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.

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.

Continue reading

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.

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.

Public is ready for drastic action on Senate

Published June 8, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

What are we going to do with the dear old Senate?

The appointed upper house has graduated from being a political anachronism to a national embarrassment. Under attack by the auditor general and investigation by the RCMP – and abandoned by their patron, the prime minister – senators now expend their energy trying to cover their sorry butts.

It would be tempting to say, just blow the place up. Although the public might applaud, I fear this extreme solution would not sit well with the RCMP, which takes a dim view of explosions on Parliament Hill. Nor would it commend itself to scholars who would doubtless argue that it would be an intolerable violation of the Constitution of Canada to blow the place up unless all provinces and territories agreed to hold the match. Continue reading

We can blame a succession of prime ministers who have used the Senate either as a political scrap yard or a comfy refuge for party loyalists, or both. Stephen Harper is only the most recent offender. Now that the Senate expenses scandal has blown up in his government’s face, he is trying to flee the scene. Don’t blame me, he says, washing his hands; blame the Senate; it’s responsible for members’ expense accounts. Sure. This is the all-controlling prime minister who has larded the upper house with 59 appointees, every single one a Conservative, and whose office mounted an unprecedented campaign of denial and cover-up in the Mike Duffy affair, before throwing the embarrassing senator under the Tory bus.

We can blame the ludicrously loose Senate expense rules. We can blame the Senate leadership for fostering an anything-goes culture in the use of taxpayer dollars. And we can blame the opposition parties for wringing every drop of partisan advantage out the scandal without offering a constructive remedy.

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair says he would abolish the Senate, even if he doesn’t know how he could circumvent the provincial-consent strictures laid down by the Supreme Court. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau kicks his party’s senators out of the Liberal caucus and calls it reform. Harper blames the Supreme Court for his inaction and stops appointing new senators; with 20 of the 105 seats now vacant, perhaps he hopes the survivors will eventually die of neglect.

It seems to me that this year offers an ideal opportunity to do something definitive about the red chamber. The expenses scandal has made the public receptive, I believe, to drastic action. The general election scheduled for Oct. 19 offers an avenue to tap into that public will.

Any party that campaigned on a promise to hold, within its first year in office, a national referendum to abolish the Senate would draw broad electoral support. If the referendum carried, the new government could take the next three years to introduce the required constitutional amendments and bring the provinces on side. If some provinces balked, making it impossible to scrap the upper house, the government could move to Plan B – a comprehensive package of reform measures to place before the electorate in the ensuing federal election. If they can’t blow the place up, at least they could clean it up.

The Senate was created to give voice to the regions in the councils of Ottawa. Strong, outspoken provincial governments render that function redundant. It was also meant to be a chamber of sober second thought – to act as a brake on a headstrong, popularly elected lower house.

But majority governments don’t listen to the Senate because they don’t need to. The upper house becomes an extension of the government caucus and a tool of the prime minister and cabinet. With majority government, sober second thought becomes a rubber stamp.

At the very least, the power of appointment should be taken out of the hands of the prime minister. If we must have a Senate, it should be populated with distinguished Canadians and given useful work to do. But better, surely, to put the place out of its misery.

Aboriginal Title One Year after Tsilhqot’in

Published by Christopher Alcantara and Michael Morden in the May 2015 issue of Policy Options.

When the Supreme Court rendered its Tsilhqot’in decision in June 2014, the federal government’s terse response almost seemed delivered through gritted teeth, while many Canadians experienced a familiar sense of uncertainty and quiet apprehension. But most indigenous leaders and commentators reacted with public celebrations and optimism, seeing the decision as a victory for their communities.

Our view, almost a year later, is that all Canadians and indigenous peoples should celebrate the decision.

Read more…

Full public disclosure: Publish water bills?

Published Apr. 30, 2015, in the Winnipeg Free Press.

Over the last several years, accountability and transparency issues have been at the forefront of discussions and news coverage of Canadian politics. The usual targets have been politicians such as former MP Bev Oda, former Alberta premier Alison Redford, and senators Mike Duffy, Mac Harb and Pamela Wallin. Other popular targets include the “sunshine list” of public-sector employees at all levels of government, such as professors, teachers and police officers, among others.

The usual narrative in these stories is how we need more accountability and transparency in our governments. In practice, this means the government should post more public information about these politicians and employees, such as salaries, benefits and expenses, and to include as much detail as possible about their office, travel and technology expenditures.

Read more…

 

Put your money on an early election

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

This advice is not for the faint of heart, but if you have a spare loonie or two, you might plunk them down on a modest wager: that Stephen Harper will call a general election by early summer.

