Monday, July 31, 2017

Alternative Facts and Public Affairs

Note:  For nearly eight years I have served as the editor of the Journal of Public Affairs Education
For each issue, I write an introduction.  For the latest issue, I did an intro called “Alternative Facts and Public Affairs,” speaking to the latest battles in politics over science, truth, knowledge, and public policy.  Here is a portion of that intro.

What is a fact and how do we know when something is true? These are not just philosophical questions. In this era of intense partisan polarization, especially in the United States, the very notion that objective facts and truth exist is contested, and it seems acceptable for elected officials, policy makers, and the media to eschew real facts and opt instead for alternative facts. Contrary to the assertion of former US senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who once declared that everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts, it now seems that everyone and each political party do have their own facts and truth. Why? Simply put, scientific facts and truth are not the same as political facts and truth; democracy and science are often in conflict, and the differing groups that support the Democratic and Republican Parties have vested interests in endorsing rival conceptions of truth. This is a dangerous proposition for governance and public affairs, where belief in knowledge, facts, and the pursuit of best practices premised on these is the mainstay of what we teach and encourage in our students as we prepare them for careers in public service.
For 30 years, I have taught American politics, law, and public policy. As someone with graduate degrees in astronomy, philosophy, law, and political science, my research and teaching centers on how policy making can be more evidence-based. In most aspects of our lives and in business, we are taught to draw on the best available evidence before making decisions. The same should be true for politicians and government. Decisions crafted out of political myths and faulty or no evidence yield bad public policy, wasting taxpayer dollars and leading to failed or ineffective programs. Yet too much policy is created without real evidence.
There are many reasons for this. One can clearly point to intense interest group politics and the corrosive impact of money on politics as possibilities. But there is also a profound difference in how scientists and politicians gather facts and think about the world.
Scientists (and most social scientists) subscribe to the scientific method. This is a rigorous approach, ideally using controlled experiments and the inductive process of gathering discrete data, which are then aggregated to test hypotheses. Scholars also often use statistical sampling to estimate how representative their samples are in terms of the phenomena being studied. One cannot examine every molecule in the universe, and good samples allow for generalizations. But there is always a slight probability of error.
For scientists, facts are rigorously tested but cannot be proved with 100% certainty. Science is about falsifying claims. Scientific knowledge is also incremental, built on what is previously known, as bricks laid one upon another to construct a wall. Scientists have built a wall of knowledge, facts, and truth. The laws of gravity, Einstein’s famous E = mc2, and 1+1 = 2 are examples. Scientific facts and truth have made possible telephones, television, the Internet, and the cure for polio. If one denies scientific truth, one might as well deny civilization. While we may not have a social science or public affairs equivalent of E = mc2, we do have an impressive trove of data and knowledge about the world of public policy and administration. We may not know truths that are etched in stone, but we do know what has failed and often what should not be done. In many cases, we have the lessons of history to guide us, or we simply do the best we can in a world of bounded rationality—we act based on the best knowledge we have and perhaps, in Charles Lindblom fashion, muddle though.
But (social) scientific knowledge is different from political knowledge. What is political truth, especially in a democracy? It is what 50% plus one of the population says: majority rule. For elected officials, what counts as facts and truth is what they learn from their constituents. A politician’s world is not one of controlled experiments, hypotheses, and statistically valid samples; what counts as valid evidence in making policies are the stories and interests of voters. This can be powerful evidence to someone who may need support in the next election. What is true in this sense has less to do with rigorous methods of investigation than with how well an assertion plays with the media or voters.
On occasion, scientific and political truth converge, resulting in good public policy. But historically they do not. The tension between scientific or expert knowledge culled from rigorous testing versus political knowledge based on majority rule is deep and has existed since Plato discussed it nearly 2,500 years ago. This is the technocracy/democracy gap. Some have more or specialized knowledge compared to others. Should the people defer to the experts or choose for themselves what they consider to be true? This is where political leadership comes in—to guide the public and make decisions based on the best knowledge at hand.
While science and democracy are in tension, how do we explain the partisan war on science between Democrats and Republicans in the United States? Battles over global warming and alternative facts are sourced in competing economic interests that support or sustain specific biases or factual worldviews. The two parties represent divergent interests that in turn have financial interests in rival conceptions of truth. Right now, Republicans are representing interests generally hostile to science, including energy companies that wish to deny climate change or workers who fear that automation will un-employ them. But this could change.
The gap between scientific and political knowledge might be bridged with more scientific education in schools. It might also be good if we elected more scientists to office. Together, this might create conditions that would make the political process more hospitable to science, yet there is no guarantee. Differing economic interests drive scientific skepticism, as do fear and prejudice, and something needs to be done to address both tendencies. The challenge for scientists and their allies is to convince the public and politicians that science is not a threat but rather enables and enriches our society.

As editor of JPAE and as a professor, I remain committed to the old-school idea that facts matter and truth exists and that both should guide the teaching and practice of public affairs. My goal has been to make sure that each issue of this journal contains articles that enhance our teaching and knowledge, helping us in the quest of producing the next generation of scholars and administrators who have the skills and knowledge to do their best to serve their constituents.

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