In defense of 'flip-floppers': attention to reality matters.

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.


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Janet - I had a political science prof who said he'd be satisfied if everybody learned one fundamental fact about politics. Policies are important to a politician only insofar as they are instrumental in getting elected and then holding onto one's office. That's it.

Let me try some good news: Politicians, in their public conversations, policies, and election gambits, can't have anything to do with rational policies. Nothing. Rationalists always lose.

But there is a level at which policy often plays a roll, but it is behind the scenes, invisible, and wile very important, often not what we would like it to be.

The key question to ask the politicians:

"How are you going to curtail the shaping of science-related or science-informed policy by lobbyists rather than by scientists? Huh? How you gonna do that? How are you gonna do that, you lousy bum..? Look at ya .. your mother's gotta be rollin' around in her grave..."

... or words to that effect.

It's even worse than you suggest. It's not that they have no plan for governing, it's that there are negative incentives to accomplishing much of what they say they want to accomplish. Ask the pro-lifers how close their votes for Republicans are getting them to having Roe v Wade overturned. Or ask gay people how close their votes for Democrats are getting them equal marriage rights.

While these are extreme cases, the point is that they get their votes by pointing out what's wrong with the system, but eliminating that problem stops pulling in the votes.

It's the oldest and saddest comment on democracy: we get the government we deserve. The voters don't call them to the mat for this, and don't hold them accountable for accomplishing anything.

How, for most policies, do you decide when "research determined your policy didn't work"? Most of the time it doesn't do that. It might determine that current exact policy was followed by some results. But was the policy the reason? Maybe it mitigated even more changes. You laugh off the NEED to decide when there isn't knowledge to make a decision, but I think that is generally the case. The problem then comes when a politician gets used to doing that, and then ignores knowledge. That to me is the problem.

Global warming issues dominate this area, simply because the current administration isn't doing mitigation or prevention and for whatever reasons is ignoring reality. There are a lot of other topics where ethical issues dominate and what "reality" says when mixed with a certain set of moral principles, doesn't matter as much. That is not ignoring reality, it is discounting it, and is I think in the long run the most damaging.

To quote Arthur C. Clarke, "Politics is the art of the possible."

The big problem is that perception is everything in politics: when you've brought in a misguided policy because you thought it was the right thing to do at the time, then the Opposition pillories you in parliament, and the editors pillory you in the papers and the demonstrators pillory you in the streets, because you're wrong, cruel or stupid (or all of the above). And the voting populace shakes its collective head and wonders what the hell it let itself in for.

So then you rescind or modify your policy to meet reality. And then the Opposition pillories you in parliament, and the editors pillory you in the papers and the demonstrators pillory you in the streets (with a hefty dose of schadenfreude thrown in for good measure), because you're weak, spineless and inconsistent. And the voting populace shakes its collective head and wonders what the hell it let itself in for...

I have come to believe firmly that government should be a meritocracy, and that persons running for political office should be chosen by their party on the basis of intelligence, capability and talent, and excluded on the basis of lack thereof. Everyone should be able to vote, but in a half-decent political party, not everyone should be able to nominate for office.

By Justin Moretti (not verified) on 11 Dec 2007 #permalink

Go Janet! Great post; it's a shame we don't see much of this sort of clear thinking in the MSM. BTW I love your sprog-blogging posts!

(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.)

And thus we see exactly the problem. I had a chance to talk with Kevin Shelley, who was the CA secretary of state that decertified the Diebold e-voting machines. Machines that were terribly flawed, by the way. It was one of the most difficult political actions in his career because the public overwhelmingly support the use of the machines after the whole Florida debacle. But the public didn't understand the issue hardly at all. He did the right thing, but it could have killed his career, luckily it didn't.

Politics is no art, it is an ugly, ugly thing, filled with mean and ambitious people who want nothing more than power. Not that every politician is like this, but the majority are.