Oh, I know that’s not conventional wisdom in Ottawa these days. Everyone is proceeding on the assumption that the election will not happen until Oct. 19, the scheduled date. Although no one is talking openly about an early election, you can bet your bottom loonie that the Conservatives are thinking about it.

Here’s the scenario. Finance Minister Joe Oliver presents his maiden budget on Tuesday. The government doesn’t have much fiscal wiggle room, but the budget will offer some fuel for the Tory spin machine. There will be some infrastructure spending, which can be spun into a major investment in job creation. There will be some tax relief, including income-splitting, for mid- to upper-income families, whom the party will be targeting. Continue reading

And the budget will show a small surplus. The Tories will not advertise that they inherited a surplus from the previous Liberal regime, or that they turned the surplus into a record deficit, and only now, a decade in, are proposing to break even. But they can be expected to saturate the airwaves with advertising to the effect that, under Harper, Canada has become the envy of the world, if not the galaxy, for its steady economic management in the face of collapsing oil prices and for its brave war on terror at home and abroad.

As the scenario unfolds, nothing will happen right away on the election front. The Conservatives will be polling frantically to see if their post-budget propaganda has moved the electorate. They have been in a deep hole since ascendancy of Justin Trudeau to the Liberal leadership. The latest polls show them finally edging ahead of the Liberals and, although the trend may be in the Tories’ direction, their margin of one percentage point (32-31) in one composite of recent polls is decidedly precarious.

The date Tory strategists will be watching is May 5. That’s the day of the provincial election in Alberta, Harper’s home province and power base, which the Tories have ruled for 44 unbroken years. May 5 could end that run. Voters there are seriously angry. The new premier, Jim Prentice, is in deep trouble. His approval rating is an abysmal 22 per cent; his disapproval rating is 63 per cent. The latest polls put his Progressive Conservatives in third place, behind both Wildrose and the New Democrats.

It must be noted that the opinion polls were wildly wrong in the last Alberta election, but if they are not wrong on May 5, look for Harper to stuff his election genie back in the bottle until fall.

There’s another date to note. That’s May 2, the day Harper’s current mandate enters its fifth year. If the various portents – budget fallout, polls and Alberta – are favourable, the fifth anniversary of the election of his majority government might be an opportune time to call for a new mandate.

Although Harper is a polarizing figure, he has actually worn somewhat better with voters than two of his predecessors, Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney, who were deeply unpopular by the time they were eight or nine years into their prime ministries, as Harper is now. Yet he’s in a position today to win at least a minority government, thanks to the divided opposition.

The wild card in all this is the Mike Duffy trial, which continues until May 12, then takes a break and resumes from June 1 to 19. It has potential to do electoral damage to the Conservative brand. I’m not convinced it is a necessarily game changer, but with this trial you never know what the next testimony may produce.

So if you are tempted to bet on a June or early July election, okay. But keep it to a few loonies.

Treaties a basis for mutual respect

Published Apr. 9, 2015, in the Winnipeg Free Press and the Waterloo Region Record

If you open up a newspaper or read almost any academic study about aboriginal peoples in Canada, it’s easy to get depressed. Study after study and report after report tells us the status quo isn’t working. Put simply, aboriginal participation within the constitutional framework of Canada has failed and is doomed to failure. And so commentators argue the only paths to reconciliation are either aboriginal assimilation into Canadian society or independence from the Canadian state.

To understand where this pessimism comes from, all one has to do is look at what is supposed to be the bedrock of the aboriginal and non-aboriginal relationships in this country: the treaty relationship. History has shown that Canada has simply been unable or unwilling to respect the aboriginal view of what these treaties are supposed to accomplish. For the Crown, historical and modern treaties are supposed to represent the full and final settlement of all outstanding issues with aboriginal peoples. Period. For aboriginal communities, however, treaties with the Crown are supposed to be akin to the beginning of a marriage where the spouses agree to live together, but also recognize they must constantly work on and redefine their marriage as time and circumstances change. It is this fundamental difference in worldviews that breeds conflict, mistrust, and the paths of assimilation and independence.

Yet this can’t and shouldn’t be the end of the story. There is a solution, but it requires Canadian citizens and leaders to remember and draw upon our frequently forgotten civic identity and political heritage

Read more. 

All eyes will be on Duffy this week

Published April 6, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

The Mike Duffy trial, which begins this week, is first of three political happenings that will determine the fate of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government this year. The second is the belated federal budget to be presented on April 21 by Finance Minister Joe Oliver, an improbable alchemist who will try to convince the country that it is possible to turn red ink into black.

