticized for their inability to partner with indigenous communities to create mutually beneficial public policies.

What is the solution? This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the ill-fated Kelowna Accord, a comprehensive, multiyear and multilevel initiative that was designed to forge a new, workable relationship and lasting change for Canada’s indigenous populations. Shortly after its signing, however, the accord was all but abandoned by the incoming Conservative government. Since then, we have seen social and economic conditions in many indigenous communities worsen and the relationship between Aboriginal Canadians and the Crown further deteriorate. Although the Kelowna Accord was abandoned 10 years ago, we argue that the process used by former prime minister Paul Martin to negotiate the accord may be the only way forward for improving the relationship between indigenous communities and the Crown.

Days of reckoning arrive in Greece, Iran

Published July 3, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

As June ended, negotiation deadlines in two different parts of the globe lapsed without resolution.

Although the timetable facing Greece’s loan default problems and the Iranian nuclear program are very different concerns, each demonstrates that resolute negotiators extend the process to the final moment — and beyond — to gain maximum bargaining leverage.

The game of “chicken” has frequently been cited to illustrate the practice. Even though the bargaining has effectively been transpiring for more than three years, each side has acted as if it could exact the greatest advantage by extending its rival to the final possible minute, and then some. They can’t all be successful in pursuing this strategy.

Read more. 

Fixing our broken Senate

Published June 29, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Three weeks ago, I wrote a column about everyone’s favourite subject: the Senate of Canada. Well, perhaps not quite everyone’s. Stephen Harper’s fondest wish is that the upper house go quietly away and take Mike Duffy with it.

In the column, I suggested the time has come for definitive action – either by blowing the place up (to take a page from Guy Fawkes’ venture in 1605), or by holding a national referendum to abolish it (perhaps in conjunction with the general election this October).

Let’s be candid, reader response to my humble, but helpful suggestions was underwhelming.

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For one thing, it appears there are laws against setting off barrels of gunpowder in the basement of the Centre Block. Who knew? And a referendum on abolition is easier to advocate than to make happen.

Our constitutional straitjacket of 1867 makes the Senate virtually immune to fundamental change. Abolition would require the approval of all provincial legislatures plus the House of Commons and the Senate itself. Given the mood of the country these days, it is conceivable that a referendum to abolish would be approved by popular vote nationally. But unless it were approved by voters in each province and territory, it is almost certain that some legislatures would balk. (I’m thinking primarily of Quebec, which has precious little use for the red chamber, but is its devoted defender for reasons we need not go into here.)

The election of a New Democratic Party government under Thomas Mulcair – the only party leader calling for abolition – would give the cause a leg up, but it would not satisfy the constitutional requirement for unanimity. But with the Conservatives and Liberals both talking about the need for reform, there is a chance this year to make some of the most significant changes since 1965 when Lester Pearson’s Liberal government was able to establish a retirement age – 75 – for senators.

The two most needed changes are to eliminate partisanship (every appointment made by the Harper government since it came to office in 2006 has been a Conservative) and to remove the government’s iron control over the upper house. There are various ways these changes could be made. The Constitution mandates that senators be appointed by the Queen on the recommendation of the prime minister. But there is nothing in the Constitution to preclude the prime minister from delegating his authority to provincial governments or legislatures. They could choose the people they think would best represent their regions, present those names to the prime minister who would appoint them (as happens now with special senate nominee elections in Alberta).

Some provinces might prefer to divorce the selection process from politics entirely. They could create panels of non-politicians to seek out and screen prospective senators from all walks of life, to be presented to the PM for appointment. We might get a few poets as well as pipefitters.

Once senators stop being appointed on the basis of service to their party and their loyalty (and usefulness) to the prime minister, it becomes a fairly straightforward matter to eliminate partisanship. Like the Commons, the Senate is master of its own rules. It would not require a constitutional amendment to abolish party caucuses and party whips in the upper house (as the Liberals, under Justin Trudeau, have already done), or to eliminate the position of government leader in the Senate – a position the government uses to control the Senate agenda.

Finally, senators could change their seating arrangements. They could eliminate the centre aisle that separates government senators from opposition senators. With no government senators and no opposition senators, there would be no reason (aside from hoary tradition) for the aisle. The red chamber could be reconfigured to seat members in rows, United Nations-style.

