How politicians think

2008-07-12

in Politics, Psychology, Rants, Science, The environment

Garden with wooden planter

The Oil Drum has an interesting post on the psychology of leaders, arguing that their mindset has important consequences in relation to how they evaluate long-term questions like the future of hydrocarbon resources. The argument there is being made about Peak Oil, but it could just as well be applied to climate change:

Our leaders base decisions on lawyer thinking.

The outcome of a trial is not based on the facts; it is based on what they can convince the jury the facts might be. Likewise the outcome of an election is not based on facts; it is based on what they can convince the electorate the relevant facts, issues and threats might be.

Politicians do not deal in facts. They deal in perception. After years of working this way it becomes a framework in which they think.

The basic point is similar to the old joke about how public figures use statistics rather as drunkards use lamp posts: for support rather than illumination. Furthermore, the awareness that other politicians and politically active groups and individuals will use statistics in this way somewhat debases numerical evidence as a form or empirical awareness about the world.

Another important point is made about the differences between political and objective reality:

Politicians tend to inherently believe that the outcome of an event will depend on people’s perceptions and beliefs about that event. Politicians have very little experience with situations where objective reality is more important to outcome than the subjective perception of the reality.

This tendency is especially damaging when it comes to climate change. Because it progresses at an uncertain rate, it may well be that climate changes slowly while the perceptions of most people remain fairly stable, then changes too quickly for anything low-cost and effective to be done. On a problem characterized by uncertain time frames and potentially strong feedback effects, we need to get out in front of the issue, rather than being led by public or elite political opinion.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Rob July 13, 2008 at 5:19 am

“The outcome of a trial is not based on the facts; it is based on what [lawyers] can convince the jury the facts might be. Likewise the outcome of an election is not based on facts; it is based on what [politicians] can convince the electorate the relevant facts, issues and threats might be.”

The second sentence is not talking about the same phenomenon as the first, and the first is false anyway. The first sentence talks about getting people to agree on what the facts are; the second talks about getting them to agree on what the relevant facts are. We can agree that being waterboarded, for example, is an unpleasant experience, but disagree about whether that is relevant for whether or not it’s torture. And that’s what lawyers try and do usually anyway: they argue about relevance against a pretty fixed background of facts. Scientists and policy wonks may not like the fact of disagreement, and not just being able to implement the technocratic solution they favour, but it is a fact, and politics has to happen. Being snide about it doesn’t help.

Ben July 13, 2008 at 5:54 pm

I think this nicely captures Plato’s cave. Prizes are awarded to those who can best predict the actions of the shadows, but it’s all unreal and the prisoners are unaware of the Forms and true art of navigation.

Rob July 14, 2008 at 8:15 am

That it is like Plato is almost exactly what is wrong with it. Politics exists because of difference; obviously part of politics is then going to be negotiating that difference; demands to just agree with some set of non-political facts are a demand for the erasure of the political. I expect complaints about the way all literature is just lying any minute.

Milan July 14, 2008 at 10:18 am

Scientists and policy wonks may not like the fact of disagreement, and not just being able to implement the technocratic solution they favour, but it is a fact, and politics has to happen.

There is inevitably lots of disagreement in something like climate policy. Should an especially dirty industry have to face very heavy carbon prices, in keeping with the polluter pays principle, or do they deserve more lenient treatment because their business model is most threatened by carbon pricing?

That being said, I do think people are too willing to intepret the physical realities of climate chage on the basis of ongoing disagreements between ‘experts’ of various calibers. Even in areas where there is absolutely no scientific disagreement (say, the fact that greenhouse gasses absorb outgoing infrared and heat the planet), too many politicians think the science is ‘unsettled.’

Milan July 14, 2008 at 10:22 am

Demands to just agree with some set of non-political facts are a demand for the erasure of the political.

Agreeing with (a) non-political facts and (b) non-political hypotheses about the physical world bolstered by one or another degree of evidence is vital for beginning the political conversation about climate change. Otherwise, we have no way to arbitrate between the uninformed minority who assert that it is likely to be beneficial overall and the majority who think that extremely improbable.

Rob July 15, 2008 at 7:09 pm

That quite specific policy question seems to me to locate the disagreement at far too concrete a level. Disagreements seem to be at a much more general level, like, what do we owe members of other states; what do we owe future generations, including our future selves; is economic cost the right kind of way to assess the harms of climate change. This, however, may be partly being more philosophically inclined. And I certainly didn’t mean to imply that disagreement about the facts was legitimate: what’s legitimate, and requires negotiation, is the relevance of the facts.

Milan July 16, 2008 at 3:15 pm

I very much agree. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who pre-judge the nature and importance of the facts so as to support their pre-existing ideology or interests.

While it might be technically possible to create a dispassionate assessment of things like the costs of mitigation and adaptation, it is hard to do so within a political realm.

Rob July 18, 2008 at 8:20 am

‘Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who pre-judge the nature and importance of the facts so as to support their pre-existing ideology or interests’.

Seeing that as not being part of the proper role of politics is exactly what I am complaining about. Amazingly, people bring pre-existing convictions and self-understandings to their attempts, even their good-willed attempts, to decide what to do about climate change. Not everyone agrees about that, so you’re going to get disagreement. That disagreement has to be negotiated. And as for the invocation of dispassion, a) thinking that a technocratic, dispassionate perspective in the right one to assess these things from is a pre-existing doctrine like any other and b) it is a pre-existing doctrine whose content is up for grabs, just like any other.

. May 2, 2011 at 6:59 pm

“The obvious cure for the tragic shortcomings of human intuition in a high tech world is education. And this offers priorities for educational policy: to provide students with the cognitive tools that are most important for grasping the modern world and that are most unlike the cognitive tools they are born with. The perilous fallacies we have seen in this chapter, for example, would give high priority to economics, evolutionary biology, and probability and statistics in any high school or college curriculum.”

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate p.235 (paperback)

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