In response to one of my science-related questions for the presidential candidates, Drugmonkey points out that the question might not work the way I want it to because of the chasm between science and politics:
“8. If sound scientific research were to demonstrate that one of your policy initiatives couldn’t work (or couldn’t work without tremendous cost in terms of money, health risk, negative environmental impact, etc.), what would you do?”
This almost, but not quite, hits the fundamental cultural problem between the two societies, science and politics. Your question should be reframed as “what if research were to demonstrate your policy hadn’t worked in the first three years, then what would you do?”. The problem is that political behavior is unfalsifiable. “My policy didn’t work? Well, we just didn’t do it enough. Let’s do it more.” Tax cuts or welfare, same deal. No testing, falsifying and moving on to something else because the data told us the policy was flawed. Even the slightest sign of this and someone is a “flip flopper”.
I think Drugmonkey’s diagnosis of the politician’s MO is probably right. And, it occurs to me that this is the thing I hate most about politics-as usual. It’s what makes me want to hold the candidates down and ask them for their stand on reality.
The heart of the problem, in my view, is that politicians have very well refined strategies for winning elections but have devoted much less attention to the challenge of actually governing once elected.
To the extent that governing includes accomplishing things in the real world, elected officials aren’t simply accountable to the people who elected them or the people they’re representing, but to reality. How the world actually is sets a constraint on what you can do. What we already know can help shape more effective strategies for accomplishing particular goals. On the other hand, deciding you’re going to do what you want to do regardless of what knowledge there may be on the feasibility or likely consequences of that course of action seems like a bad strategy for governing.
This is not to say that we always have enough information to make good predictions about what will come out of our efforts, nor that the “conventional wisdom” about what is possible is always right, nor that complex systems are not complex. But is there any other realm of human endeavor besides politics where we’d think it’s a good idea to proceed without first taking stock of the available knowledge? Is that how you want your doctor to do things? Your auto mechanic? The folks charged with ensuring that the water that comes out of your tap is safe to drink?
Why would you want the people governing you to take any less account of reality?
It seems like elections frequently turn on which candidate shares the voters’ world-view. I would like to see candidates make more of an effort to share our world.
And, one of the things that comes with being accountable to the world is being ready to modify your positions in the face of data that would make those positions difficult or impossible to maintain. Keeping your eyes open to reality occasionally requires us to “flip-flop”. That’s not a sign of weakness, but rather an indication of your involvement in the world you share with the rest of us — even if we don’t all share the same vision of what the world should be.
There’s another sort of flip-flopping that’s probably harder to defend, namely, flip-flopping on an issue solely to grab a bigger chunk of the electorate. Changing your “principled view” on torture because the polling data suggests you ought to doesn’t suggest that your moral intuitions are terribly robust.
(It’s striking, though, that polls introduce a sort of data that candidates seem inclined to take very seriously. Of course, it’s data that has more to do with getting elected than with governing effectively.)
While I’m quite interested to know where the candidates stand on matters scientific, my main concern is with who’s ready to govern. For my money, that requires serious engagement with reality — the kind of engagement that sometimes requires updating your views and your plans.