Alternative facts, misdirection, and outright propaganda seem to dominate the news media landscape today in a way that is quite different from the past. How can viewers and listeners navigate the flood of untruths? Can democracy survive the viral uptake of social media memes and myths?
I can only imagine how dizzying it must be to try to make sense of climate science as a non-climate scientist. My background and training doesn’t really equip me to engage in a discussion about the accuracy of climate models, the relative importance of various gas emissions in affecting degrees of heating, or the significance of sea ice extent in the summer in the Arctic. In fact, my engagement as a political scientist in these debates would be highly counterproductive to the discussion and would contribute zero to the stock of climate knowledge as it pertains to the prognosis for the earth.
The Nature of Science and the Science of Nature
One of the mistakes we often make is confusing scientific debates with political ones. This is what fed the ‘climategate’ debacle and what continues to make any whiff of scientific controversy pure oxygen for climate skeptics. However, criticisms of scientists (as opposed to science) mistake the forest for the trees. Scientists are not ‘debating’ the climate so much as they are refining the cumulative knowledge that is their scientific purview, a body of knowledge which is the culmination of centuries of practice, experimentation, rigid application of standards, and a continual cycle of testing and iteration that has stood the test of time. One might also add the contribution of the body of indigenous knowledge that arises from centuries of close experience with changing ecosystems. This knowledge has provided a proven basis for human survival and thriving through millennia of climate changes.
One of the mistakes we often make is confusing scientific debates with political ones.
These methods of knowledge production have produced our most reliable and predictable technologies, things that we use every day without questioning or even knowing anything about their scientific basis. When we check our phones for the correct time or our GPS to figure out how to get to Auntie’s house for dinner, we don’t interrogate the motivations that drive scientists to do their thing, we just make use of it. We’ve forgotten that accurate clocks and navigation systems are the products of the same efforts and methods that produce climate knowledge.
What Role for Political Science?
So, where does that leave me? Shifting the lens means looking at how people learn, where their confidence in their knowledge comes from, and assessing their claims on the basis of mutual respect for each others’ life experience and formal and informal learning.
Assessing claims over time gives better confidence in their robustness, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to truth. Knowledge is socially produced, and so helping to understand how and why social innovation happens is one way that political scientists can contribute to our understanding of climate change.
This is the purview of political science – at the core we political scientists are about improving our knowledge about how people learn, how they come to their beliefs, and how decisions result from that interaction.
What Political Science Might Say
Here’s what political scientists might conclude about the current debates over climate change:
Climate change is a complex of human and nature interactions, incorporating both ecosystem and social system changes. Ask a biologist – life has shaped the planet as much as the planet has shaped life.
Humans deploy information as a tool to resolve psychological and social problems, such as cognitive dissonance or hypocrisy.
Humans deploy information as a tool to foment problems because it brings them social benefits such as inclusion and acceptance into a group they aspire to. This observation applies to scientists as well as everyone else, but scientific testing is explicitly designed to moderate and reduce the impact of this human tendency on the knowledge produced.
Human social reactions to emerging threats vary hugely based on their perceptions, but depend inordinately on social relationships. Human social innovations in response to climate change may be classified into two broad forms: social control or mobilization.
Those furthest from the object of knowledge (non-scientists, the wealthy and geographically mobile) will be just as likely to experience dissonance but will prefer social control strategies over mobilization
Mobilization does not require special knowledge or access, nor does it require knowledge to be certain or definitive
Social benefits and costs will not be distributed evenly, leading to further pressures on decision making, as sorting these out distracts from collective action
Cognitive dissonance and time pressures leads human decision making groups to narrow the range of choices available in ways that make decisions ultimately less adaptive and optimal.
Knowledge is socially produced, and so understanding how and why social innovation happens is one way that political scientists can contribute to our understanding of climate change.
What to Do?
Some of these observations are more pessimistic, and some are more optimistic, when it comes to the prospects for taking climate action. On the pessimistic side, widespread and deep questioning of the basis of human knowledge is most counterproductive when humans most need to grow their knowledge in order to act effectively. On the other hand, the prospects for collective mobilization may grow over time as climate change impacts become more widely felt.
We are in a novel historical moment which challenges the full range of human ingenuity. Whether mobilization or social control will win out is an open question. I’d speculate that social innovations tend to be more adaptive in a stable climate than they are in a rapidly-changing climate. I know which I’d prefer, but history (if it continues at all) will be the ultimate judge.