These non-constitutional reforms would not transform the place from the political scrapyard it is today to the chamber of sober second thought that it was meant to be. But they would be a start.

Prime Minister Tom Mulcair? New seat projections, poll show NDP surging across Canada

Published June 26, 2015, in the Global News Toronto.

If an election were held today, Tom Mulcair would be Canada’s next Prime Minister.

The latest seat projections taken from an aggregate of opinion polls suggest Mulcair’s New Democratic Party could win 130 seats in the House of Commons – 11 more than Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and 44 more than Justin Trudeau and the once-powerful Liberal party.

“Two months ago one couldn’t have imagined this,” Barry Kay, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University said about the seat projections.

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Four months of pure joy ahead for political junkies

Published June 22, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

It’s a long road that has no ash cans, as John Diefenbaker liked to remind his critics.

What precisely the old Chief may have meant by that profundity was no clearer then than it is today. A loose translation might be what goes around comes around or don’t count your votes before they are cast.

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Regardless of Dief’s semantic inexactitude, this is good advice as the country moves into the penultimate phase of a very long election campaign; it’s been going on ever since the ascension of Justin Trudeau as Liberal leader in 2013. Now it gets serious. Parliament is shuttered. MPs have gone away, not to return until after the vote on Oct. 19. The landscape changes from mostly politics most of the time to all politics all of the time.

For political junkies, the next four months will be pure joy. For non-junkies, it will be pure torture, to be endured as one of the prices of democracy.

The writ won’t come down until about Labour Day, but no one is waiting for that official starting gun. The Conservatives will run two simultaneous campaigns. One, bearing the imprimatur of the Government of Canada and wholly funded by taxpayer dollars in the pre-writ period, will continue to remind voters of all the great and good things the Tories have done over the past decade – including those exciting things they might have done if they had obtained parliamentary approval before shuttering the place last week.

Their other campaign, financed from taxpayer-subsidized party funds, will attack the opposition parties. Justin Trudeau will continue to be portrayed as a latter day Ethelred the Unready. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair can expect to be painted by Conservatives as the most reckless ash can to roll down that long road since, well, Pierre Trudeau.

The New Democrats and Liberals will call for change, present alternative policies, and attack each other. But mainly they will denounce the Conservatives as old, tired, out of touch, patronage-ridden and arrogant, and Stephen Harper as the nation-wrecking Darth Vader of Parliament Hill.

As entertainment, the campaign will have its fun moments. As an exercise in democracy, not so much.

This is one election which, as it begins, no one – absolutely no one – knows how it may end. The stats-obsessed gurus who labour in the political backrooms don’t know. Nor do the pollsters, or the seat-projectionists, or all the media pundits who will strive to appear all-knowing whenever the TV cameras are turned on. But they won’t know either.

All that can be safely said as the campaign begins is that the NDP has made some inroads of late. Some polls put them a bit ahead of the Conservatives. But whether that lead is real or ephemeral is anyone’s guess. The NDP probably got a boost from the party’s victory in the Alberta provincial election, but that bit of momentum may dissolve as the Alberta election fades in memory and as Rachel Notley’s administration inevitably gets bogged down in the day-to-day slog of governing.

The polls put the Tories at about 30 per cent or roughly 10 points less than they polled when they won a majority in 2011. But incumbency gives them the advantages of recognition, experience and money – lots and lots of money – to invest to retain power.

The Liberals have been struggling of late as they went from first to third in the polls. But they are addressing an area of weakness – a shortage of policy, especially on the economic front. And in Justin Trudeau they have a young, attractive – some say, charismatic – leader who appeals to younger voters (if only he can get them to turn out at the polls). He is rated as the most likeable of the leaders, and likeability is no small asset for a politicians.

The bottom line: I have no idea what Oct. 19 will bring, but I suspect we will discover a few ash cans along the road.

Researchers and Scholars! Beware of your Cognitive Biases!

I am in the midst of reading Joseph Heath’s Enlightenment 2.0, which was shortlisted for this year’s Donner Prize.  It covers a lot of similar ground in other recent books about how humans think, such as Daniel Kahnman’s and Jonathan Haidt’s books.  Collectively, these books are having a powerful impact on my views of the world and on my scholarship.

