Political non Science

Although I have always been rather political – much to the chagrin of my Grade 5 teachers – I somehow ended up a scientist. That is what I studied in school, and what I have done for work for neigh 15 years.

My political views have changed quite a bit since my teenage days campaigning for the burgeoning Reform Party of Canada, and I suspect a large part of that change has resulted from my science education (if not from losing way too many debates to people with more book learnin’ than me).

Recently listening to one of my favourite podcasts, they were discussing the role of science in modern politics, or more specifically, how hard it is to base policy on even very well-established science (think anthropogenic global warming, harm-reduction drug policies, mandatory minimum sentences, etc). The problem, this group of scientists suggested, was too many lawyers.

Yeah, sure, it is easy to blame Lawyers, but they provided a foundation behind why Lawyers interpreting science is a problem. But first, are there too many lawyers?

This might be a bigger issue in the USA, but looking at our house of commons, there is a distinct paucity of people trained in the Sciences. The precise numbers for our MPs are not easy to get : You can see all of their occupations here , but with pretty much every Conservative MP calling themselves a “Businessman” first, then a farmer/engineer/lawyer/oystershucker later, and every NDP member calling themselves a “Community Activist” or “Unionist” first, then some long list of occupations after, it is not clear what people’s real training and occupations are. The NDP have a “Country Gentleman” representing in one riding, for FSM’s sake.

Still, we can condense somewhat. Of the 309 MPs, at least 50 are Lawyers. Only 8 are Scientists.

I am not counting Engineers as Scientists, for all sorts of reasons that probably deserve another blog post (short version – Engineers are trained to apply the results of science to specific problems; they are not trained to think like scientists or to apply the scientific method: quite the opposite). I will be generous and not count the four Chiropractors. Generous, because just as an anti-neutrino cancels out a neutrino, people who rely on such terrible science and ignorance of evidence-based medicine as a part of their regular practice should count as negative scientists and be subtracted from the 8. But I digress.

One issue problem for governance (one discussed at length in the Podcast) is that Lawyers and Scientists use similar language, but use it in very different ways. Especially the word “evidence”. To a scientist, evidence is something you gather to see if your hypothesis can be disproven. I once wrote a long post about common misconceptions of the scientific method, and I don’t want to go that deep into it here. The point is that a large pile of evidence that supports a scientists’ hypothesis can be made irrelevant by a very small piece of very good evidence that disproves it; and scientists, by their nature and their training, are looking for and evaluating that little piece. Lawyers, in contrast, are trained to weigh the evidence, and to present a compelling case that the evidence on their side of the scale is correct, and that the evidence on the other side of the scale is less worthy.

If this sounds unfairly critical, it isn’t meant to be, that is the job of a Lawyer. Our legal process is not constructed to allow Lawyers to look at all the evidence of a case, then decide which side they wish to represent. There are valid reasons for the legal system to provide equal voice and strong advocates on both sides of a given issue, it serves a purpose well. The problem arrives when Lawyers are presented with scientific evidence, they are simply not trained to address it the way it is meant to be addressed.

The most obvious recent example of this is Anthropogenic Climate Change, where there is simply no scientific debate on the cause or mechanism of the phenomenon that is clearly being observed. Still, too many legislators get confused by the legitimate policy debate about how to deal with it, and falsely assume “there is no scientific consensus”. The “environmental” side of the political spectrum falls under the same spell when talking about scientific topics they do not understand, such as “toxins” in our food or the alleged “link” between Smart Meters and Cancer.

This week, though, we have seen another form of this intellectual deficit caused by too many Lawyers: the discussion of the Dutch Disease. Thomas Mulcair has been criticised by many political opponents for suggesting that rapid development of Alberta hydrocarbons threatens the diversification of Canadian industry; that the “Dutch Disease” may be playing a role in the downturn in manufacturing in Ontario.

The Federal Ministers of Oil Sales reacted to this by calling such talk “divisive”, while Premier McSparkles referred to the entire concept as “goofy” and “gobbledygook”. However, none of them are discussing the point, nor are they addressing what the Dutch Disease is.

I’m no economist (“the dismal science” – Thomas Carlyle), but even I am reasonably familiar with the term. At the base level, it is when a sudden natural resource boom inflates a nation’s currency to the point where other industries cannot compete on the global market due to high export costs and low import costs. It was named (well after the fact) after the rapid exploitation of offshore natural gas fields in the Netherlands the 1960s. It is interesting to note that the eponymous case is probably not as good an example of the phenomenon and other instances such as the Australian Gold Boom and the Nigerian Oil boom, but the Dutch get the credit (glory? ).

This simple description of the Dutch Disease, although perfectly condensed for the third paragraph of a wire service new report, is only part of the story. For it to truly be “the Dutch Disease”, the economic sector providing the income must be non-renewable natural resource based. There are a couple of reasons for this, but it has to do with the disproportionally low employment numbers compared to the incomes collected from the extraction activities, and the limited long-term gain from re-investment back into that specific extraction activity. The income earned by the industry must also represent a significant portion of export trade, and the economy has to be unfettered enough to allow the markets to adjust prices according to market demands. Further, the source country must receive the benefit of the exporting industry right away, and not specifically apply this income towards subsidizing the other impacted industries. There are few other nuances, but I’m sure you are bored already. I know I am.

Now, you can debate whether Canada is suffering from the Dutch Disease, or even how much the Dutch Disease is responsible for the recent manufacturing downturn in Ontario. But you cannot argue that the Dutch Disease is a “goofy” idea or “gobbledygook”. And if mentioning it is being “divisive”, then it is reality that is being divisive, not the person who mentions it. A child mentioning the Emperor’s lack of clothes is not a pornographer.

Having read into this quite a bit over the last few days, I might offer my (not an Economist) opinion on whether we are suffering the Dutch disease in Canada. Surely, all of the makers of the Dutch Disease exist. Our manufacturing sector is being impacted by our high dollar (just ask them), and our high dollar is being propped up by our oil export activities (ask those commie radicals at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce). The number of people working the Oil Sands (~150,000) is not offsetting the number of lost Manufacturing jobs (~500,000) [see above references]. Further, many of the actions taken by more progressive governments with oil resource booms (like Norway and Azerbaijan) to avoid the Dutch disease are not being taken. These would include limiting the growth of the sector, placing all of the royalties into a sealed legacy fund to spread the economic impact over a longer period of time and as a hedge against currency fluctuation, building infrastructure that is not directly related to the primary export industry, etc. (Note, shutting down the industry is not a cure that anyone, including Thomas Mulcair, has proposed).

I cannot see any reason to disagree with the Economists who were paid by the Federal Government and came to the conclusion that the Dutch Disease is impacting Canada.

One thing is for certain: if we ignore the science like the Federal Government seems prone to do, or (even worse) belittle the science like our Premier, then we are not going to make the necessary adjustments to avoid the Dutch Disease, and it will become a certainty. It’s not gobbledygook, it is basic Macroeconomics. Forget the Scientists and the Lawyers, there are more than 70 MPs who list their occupation as “Businessman” or “Businesswoman” or some such derivative – why don’t they take their own advice?

One comment on “Political non Science

  1. Well said Patrick.

    Also, they tried to push the Pattullo as being the NE region connector (because they forgot to connect the SFPR to the Port Mann bridge). Then why did they build the Golden Ears? That part of the SFPR is already connected to it?

    As usual, spinning tails and thinking after the fact.

    Sonia from Bridgeview

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