The third is the election itself, which by law must be held no later than Oct. 19. The pre-campaign has already begun, thanks to the generosity of taxpayers who, without having to be asked, are graciously contributing $7.5 million to advertise the Tory budget before it has even been presented. That $7.5 million is just a drop in the bucket, of course, a pebble in the ocean, as the Conservatives will keep spending to sell their dual message: they are the only party that is serious about the terrorists in our midst; and they are the only ones who can rescue the economy from its miseries (some of which, or so it might be inferred, could be laid at the door of nine years of Tory economic management). Continue reading

Back to the Mike Duffy trial.  The suspended senator from Prince Edward Island (a former journalist and celebrity fundraiser for the Conservative party) faces a total of 31 charges, most of which will drop away as the trial proceeds. The big one is bribery. Duffy is accused of accepting $90,000 from Nigel Wright, then Harper’s chief of staff, so that he could reimburse the treasury for expenses he claimed on his residence in Ottawa. Duffy says the claim was legitimate, although he agreed under protest to repay the money; the government says the claim was fraudulent and that Duffy was guilty of accepting a bribe when he took the money and agreed to keep quiet about the whole affair.

However, Wright, who is expected to be the crown’s star witness, was not charged with offering a bribe (although he lost his job), and that non-charge could be the Achilles heel of the government’s case.

The first part of the trial will examine the Senate expense-accounting system. For years it operated more or less on an honour system; senators spent money in the course of their work and the Senate (aka the taxpayers) paid them back. Now, however, auditors have the final say. No expense claim is too picayune to escape their mind-numbing notice. Should senators who do not relish the cold Camembert that Air Canada serves its executive-class passengers be expected to eat it rather than expense a breakfast elsewhere? Who really cares?

There are real issues that may – and should – come to the fore in the 41 days set aside for the Duffy trial. One is the patronage-riddled system of naming senators. Duffy and his colleague Pamela Wallin, another former broadcast journalist, who was appointed the same day as “Old Duff,” were not chosen for what they could contribute to Parliament. They were appointed for what they could contribute to the Harper party. They were expected to go forth and attract crowds and raise money for the party.

They were very good at it. Harper loved them, until the auditors got on their trail. Then he disowned them. The Prime Minister’s office went into overdrive, generating thousands of emails in a cover-up designed to insulate the office and the Prime Minister from any responsibility for any aspect of the Senate scandal.

These issues – what the Prime Minister knew, when he knew it and what he did about it – are central to the trial. As it begins, watch Duffy. When this all began, he wanted to save his job and protect his reputation. He still wants to do that, but his focus has shifted. He is angry and bitter. His priority now is nothing less than to bring down Stephen Harper and his government.

The trial may start slowly, but it could turn nasty very quickly.

“Albertans Have Spoken!” or Maybe Not: The Curious Coverage of Danielle Smith

Earlier this week, Danielle Smith failed to win the PC nomination in her riding and the knives were out.  Some commentators and politicians mentioned how “Albertans have spoken” or how “Albertans” didn’t like her floor-crossing behaviour and punished her accordingly. Continue reading

There are a lot of angles to this story but one that hasn’t been corrected is this fallacy that Albertans passed judgement on Smith.  Albertans didn’t judge Smith.  It was the PC members of Highwood who did that. To say that Albertans didn’t like Smith’s decision and so Albertans punished her by supporting Carrie Fisher is a little disingenuous.

A better test of Albertan views about Smith would have been if she had won the PC nomination but lost her seat in the upcoming general election. Unfortunately, we won’t get a chance to see how that test would have played out.

 

Where Did All the Baby Bottles Go? Interest Groups, Media Coverage and Institutional Imperatives in Canada’s Regulation of Bisphenol A

Author: Simon Kiss

Published in Canadian Journal of Political Science

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Abstract: As part of an $816 million initiative to manage risks represented by possibly hazardous substances, Canada was the first country in the world to determine that the common chemical bisphenol A (BPA) should be classed as “toxic” and accordingly banned polycarbonate baby bottles. The process set up to conduct this risk assessment differed from the previous Canadian experience in that it was more formal, systematic and more pluralistic with much greater participation from interest groups. This case study examines the forces that impacted the regulatory process of BPA and argues that long-term, institutional and legislative forces interacted with short-term interest group politics and public opinion. It argues that the federal government issued a decision that went beyond what was scientifically validated but that reflects a widespread social perception of risk posed by chemicals that was embedded in the legislation governing the Chemicals Management Plan (CMP), public opinion and the media coverage of the issue. It uses existing literature on the nature of risk perception to assess critically the values underlying the CMP and those expressed in the regulation of BPA.