Heath’s book is a great read.  It is very accessible and provides an excellent summary of the literature on cognitive biases and decision making (at least it’s consistent with Kahnman’s and Haidt’s books!). Continue reading

Among many important and interesting tidbits, Heath argues that one of the major problems that all citizens face, whether they are academics or non-academics, is confirmation bias (and indeed there’s research showing that philosophers and statisticians, who should know better, also suffer from the same cognitive biases).  It’s why some scholars insist on the need to reject the null hypothesis when engaging in causal inference.

Yet confirmation bias is such a powerful cognitive effect on how we perceive the world and make decisions. Certainly in my subfield, and I assume in many others involving strong normative debates and positions, there is a strong temptation to accept and embrace confirmation bias.

In the words of Joseph Heath:

The whole “normative sociology” concept has its origins in a joke that Robert Nozick made, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, where he claimed, in an offhand way, that “Normative sociology, the study of what the causes of problems ought to be, greatly fascinates us all”(247). Despite the casual manner in which he made the remark, the observation is an astute one. Often when we study social problems, there is an almost irresistible temptation to study what we would like the cause of those problems to be (for whatever reason), to the neglect of the actual causes. When this goes uncorrected, you can get the phenomenon of “politically correct” explanations for various social problems – where there’s no hard evidence that A actually causes B, but where people, for one reason or another, think that A ought to be the explanation for B. This can lead to a situation in which denying that A is the cause of B becomes morally stigmatized, and so people affirm the connection primarily because they feel obliged to, not because they’ve been persuaded by any evidence.

 

Let me give just one example, to get the juices flowing. I routinely hear extraordinary causal powers being ascribed to “racism” — claims that far outstrip available evidence. Some of these claims may well be true, but there is a clear moral stigma associated with questioning the causal connection being posited – which is perverse, since the question of what causes what should be a purely empirical one. Questioning the connection, however, is likely to attract charges of seeking to “minimize racism.” (Indeed, many people, just reading the previous two sentences, will already be thinking to themselves “Oh my God, this guy is seeking to minimize racism.”) There also seems to be a sense that, because racism is an incredibly bad thing, it must also cause a lot of other bad things. But what is at work here is basically an intuition about how the moral order is organized, not one about the causal order. It’s always possible for something to be extremely bad (intrinsically, as it were), or extremely common, and yet causally not all that significant.

 

I actually think this sort of confusion between the moral and the causal order happens a lot. Furthermore, despite having a lot of sympathy for “qualitative” social science, I think the problem is much worse in these areas. Indeed, one of the major advantages of quantitative approaches to social science is that it makes it pretty much impossible to get away with doing normative sociology.

 

Incidentally, “normative sociology” doesn’t necessarily have a left-wing bias. There are lots of examples of conservatives doing it as well (e.g. rising divorce rates must be due to tolerance of homosexuality, out-of-wedlock births must be caused by the welfare system etc.) The difference is that people on the left are often more keen on solving various social problems, and so they have a set of pragmatic interests at play that can strongly bias judgement. The latter case is particularly frustrating, because if the plan is to solve some social problem by attacking its causal antecedents, then it is really important to get the causal connections right – otherwise your intervention is going to prove useless, and quite possibly counterproductive.

 

In the subfield of Aboriginal politics, there are powerful incentives to ascribe everything that has gone wrong with Aboriginal communities post-contact to the British and later the Canadian state.  Those who try to say otherwise are routinely hammered and ostracized by the public and some members of the academy without even taking a moment to consider seriously their work.  Say what you want about the books and articles by Tom Flanagan, Frances Widdowson and Ken Coates, but at least they are providing us with an opportunity to test for confirmation bias.  Causal inference requires eliminating rival explanations! Otherwise, how can you be sure that A causes B?

In many ways, it is for these reasons why I’ve long been suspicious and wary of ideology (and certainty), whether it comes from the right or the left.  Someone who is hard core left or right, it seems, is more likely to be driven by confirmation bias.  I’ve seen dozens of episodes in my life where ideologues (from the left and the right) or those with strong views of the political world, when confronted with overwhelming evidence, refuse to budge.  It’s irrational, in many ways.  And so I long ago vowed to try and avoid becoming one of them and to embrace uncertainty. Sure, I will take a strong a position in my articles, books, and op ed columns, but I’m always ready and willing to change my mind.

Perhaps it’s a cowardly way of approaching politics and scholarship (and so I guess I should never run for office!) but for me, it conforms to my goal of striving towards causal inference and certainty.