The war on experts
Posted on May 2, 2014 by Christopher Thrall
Alumnus Stewart Prest, UBC political science PhD candidate, writes about the Fair Elections Act.
This op-ed article was published by the Ottawa Citizen on March 20, 2014.
By barring Elections Canada officials from speaking to Canadians about democracy, the Fair Elections Act (C-23) continues a pattern in which successive government actions have eroded space for, and support of, non-partisan yet politically relevant expertise in Canadian political discourse.
Access to alternative sources of information is a prerequisite of democracy. This is popularly thought of as the presence of competitive and independent media. While an important part of the equation, on its own that is insufficient. Modern democracies need access to non-partisan sources of expertise and expert-generated information as well.
Some of these sources of expertise exist in academia. Others are found among think tanks and not-for-profit agencies, though these latter groups are more often explicitly or implicitly biased in assumptions and approach.
However, in modern democratic states one of the most important sources for non-partisan information and expertise is the government itself. Government bureaucracies are the only institutions in the world today with the access, the resources, and the motivation to systematically monitor and study the entirety of a country’s population and the extent of its human and natural environment.
Examples are legion, from statisticians to health officials to diplomats to environmental scientists. They exist throughout the much maligned but nonetheless vital bureaucracy of the country. Crucially, their professional incentives push them to resist conclusions that may even be perceived as partisan. After all, a long-serving civil servant will work under different parties and political masters. Their professional success comes from striving to provide politically neutral advice and support for political decision-making, and engaging in equally neutral policy implementation. Though part of the machinery of the state, these experts are — or ought to be — distinct and largely independent from the particular partisan interests of the government of the day.
Such bureaucrats are, among other things, keepers of tradition: a reservoir of knowledge about how Canadians have governed themselves over previous years and decades. They know and can speak to what works, and what does not. In this regard, theirs is a deeply conservative (small-c) form of expertise, one that has played no small part in whatever good government Canadians have enjoyed since confederation.
It is for this reason so alarming that, in field after field, this type of politically relevant, yet non-partisan expertise is being removed from public discourse. I see three mechanisms at work: expertise is consistently being suppressed, undermined, or — pardon the jargon — partisanized. Consequently, Canadian citizens and political leaders alike are operating with reduced access to expert information and judgment, precisely at a time when, given the spiralling complexity and competitiveness of the global environment, such advice has never been more important.
With respect to C-23, the decision to radically restrict the Chief Electoral Officer’s (CEO) ability to speak to Canadians about democracy constitutes an example of suppression. Likewise, C-23 would place the Commissioner of Elections — the official responsible for investigation of electoral fraud — under the aegis of the Attorney General. Consequently, she or he would report via cabinet, rather than directly to the public or Parliament. In the words of the CEO, this “would limit the ability of the Commissioner to issue even de personalized public reports (such as to reassure Canadians in the case of an investigation into fraud that uncovered no illegality)….”
In effect, the government is barring two non-partisan experts with unique and valuable perspectives from engaging in public discourse on a subject of vital importance to the health of Canadian democracy.
The decision to make the long form of the 2011 census voluntary exemplifies a second mechanism. In this case, government action does not suppress experts; rather, it undermines the very basis on which expertise is based. With Statistics Canada’s publication of the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS), the successor to the long form census, the effects of that decision are now becoming clear. As the NHS User Guide states, “caution must be exercised when NHS estimates are compared with estimates produced from the 2006 Census long form, especially when the analysis involves small geographies.”
That caution is well advised, indeed understated. StatsCan has had to take remarkable measures to produce even the flawed results we have to work with today, including a significant relaxation in data quality standards. An astonishing 81 per cent of census subdivisions — basic geographic areas of the census — would have failed to pass muster under 2006 standards and been left unpublished as a result.
StatsCan has, to all appearances, made heroic efforts to maximize the accuracy of data through a variety of survey and statistical techniques. Even so, it has not been enough to guarantee reliability. For instance, researchers at the University of Toronto demonstrated that the NHS data wrongly indicates that inequality has decreased in metropolitan areas of Canada since 2006, when it has in fact increased. Such misleading data is worse than useless.