This presentation takes a practical look at recent trends in the world and analyze whether the world is getting better or worse. We will look at trends in democracy, human rights and freedoms, economic growth and inequality, environmental degradation and climate change, human health, population, and governance, among others.
The liberal international order (LIO) has been in place for half of Canada’s 150-year existence and Canada has been an integral part of it from the beginning. As one of the founding members of this order Canada has a stake and a role in preserving international law, peace, prosperity and human rights. However, the LIO is under stress. What will be Canada’s response to a new era of diverse challenges? From the U.S. effort to abandon NAFTA to the challenges of terrorism and environmental breakdown, Canada’s capacities are being put to the test. This session will open a conversation about Canada’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in a world of rapid and unexpected change.
Although often painted as problematic for rational decision making, emotion is a human trait that must be accounted for in analyses of real-world decision making processes.
Sometimes I find that classroom conversations from years ago have new relevance in the present period. I recall a classroom debate in the York University International Relations Core Course during my PhD program, over the strategic basis of nuclear deterrence. After reviewing the various claims and counter claims about the cold logic of mutually assured destruction, and inspired at least in part by Carol Cohn’s groundbreaking work “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals”,* I found myself questioning the rationalist foundations of nuclear strategy. “But (I said with all of the confidence of youth), don’t nuclear scientists and strategic game theorists care about their families and their fates? How can they be so dispassionate about contemplating total annihilation? How can they go to work and talk about clean bombs and counter value targeting (a euphemism for attacking cities) and then go home and hug and kiss their kids?” The reason, I was told, is that they do what they do BECAUSE they care….they are dispassionate because that is how they, and we all, end up alive. Their caring is what motivates their clear thinking.
This answer still strikes me as unsatisfying in many ways. What precisely does it mean to ‘care’ in strategic decision making? ‘Caring’ is an emotional response. Although often painted as problematic for rational decision making, emotion is a human trait that must be accounted for in analyses of real-world decision making processes.
There are many examples of ’emotions gone wrong’ in world politics. George W. Bush’s strong desire to attack Iraq in 2003 was in part a personal and emotional reaction to how he perceived his father had been threatened by Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War. The first attack on Iraq in 1991 was itself in part motivated by shock at widely-reported atrocities by Iraqi forces after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. These reports later turned out to be false, but the outraged reaction fed into the public’s willingness to support a new narrative of Iraq, and Hussein in particular, as a savage and villainous leader.
Before launching his invasion of Kuwait, Hussein had been considered a strategic ally, despite his use of chemical weapons against Iran and his own people. In a famous meeting between American diplomat April Glaspie and Saddam Hussein on the eve of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Glaspie said that the US had “no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait”. This, perhaps inadvertently, suggested a green light for Iraq to invade, a miscommunication with consequences still being felt years later.
“It is striking that people often preserve their images in the face of what seems in retrospect to have been clear evidence to the contrary” ~Robert Jervis
Analysts have approached the subject of emotion in decision making from a variety of different angles. To the extent that emotions result in misread signals and a tendency to rash action, these are viewed as highly problematic for peace, stability, and prosperity in world politics.
During the high stakes and high tensions of Cold War diplomacy, governments sought advice from experts who could help them better understand how emotions could impair rational decision making. One of those experts was Robert Jervis, whose master work Perception and Misperception in International Politicswas first published in 1976.
Among the many insights in Jervis’s enduring work, the idea that cognitive dissonance, or an inability to cope with the tension between real experiences and beliefs, motivates people to misread the signals and intentions of others. As Jervis stated: “It is striking that people often preserve their images in the face of what seems in retrospect to have been clear evidence to the contrary (143).” So true.
Jervis’s work was part of a larger conversation between realists and their critics over whether decision making could be truly rational. Realists and others argued that decision making could and should be prudent, deliberative, objective, and rigorous, if it was to be effective. Critics, like Jervis, argued that ‘pure’ rationality was elusive, and at any rate not necessarily desirable since even the most ‘rational’ decisions can create irrational and suboptimal outcomes. The Prisoners’ Dilemma is the prime example of how ‘rational’ decision making can create less desirable outcomes than those that might come about with more trust, empathy, and communication between leaders.
Major policy decisions and international diplomacy now appear to be made virtually on the fly, with little deliberation, on the spur of emotional reaction that appears to have little pattern or reason. Emotion has moved to the centre of decision making, moving from the margins to be a primary driver of governance at elite and popular levels. Virtually no one sees ‘governing from the gut’ as a positive development, given the volatility of, for example, relations between the US and a potentially nuclear-armed North Korea.
