Professors, politics, and public policy.

Earlier today (Labor Day, September 2), Judith Curry, in her blog Climate, Etc, provided an excellent post on academic  misconceptions of politics and the policy process, based on an article by Richard D. French in Political Quarterly, entitled The Professors on Public Life (my apologies, but it seems that only the abstract of his original paper is publicly available, at least at the moment).

Mr. French notes, and Ms. Curry concurs, that many academics see the issue in a knowledge deficit frame… if only politicians knew what scientists know, they’d agree with scientists on the urgency of this or that problem (substitute your favorite debate here). As Ms. Curry reports, Mr. French follows this with a litany of misconceptions professors hold about the policy process, politics, and political leaders (not reproduced here; please refer to his article or her post).

She then quotes Mr. French to the effect that the cardinal facts of public life are extreme degrees of competition, publicity and uncertainty.

[T]he key differentiator among politicians is not respect for knowledge, or ethical lucidity, or a commitment to disciplined dialogue—although all can be valuable. It is the capacity to adapt more rapidly than one’s peers.

In this world, the currency of information is far more important than its epistemic status, and gossip is an essential part of the working day.

Deliberative disciplinarians want public debate to consist of arguments based—at a minimum—on evidence and principle. Politicians instinctively understand that control of the public agenda depends not on achieving the kinds of standards which reign in classrooms, tenure committees and the editorial boards of learned journals, but rather in being seen and heard, ideally in the construction of meaning and the incarnation of authenticity rather than in a claim to truth. For them, it is more important to induce trust and belief than to try to educate citizens on the facts and principles.

JC comment:  The stars of the Climategate saga never seemed to grasp why the emails mattered, even if they didn’t change the science one iota.  Its about authenticity and trust.

Ms. Curry’s latter remark is quoted and highlighted here because it bears on a particular conversation that came up during my visit last week with my brother. He had been kind enough to introduce me to a neighbor, who took us both out for lunch. The subject turned to climate change. Along the way, the neighbor stressed that careful reading of the Climategate e-mails had destroyed his trust in what scientists had been saying up to that point. [We’ll return to this aspect in a moment.]

In closing, Mr. French comments to the effect that political players are forced to deal with uncertainties far more vigorously and arguably more realistically than their scientist-academic counterparts. Those interested can consult Ms. Curry’s post for this part of his commentary and more.

Back to the issue of trust.

We tend to take it as given that trust has to be earned, and that it is hard-won and fragile. We teach our kids this. We hold ourselves to this standard (sort of, and to varying degrees). We see the smallest breach as reason to abandon our trust for an individual or institution, and we are quick to distrust others.

Fair enough. But in our present interdependent society, when our destinies are so intertwined, this state of affairs is not enough to carry us forward. Nowadays, we have to trust complete strangers, ranging from the acne-faced teenager who just prepared our Big Mac to the hoary-headed politician half a world away with his hand on the nuclear trigger, to the engineer who’s controlling our electrical power grid, to the bankers who are handling our electronic financial transactions. At the same time, social media have provided an unprecedented tool for exposing flaws and shortcomings in seemingly high-minded individuals. By these lights, no one is trustworthy.

One vital component to coping with this reality is for each of us to become fanatic about our own trustworthiness, to improve the quality control we bring to all our relationships, our promises, and commitments to each other, and our actions. But if we’re honest, we’ll quickly realize that we fall short of our own standards of conduct. And if that’s true, then we need to be more accepting of the flaws in others.

In fact, it may well be that to make progress going forward, we may have to see trust more as something we give to others rather than something they can only earn. Spouses and life partners know full well the truth in this. And the keys are… and I hate to get spiritual on this, but these really are the keys… love and forgiveness. We have to put the interests of others above our own, and while we don’t have to overlook or forget their faults and shortcomings, we do have to forgive them, not just once but repeatedly.

It helps to embrace this… to realize and appreciate and be grateful for how much we can trust our fellow human beings. And on this Labor Day holiday, perhaps we can specialize that to how much we can trust the laborers of every sort who maintain and operate our critical infrastructure, supplying water, food, energy, financial support, healthcare, and so much more.

And remain those trustworthy laborers ourselves, starting tomorrow morning

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