Do predictions trump prudence in politics?

Some experts, armed with an inflated sense of human reason and the power of science, profess more certainty than political reality allows



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CALGARY, Alta. Feb. 11, 2016/ Troy Media/ — An old tradition argues that if those with genuine knowledge, rather than mere opinion, ruled, the political order would be truly good and just.

The most famous example is Plato’s [popup url=”” height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”0″]Republic[/popup], which introduces the “philosopher-king.” However, as the interlocutors in Plato’s dialogue demonstrate, there are serious challenges to bringing wisdom and power together. Moreover, history abounds with examples of intellectuals entering politics with [popup url=”” height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”0″]disastrous[/popup] [popup url=”” height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”0″]consequences[/popup].

Theoretical knowledge is far less important than practical knowledge in politics: all the theories and ideas in the world fall short of experience and cultivated judgment. In short, politics requires statesmanship, and the best statesmen exemplify the virtue of prudence, which can only come from experience.

But that has never stopped politicians from turning to the alleged wise, to the so-called “experts,” for the wisdom they seek. And while philosophers may be largely out of favour, science, including social science, has become the new promised land.

Social scientists of all kinds are now in great demand by governments, especially those who profess an ability to make predictions. Thus, governments today hire “superforecasters” or prophets, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government did recently with the addition of Dan Gardner to its payroll.

In his 2015 book [popup url=”” height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”0″]Superforecasting: The Art of Science Prediction[/popup], co-authored with Philip Tetlock, Gardner goes beyond making predictions and offers “evidence” in defence of a predictive science. The technique the authors discuss, through a combination of facts, anecdotes and instruction, is what they call “foresight.”

If hindsight is 20/20, foresight is invariably much less. Social scientists have longed to replicate the successes of natural scientists. The latter’s discoveries of nature’s laws substantiate a degree of predictability in the natural world. By comparison, social science has rarely foreseen major human events, having altogether missed, for example, the collapse of communism.

More to the story: [popup url=”” height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”0″]Beware of experts who aren’t[/popup] by Pat Murphy

Part of the difficulty is that social or political reality is full of messy contingencies, competing interests, and ethical ambiguities – it consists of human beings, who have the freedom to act in unforeseeable ways, not reducible to the calculations or formulae of any observer.

Consequently, there is no recipe to foresight, nor is there a handbook to good judgment; least of all can such things be developed in abstraction from politics itself.

Neglecting this overarching fact, some experts, armed with an inflated sense of human reason and the power of science, profess more certainty than political reality allows. While it indubitably pays to gather as much information as possible, to consider all likely scenarios, and to reflect on the potential consequences of any decision, there is no ultimate method, or formal decision process, to either guarantee certainty or to discover determinative solutions to political problems.

Decisions must be made in the midst of uncertainty, and action must be taken with incomplete knowledge. With time and experience, those practised in the art of politics will likely have developed a feel for things – their sense of judgment about facts and details will have been honed.

As [popup url=”″ height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”0″]Aristotle[/popup] once said about prudence, it is “concerned with particulars as well as with universals, and knowledge of particulars comes from experience.” Any number of individuals may have theories of politics, but only those with long and deep involvement genuinely grasp the particulars.

Inexperienced politicians may be more inclined to turn to the offerings of experts, many of whom are equally bereft of experience in the art of governing. Just as an individual without actual knowledge of cooking resorts to cookbook recipes, so some politicians may consult theoreticians of politics or scientists of decision-making in search of greater assurance.

Is it any wonder then that Canadians have been left waiting for decisive action and coherent strategies from the present government? Columnist [popup url=”” height=”1000″ width=”1000″ scrollbars=”0″]Michael Den Tandt[/popup] has noted Trudeau risks being labelled “Mr. Dithers” for his inability to take a coherent stand on any number of issues, including on such matters as national pipelines, national defence and defeating ISIS, and assistance to provincial economies in crisis.

The Liberal government should devote itself to prudential decisions rather than seeking an ever-elusive decision-making formula, the quest for which is arguably hindering and delaying – if not clouding – its judgment on important political questions.

Troy Media Columnist Trevor Shelley completed his PhD in political science at Louisiana State University. His book, “Liberalism and Globalization,” will be published in 2016 with St. Augustine Press. Trevor is also included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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