Is there an upside to recognizing the role of emotions in decision making? As well as being volatile, emotions can also lead people to identify and empathize with others, an important human capacity that leads to movements for peace, development assistance, and generosity during humanitarian disasters or suffering. Just as hatred for Hussein led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, empathy and caring led hundreds of thousands of ordinary folks to protest that war in the largest demonstrations in history. As I pointed out in class, caring is key and should be central to understanding motivations.
As well as being volatile, emotions can also lead people to identify and empathize with others, an important human capacity that leads to movements for peace, development assistance, and generosity during humanitarian disasters or suffering.
There is a marked erosion of empathy in the world today, whether caused by donor fatigue, news fatigue, or a rise in the general level of fear and threat. Anxiety ‘crowds out’ empathy. In this context, the realist/rationalist effort to banish emotion from decision making, in both practical and theoretical terms, seems misguided. What is needed is a reframing of the role of emotion.
Emotional reactions exist, but so do emotional connections. Empathy is needed to ‘temper’ tempers. In an ‘age of anger’ it is healthier to recognize, name and acknowledge the role of emotions in human decisions than it is to pursue an impossible goal of pure, cold, and clinical rationality. Deliberation, democracy and debate, whether on social media, in the Oval Office, or between negotiators, should be based on a mutual recognition of emotions as part of the discussion.
The point is not to exclude emotions from world politics in favour of an ideal of detached rationalism. The point is to avoid confusing emotional expressions with strategic decisionmaking. To return to the original discussion about nuclear strategy, it is the caring that creates the strategy, the desire for self-preservation that motivates rational thinking.
The world’s history of miscommunication, misunderstanding and unintentional effects do not bode well. The key ingredients of nuclear deterrence are capability and credibility, and Trump is sorely lacking in the latter. In the game of war, confusions of intent are, and have been, deadly: from 1914 to 2003, and up to today. To the extent that rationalist theory urges clear eyed thinking and deliberation, it can contribute to keeping cooler heads. But even rationalists should not seek to banish all emotion, since a lack of caring leads to less human decisions that ultimately may end up threatening all of us.
*I highly recommend Cohn’s piece, if only for her great lyrical analysis of gendered language in defense strategy, with terms like “vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration, and the comparative advantages of protracted
versus spasm attacks” (page 693).
In April, US Representative Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) had a tough town hall. Upset about the Trump legislative agenda, constituents called Mullin to task as a public employee. His unscripted response was to complain about their questions and to argue that the idea that taxpayers pay his salary was ‘bullcrap’. He went on: “I pay for myself…I pay enough taxes where before [sic] I ever got there, and continue to for [sic] my company and pay my own salary.” Mullin further claimed that his job as a public servant was an ‘honor’ and that his wealth and position as a business leader gave him a special freedom and independence from government. This independence from financial ties, in turn, bolsters his credibility as a critic of government encroachment.
Is Public Service a Contract?
His argument opens an intriguing window on the way that public service (and, by extension, government) is being recast. While there is a striking & stark contradiction between claiming to both represent taxpayers and to be free from accountability to them, Mullin kind of had a point—–Do ‘taxpayers’ (as a group, and aside from ‘citizens’) actually have rights? Is public service a kind of contract of service, in which representatives agree to provide a necessary ‘good’ in exchange for a fee (salary paid by taxpayers)?
I want to say no, that is not the essence of public service. Public service should not be reduced to little more than a commercial exchange or contractual relationship, it is also a relationship of trust. Logically, then, to some extent I (gulp) agree with Mullin that it is a service and a privilege. This is not to say that there is no contractual dimension to public service, however. Ever since Rousseau wrote about the Social Contract in the 18th century, governments and citizens have expected a relationship of mutual accountability. For Rousseau, however, the social contract was a metaphor for the larger relationship of mutual obligation that government rested upon; in particular the obligation of the state to its citizens. Therefore, the relationship between the public and public servants does have a contractual dimension. So, if it is not only a contract, what else is it?
