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With the future of the Australian parliament still hanging in that weird limbo of a pre-minority-government, I’m reminded of various conversations I’ve had with a good friend and fellow critical thinker about something we like to call ‘evidence based government‘. In the last few years there has been a slow proliferation of websites and blogs highlighting the merits of scientific and skeptical thinking in areas which are often the target of shysters and snake-oil peddlers; particularly on the internet where’s it’s oh so easy to spin a line of pseudo-scientific claptrap and not get called on it.
So along these lines we now have some voices of reason ranging from Science Based Medicine and its partner in crime Science Based Pharmacy, to Science Based Parenting and Evidence Based Management all based on the simple understanding that any claims someone cares to make about the material universe must by their material nature be empirically testable and verifiable, and crucially that decisions should be made on the basis of good evidence, not instinct, hunches, fantasy or falsehoods.

Politics is often treated with kid gloves though. At first appearance it might seem, and is often argued by notable skeptics, to be a subject too murky and prone to fireworks to address critically (i.e. in the way they’ll happily indulge in for medicine or the paranormal).
This is a cop-out in my opinion, not least of all because it’s perfectly possible to engage in a discussion about how political systems do or don’t work without necessarily descending into an overtly political debate. The fact is that political pundits and politicians, regardless of ideology, are constantly making material claims without supporting them by evidence; or at the most relying on the two worst forms of evidence, namely individual anecdotes and popular opinion polling.
To illustrate this let’s create a hypothetical politician, Polly. Polly is on the campaign trail making his speeches and says something like:

Wherever I go around this wonderful country I hear stories just like those of young Billy here, that there are never enough Legos to go around. Friends, my opponent has done nothing to invest in vital Lego infrastructure! Not a single thing!… I give you my pledge today that if elected I will invest heavily in Lego, particularly the latest Space Lego, so vital to the future of our country!

Campaigns are full of such hyperbole, but let’s just take a moment to pick it apart. The story Polly hears from Billy, and presumably ‘many’ other little Billys is simply an anecdote. Even if it’s an accurate representation of what Billy believes, and even if Polly is being completely honest that he hears a similar story everywhere he goes, it still has almost no evidentiary value. No matter how well travelled Polly is, no matter how many hands he’s shaken or babies he’s kissed; the very nature of the places he visits, the people who are attracted to his stump speeches, and his own inclination to credit ideologically favourable interactions more highly means that he’s never going to get anything like a statistically representative sample of his constituency.
After this he makes an entirely testable and verifiable claim about his opponent’s lack of action, but one which immediately stretches credibility. On an issue of such alleged importance it seems unlikely that the opponent would have done nothing at all to address it, and while the degree of any such action is a fair point for a debate between the two candidates, the unfounded and implausible claim adds nothing to such a debate.
We let our politicians get away with this kind of stuff all the time, as if it’s just a natural part of the political process over which we have no control, and which we shouldn’t really get too hot under the collar about. But is it? Polly himself gives us the criteria by which we can measure his relative success, should he be elected. Presumably his opponent did the same in the preceding election cycle… And yet time after time it seems we’re expected to discard those presumptive critera and apply a newer, more subjective set at the next election.
Sometimes there may really be a need to do that, but should we be prepared to do it regularly? Without any explanation?

My second bugbear is that politicians rely on a seemingly endless array of logically inconsistent and fallacious arguments. We’re happy enough to pick away at these when they’re made by proponents of quack cures, moon hoax conspiracies, or for-profit religions; why not our elected representatives?
There is a great list of logical fallacies at SkepticWiki, and if you have the time it’s good fun to browse through them with a mind to politics and politicians, but a few obvious ones stand out… Take it away Polly:

The Ad Hominem:
My opponent doesn’t know anything about Legos because he’s not married.

The Straw Man:
My opponent will never invest in Lego infrastructure. If he gets his way you’ll wake up one morning to find all Lego banned, and the only thing to play with will be that communist Meccano stuff.

The non causa pro causa (correlation confused with causation):
Since my opponent never invested in Lego and we had a recession, clearly our Lego deficiency is a serious economic burden.

The Argument from Incredulity
I can’t imagine how anyone could enjoy playing with Meccano, so Lego is the best infrastructure choice for this country.

I could go on, and on, and on, but you get the idea. These kinds of arguments are so common that even when we disagree we still tend to accept their fallacious nature and try to argue against them on the merits, which is a pretty unstable foundation by that point.

I think we can, and are entitled to demand better from our politicians. In this case ‘Evidence Based Politics‘ has nothing to do with the ideological spectrum, but describes the way in which I’d prefer that politicians represented their respective political positions.
I don’t believe that the burden here rests on the politicians themselves, but on us as an informed electorate. The nature of politics is such that politicians need to be responsive to their audience, and although at times it might seem like the authority flows from them down to us, in reality (at least in western democracies) the opposite is true. Regardless of what your political views are, the whole exercise of political discourse would be well served by constituents who increasingly ask their representatives a few simple questions, not as a challenge, but stemming from an earnest desire to have an informed debate:

  1. What is your evidence for that claim?
  2. Can you make that argument logically consistent?
  3. Is success quantifiable based on your own past criteria?

Of course politicians try to duck hard questions by answering their own,  or with the polite brush-off, and I’d be extremely naive to think that this is a roadmap to perfect politics, it’s really more of a target for soft but constant pressure. Perhaps it’s best directed at the candidates we support, rather than the ones we don’t, so that in helping to reinforce their their rickety old soapboxes with a little reason and empiricism we’re being supportive of the policies we want to see developed rather than hostile to those we don’t.


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