 

Canada needs a leader with a bold vision

Published Mar. 23, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

As Canada lurches unsteadily toward a general election, something important is missing. That “something” is a sense of national purpose – or vision – from any of the three major parties. How do the Conservatives, the New Democrats or the Liberals envisage the future of the country they aspire to lead for (let us say) the next decade or beyond?

We know, broadly, where they are coming from. But do they have a roadmap? How do they see the Canada of 2025 or 2040? Will we still be a moderately liberal society, committed to equality of treatment and opportunity for all citizens? Will we still welcome immigrants? Will we still embrace the values of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (or will we let the charter be reduced to a relic of a bygone era)? Will we still respect the supremacy of Parliament and the Supreme Court? And looking beyond Canada’s borders, will we be content to play a modest, if useful, role in a world dominated by bigger powers and their agendas? Continue reading

Of course, all three parties are dedicated (or say they are) to the service of the “middle class,” however they define it. But accommodating the middle class does not a vision make. It’s as though the leaders of the parties are so busy struggling with minutiae of the present (what should Muslim women wear on their heads; should rural dwellers be encouraged to keep guns by their beds; is income-splitting a good or bad idea) that they lose sight of the bigger picture. They become preoccupied with politics on the margins, slicing and dicing the electorate into interest groups where they hope to gain electoral advantage.

Elections should be an opportunity, for bold thinking, for big ideas. You can say what you will about John Diefenbaker, but he was not afraid to proclaim his vision (he even called it a vision) for Canada, based on northern development. So many Canadians embraced his vision that his Progressive Conservatives won the largest majority in Canadian history in 1958. A decade later, Pierre Trudeau led the Liberals back to a majority with his vision of a Just Society.

Judging from the polls, Canadians are confused. They have elected Stephen Harper three times, but they still don’t love him or trust him very much; his poll numbers reflect that. The people like Thomas Mulcair, as long as he is leading the opposition. They would like to like Justin Trudeau, and they told pollsters that for two years; now they are not so sure.

As of early last week, the online poll aggregator ThreeHundredEight.com had the Liberals and Conservatives in a statistical dead heat. Later in the week, however, a new poll by EKOS Research showed an apparent four-point shift from the Tories to the Liberals, putting the Trudeau party ahead of the Harper party by 32 per cent to 30, with the NDP holding at 21.

Frank Graves, the head of EKOS, suggested the movement, which he found significant, could partly be blowback over Bill C-51, the controversial anti-terrorism bill. “The more likely explanation, however, is that the security and culture narrative is beginning to lose strength as the threat of a stagnant and eroding economy takes root in voters’ minds,” Graves reported.

The federal budget is due in the next month. But if the economy is struggling – and if the fear card is losing its potency – the Conservatives will be in trouble this spring.

Trouble for the government generally spells opportunity for the opposition. But for which opposition party? Talk of an NDP-Liberal coalition is very much in the wind. It may be the moment for a bold idea – say, a joint announcement by Mulcair and Trudeau that if (as seems likely) no party wins a majority of the 338 seats, their two parties have agreed to join forces to replace the Conservatives.

A risky idea and maybe dangerous, but its very boldness would make for an exciting election.

Where did all the baby bottles go? The regulation of bisphenol A in Canada

The other day I was rock climbing and someone dropped their glass water bottle, sending thousands of tiny, sharp shards of glass all over the floor, where dozens of people, some young children, were walking around in bare feet. Six years ago, this never would have happened because most rock climbers would have been using hard, reliable, plastic water bottles that were hardened with a chemical called bisphenol A (BPA). Thanks to an ongoing campaign by environmentalists and some scientists, BPA has become a modern day equivalent of DDT. Because of public pressure, retailers of products made with BPA, including baby bottles and outdoor bottles, withdrew their products and replaced them with a wide variety of bottles made from different products, including glass bottles, which, as noted above, have a tendency to break. In essence, people were convinced to act on one risk (the risk supposedly posed by exposure to BPA) and unwittingly opened themselves up to other risks (broken glass). But in all the discussion about the supposed risk presented by BPA, the issue was never framed this way. Sadly, discussions about threats to welfare (risks) usually are not.