We know ourselves as a country less well now than after previous censuses, reversing a trend of increasing self-knowledge stretching back to the first census of New France more than 350 years ago.
The weakening of the census has real effects on our politics. Experts who rely on it to report on what is happening in our country can say less, with less confidence, about key social issues than they could previously. In the absence of that hard data, people will see what they want to see in whatever information is available; untested assumptions and well-funded rhetoric will win out over evidence-based argument.
The inability of government environmental scientists to speak publicly, with all communication between them and the media strictly controlled or prevented completely, represents another significant change from previous standard practice.
It is also an example of both the undermining and suppression mechanisms described above.
It is suppression to the extent that scientists with the expertise and knowledge to speak authoritatively remain excluded from public discourse or even remove themselves for fear of losing funding or employment. The reach of such suppression goes beyond scientists directly employed by the government, potentially affecting anyone who wishes to work with government scientists, data, or funding. Indeed, even a U.S. based oceanographer reported concerns that the Canadian government was attempting to limit his ability to publish results based on collaborative research.
It undermines expertise by limiting the dissemination of results. This goes to the heart of the idea of science as a collaborative enterprise. Without open and transparent peer review and public scrutiny, research cannot be considered truly scientific. Absent dissemination and verification, it is ultimately just hearsay, contributing nothing to the cumulation of knowledge.
With us or against us
The saga of Kevin Page’s time as the country’s first Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) illustrates the third mechanism, partisanization. Throughout his tenure, Page’s office was in constant conflict with the government it was tasked to monitor. During one episode in which the PBO took the government to Federal Court over access, the Prime Minister referred to the move as a “partisan action.” The comment is telling. Experts doing no more than they believed to be their legislative and professional duty were cast as partisan actors because those actions ran counter to the wishes of the sitting government.
Once identified as partisan, voices may be dismissed, even targeted for ad hominem attack. Retired General Andrew Leslie has been a Liberal for about half a year. For 35 years prior to that he provided the most dedicated service to the country, service that grants him unique insight into the challenges facing the country’s military, service that in fact make him an expert on a range of public policy issues.
Unfortunately, such service and expertise now count for nothing. He is, in the eyes of the government, completely defined by his partisanship, fair game to have legitimate personal expenses publicly questioned.
The strategy is not reserved for self-declared partisans, either. Retired senior civil servants, finally free to speak their minds after a career of dutiful reticence, are similarly branded as partisan voices regardless of their political affiliation, their expertise accordingly dismissed. There is less and less room for political speech that is not viewed as partisan, regardless of the speaker’s personal context. In such a polarized environment, the very concept of the public interest becomes fraught.
Hearts, not minds
Observers ascribe various motives to each of the above actions. The government is engaged in a war on science, grooming and pandering to anti-intellectual voters, playing political hardball, settling scores with enemies, or in the pocket of big business, particularly the petroleum industry. Those may indeed be proximate motives and explanations, but when combined, the moves produce larger effects of the sort described above.
Why do this? A clue may be found in comments last year by Mel Cappe, former clerk of the Privy Council Office. He says ministers no longer seek out the advice of civil servants. Their agendas, conclusions, and the analysis on which they are based come from non-governmental sources. That, according to Cappe, is indicative of ideological, rather than evidence-based government.
It is an approach consistent with the idea of politics as war by other means, and total war at that. Rather than crafting a position that will win the majority of Canadians’ votes, the goal becomes to craft the strategy most likely to ensure a preferred vision wins the day. Any resulting collateral damage to Canadian democratic and governmental institutions is simply the price of victory.
Regardless of the precise motivations at work, the loss of non-partisan expertise is real, growing, and in the long term costly to all Canadians regardless of political allegiance. Evidence-based expertise is a vital prerequisite of good government. Without it, Canadians may soon see less peace and order in their politics as well.
Stewart Prest is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of British Columbia. Follow him at Twitter.com/StewartPrest.
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