The Origins of Taxpayers’ Rights
Prior to the widespread institution of income taxes as a primary revenue source for modern administrative governments, most governments gained the vast majority of their revenue from taxes on trade. The famous Boston Tea Party protest was against the unfair tax rate on a commodity (tea) and the legitimacy of the Crown’s right to tax commerce without accountability to traders. Eventually, of ourse, taxes became imposed on other dimensions of economic activity, include labour and capital gains. What drove governments to reach beyond trade to enrich their treasuries was war. War required governments to raise funds to field military forces at a competitive level to other states. War also brought conscription, wherein the sons of the poor were required to invest their lives in the security of the state. Conscription without representation was just as untenable as taxation without representation, however. With new demands from the state, the state also had to provide new opportunities for returning veterans, which in turn necessitated higher taxes to provide housing, care, education and a safety net. In truth, the extension of the tax base to all income earners relieved business of the bulk of the tax burden, and business benefited from the security provided by the state. Security provided great opportunity for economies to grow and globalize.
Paying taxes does and should produce a set of obligations on the part of the government to respect the public interest
Asking the people to expend blood and treasure on war meant that there was an implied responsibility on the part of the state to provide social services to the people. Taxpayers could expect that public servants would expend public treasure for the public good, not for the interests of business alone. Underlying the arrangement was a semi-contractual kind of language: taxpayers could expect to be able to exercise their democratic rights to ‘check’ irresponsible governments; and governments could expect citizens to be devoted to the support of the state in war, and in peace.
Clearly, this calculus has changed. The reasons for this are numerous, not least that conscription has been eliminated and war is fought very differently, but it is still undeniably the case today that paying taxes does and should produce a set of obligations on the part of the government to respect the public interest.
Taxpayer Rights Versus Taxpayer Interests
Paying taxes does not only create a contractual relationship, it also binds taxpayers to their community, giving them a stake in a common future and ensuring thier engagement in public life.
This is not, however, the same as saying that taxpayers per se have rights, over and above their interests as members of the public. A ‘right’ implies a claim to greater respect and recognition over and above the interests of other groups. A ‘right’ is a trump card that all other interests, and government, must respect. Taxpayers as a group are entitled to a voice and to express their interest as a group. An ‘interest’ implies a competition in the marketplace of ideas in which any one group’s desires may reasonably and fairly be considered over and above others, within the framework of laws that otherwise encourage respect for fundamental rights. Taxpayers, like retirees, patients, business owners, students, workers, and other groups, have interests, but not rights. Ethnic minorities, religious minorities, the disabled, the press, and the public, on the other hand, have rights that may override taxpayers’ interests, and that may necessitate that government prioritize these considerations over others.
The Recasting of Government in the New Agenda
What the new agenda overlooks is that paying taxes does not only create a contractual relationship, it also binds taxpayers to their community, giving them a stake in a common future and ensuring thier engagement in public life. This is what makes Mullin’s position so problematic. Mullin is not making his defence from the standpoint of a citizen with a common stake in the public good, nor even as a servant (despite his calming words about ‘service’ and ‘honor’). His defence is one of a taxpayer, and more particularly, as a business owner. Ultimately the whole conversation ends up being an argument between taxpayers, not citizens. Arguing that taxpayers have unique contractual rights essentially gives them permission to disengage from the social contract as a whole, especially those parts of it that don’t directly serve their interests. In turn, and by extension, governments are then relieved of their obligations to the public, including the provision of security and welfare. While taxpayers have the democratic right to defend their interests, they do not have the right to disrupt the social contract to this degree. When The Fraser Institute and the Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation argue that taxpayers either work for themselves or for the govenment, they feed in to the idea that taxpayers have special rights.
When citizens at the Town Hall demand that governments should respect taxpayers, then decision makers should listen. However, taxpayers should not have a louder voice than citizens. Taxpayers ‘rights’ should not be extended to the degree they disrupt the larger social contract. If they do, then the democracy is at risk of eliminating itself by undermining the contract of service and trust, and, incidentally, by bankrupting the state. There is some evidence that the US has already begun to do this. Since the language of taxpayers’ rights essentially marginalizes any public interest from the conversation, it is incapable of constructing a new social contract. The language of taxpayers’ rights then becomes essentially self-destructive, since taxpayers will end up undermining, in the end, their own claims to the rights and benefits of citizenship.
The US presidential election results will have an impact worldwide for years to come. In this talk, Dr. Rosalind Warner will look beyond the personalities and ‘fake news’ to explore the deeper social, political and economic origins of the 2016 election result. Participants will discover what made 2016 different and why it matters to the world what happens next.
Hear about the history of Canada’s efforts to address this crucial global problem of climate change and explore the challenges ahead. Canada is struggling to balance an economy highly dependent on natural resources with the increasingly urgent need to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.