This is one conclusion that emerged from my paper published online recently in the Canadian Journal of Political Science that examines the politics and science of Canada’s regulation of BPA. Canada was the first country in the world to regulate it, announcing in April 2008 that it was “toxic” according to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. The paper argues that this decision was not supported by scientific evidence. In fact, it produces documentary evidence that scientific experts in Health Canada felt that “at this stage, any risk from BPA is hypothetical”. Their own risk assessment described the evidence for the existence of some threat to human welfare as “limited” (see p. 71). Instead, the decision was a product of a widespread suspicion of chemicals that is the product of both cognitive and cultural forces. Continue reading

In addition, it was the product of very strong lobbying by Environmental Defence and other environmental groups and a great deal of questionable reporting by the Globe and Mail’s Martin Mittelstaedt which emphasized what flimsy evidence there is that suggests there is some threat to health, ignoring the much more robust evidence that indicates the opposite. But what Mittelstaedt and ED ignored, and what Health Canada knew but downplayed, was that all of the evidence that had been produced up to that point (and to this day) was based on flimsy methodologies or showed effects manifesting themselves at levels of exposure far higher than what Canadians are exposed to.

This is an important case for several reasons. First, the fear and suspicion of chemicals is widespread. The Sudbury father who recently sought a vaccine exemption for his daughter is on the record saying: “I don’t believe chemicals should be dumped into our system.” In research I’m doing on the politics of municipal water fluoridation, one of the common charges opponents make is that it is not fluoride that is added to the water, but rather hydrofluorosilicic acid. This compound dissolves into fluoride, but fluoridation opponents don’t know this or don’t care. By focussing on a term that caters to chemophobia, anti-fluoridation opponents can actually overturn fluoridation, an important public health initiative that can effectively and equitably improve dental health for a wide segment of the Canadian population. By acting on flimsy evidence, the federal government legitimates excessive fears of chemicals.

Second, journalists play a key role in amplifying risks. Thanks to Google Trends data, I was able to correlate the frequency of news stories about BPA in Canada with internet search interest about the same topic over several years. You can see the results here.

Correlating newspaper coverage with public interest in BPA.

Correlating newspaper coverage with public interest in BPA.

In nearly every week where there was a spike in newspaper interest in BPA, there was a corresponding spike in public interest in BPA. I’m pretty confident in saying that newspaper coverage (particularly Martin Mittelstaedt’s) coverage sent a lot of worried and curious Canadians to the internet to find out more, making the issue more salient in public opinion. A good example of Mittelstaedt’s reporting can be seen here where he describes BPA as “inherently toxic”. While this certainly sounds frightening, the fact is that BPA was only ever found “inherently toxic” to aquatic organisms, not for humans. Moreover — and my paper spells this out — this criteria was not enough to trigger a full screening assessment alone; at the early stage in the regulatory process, this finding was irrelevant. But Mittelstaedt and others made no mention of this because they didn’t want that fact to get in the way of a good scare story.

And lastly, this case shows the need for a better discourse about risks in politics and public policy. One thing that needs to be better understood is that invoking the existence of some threat to welfare (a risk) is only ever a partial equation. Other elements of that equation include what the quality of the evidence is that establishes existence of that risk. In the case of BPA, it was very poor. Yet another part of that equation asks whether public welfare is actually improved by doing anything about it and if so, what that should be. In this case, some environmental groups like Environmental Defence, Martin Mittelstaedt and Health Canada have valiantly protected us from risks based on some pretty flimsy evidence. And in doing so, they’ve helped take hard, reliable, unbreakable plastic bottles off the market place. And now, rock climbers, outdoor activists and parents are using glass baby bottles protected from a hypothetical risk, and now exposed to the risks posed by broken glass.

Clearly this is not the most tragic case of misperception of risks. But in other domains – such as how we try to deal with supposed threats from terrorists or try to minimize the risks from pesticides – failing to appreciate how dealing with one risk can expose us to others could make us all much worse off.

Forget Robert Munsch, kindergartners need skills training

Published Mar. 21, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Recently, the government of Ontario announced that it would be asking employers and industry groups to participate in a process designed to transform how universities are funded and operated in Ontario.

In many ways, this announcement is unsurprising in that it is simply the latest development in a long-term trend toward pushing universities to become places that focus more strongly on training students to meet the needs of the Canadian economy.

Universities, according to this vision, need to become sophisticated versions of community colleges, providing students with high-end skills and training to meet the current and future demands of the marketplace.

Predictably, this recent announcement has generated considerable opposition and disgust among my academic colleagues. I, on the other hand, applaud the government for taking this bold and visionary stance in provincial education policy.

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