Q and A with Allan Gregg
September 10th, 2012
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[Welcome, National Newswatch readers!]
After his stinging rebuke of the Conservative Government's "anti-science" policies at Carleton University last Wednesday, I had a chance to speak further with Harris-Decima Chair Allan Gregg the following morning about his views on science, politics, and the possibility of change.
You can read the prepared remarks for Gregg's speech here, and my story for today's Hill Times here. The full talk, which includes much more personal material than was included in Mr. Gregg's remarks, will be broadcast later this week on CPAC, I'm told.
Thanks to Mr. Gregg for being willing to spend so much time talking to a blogger.
Q. When you left the “At Issue” panel, you said that you wanted to be able to speak more freely, and more long-form, and have the latittude to get involved in certain issues and causes. Is this an issue and cause that we’re going to be hearing more about from you?
A. Yeah, I think that’s exactly what I wanted to do. That was my intent and that’s what I’m doing now.
Q. Are you writing a book?
A. I’ve got a couple of proposals in the works, but there’s kind of a getting ready to get ready phase that you have to go through, to see is there really enough here to constitute a book. I’m at that stage right now in a couple of different fronts.
Q. You didn’t mince words really last night. You were pretty hard on the Canadian government, and some other politicians like Jean Charest, Mitt Romney, and even Barack Obama. And it seems you’re gravely concerned about what you’re calling this “blatant attempt to obliterate the use of research and science in policy-making” and also to eliminate any evidence-based opposition to the government, and so …
A. It gets in the way of ideology, doesn’t it? Because as I said in the remarks, invariably, the evidence either supports or refutes the ideology, so at the end of the day, evidence and reason should rule. And people who want to advance an agenda irrespective of that, know that, so they have to kind of remove it. This has gone on for all of history.
Q. So, you says it’s gone on for all of history, so are things getting markedly worse, or is this only in Canada, or …
A. No, no, I think they got markedly better for a long, long time, especially since the period of the Enlightenment in the 16th century. And I think there is a remarkable progress that is undeniable. So I think you’re just seeing it in the last three decades, where you’re starting to see a culture of fear and a politics of division taking over, and I think it is reflective of a trend in the western world. Arguably the rest of the world arguably never got to the same point we did.
Q. Is this something that Canada imported from the States, or is it a function of the changing media landscape or maybe even the economy of the media, or is it something that sort of emerged with the “decline of deference” following Meech Lake and Charlottetown?
A. I think that has a lot to do with it. I didn’t talk about that much in the remarks, but I think part of the problem, and this is North American-wide, is that there is kind of an “anti-elite” sentiment out there right now. And it really is a shift from a culture of deference, where we look to our leaders to solve all our problems, to one of defiance where we think our leaders are bums. In public opinion data it’s overwhelming, and it’s not just related to politics, it’s bankers, it’s priests … right across the board. So, someone who goes out there and advocates “anti-elitist” positions – you know, “we don’t need scientists to tell us what should be happening in our parks, you know, campers always know what to do in our parks” – that’s the kind of sentiment that’s there, and it actually finds a very very rich soil.
Q. I agree with you, but I guess I have to ask whether science, and knowledge and reason are themselves neutral, and this is some of perhaps what they were getting at, one of your commenters last night, about “conviction” versus “knowledge”, and does it matter who funds the research, and in what interest?
A. Of course it does. And I completely accept that science has been used for bad purposes historically as well as good, but then on balance, if you put the good and the bad on a balance sheet, you see that the good wildly outweighs the bad. Part of my concern right now is that you have “pseudo-science” that is rampant out there, and it’s fairly hard for the layman to parse between. So it undermines the legitimacy of the real science that is being directed for the public good.
Q. Just to be devil’s advocate for a second, don’t some of the policy wonks sometimes make themselves, or keep themselves, or seem a little detached from the citizens whose taxes have funded their work? Do you think that’s …
A. Absolutely. And it is. Even in my discipline of public opinion research, what we often do is we look at computer output. You know, these are people talking to us, and we treat them as just numbers, and we assume that it’s just really one person – it’s an aggregated Canadian. So, if 55% of Canadians think this, then the majority of Canadians think this, then Canadians think this ….So, I think there always is that problem, and I think that empathy has to be part of the equation. And we know that the best scientists are the ones that are in the field, and the best researchers are the ones who are on the street.
A. So let me just finish there, because you know if you are detached, you never ever generate the right hypotheses to test. Because you’re not close enough … to observe what actually might be going on there.
Q. The key to polling then, is to ask the right question.
Q. So, one of your early mentors, [US pollster] Richard Wirthlin, he’s arguing that values trumped issues in the work that he did for Ronald Reagan. He told George Lakoff that this was how Reagan managed to get elected: that people wanted to vote for him based on an appeal to values, in spite of most voters at the time disagreeing with his policies.
So, that being the case, that an appeal values will trump reason every time, how is it that you’re so sure we could use reason and knowledge to “fight back”, which was your closing call?
A. It’s the power, you know, it’s the power of 2 + 2 = 4. It’s irrefutable. It’s not very emotionally compelling; it’s not something that causes people to stand up and give you a standing ovation. But over time, it will prevail. Dick is right to the extent that people make their judgements using irrational criteria in a very rational way. I mean, choice – political choice, consumer choice, what have you – is a fairly rational intersection of self-interest and self-image. People ask themselves these two things: (i) is it like me – self-image, and (ii) is it for me – self-interest. And if the answer to both those things is “yes”, they’re likely to be chosen. But the way you transmit “I am like you” could be “you and I love children, or puppy-dogs” as opposed to “you and I both believe that we have to have a guaranteed annual income program”. So, yeah, there always is the element of the irrational in the rational, I just think it’s something we have to keep our guard up for.
Q. But is it also maybe that “you and I both dislike that other person” or “both fear this phenomenon”?
A. [laughs] Well, there’s always that as well, yes.
Q. Because that’s the basis of wedge politics.
A. Well it is, but I’ve always feared those who try to keep the population ignorant, or try to misdirect them, or fool them. I’ve got no problem with right-wingers. I’ve got no problem with left-wingers. I just want them to be honest, and to base their ideology, and put it out there and have it challenged by facts and reason.
Q. So, what are the stakes if this trend can’t be reversed? You say that we’re not at 1984 yet, but how will we know if gotten there down the road?
A. Well, you know, I said it in my speech, and I’m surprised it didn’t get more reaction, but it’s something that you’re not even allowed to say. You look at what Barack Obama is doing. The killing of Osama Bin Laden – by any traditonal criteria – is an International crime. You know, I don’t care how bad the toad is, due process says that you’re innocent until proven guilty, that you have a trial that is out in the open, that you’re prepared to bring evidence, and that the evidence has to be brought against you in a public forum. Murder is committed routinely all over the place. And you know, not only is it not the source of shame, it’s actually the source of great pride. The media, you know … “General Motors is working, and Osama Bin Laden is dead” … that is the most egregious example of the assault on reason; that we have actually got to the point as long as we disagree with the individuals, if we don’t like them, if we fear them, that killing them – just on a whim … What if Barack Obama decided that he didn’t like my speech last night, and just sent a drone over here …? [laughs]
Q. And even the television show that’s supposed to be the most trenchant criticism of all the trends you’re discussing, and the media and popular culture, itself did an episode that was a cheerleader for just that very US government action …
A. You mean “The Newsroom”. Yes, exactly. Even Aaron Sorkin finds himself falling victim to that.
You know, John Adams, who was a great President, he first defended the British officers at the Boston Massacre. And this was right before the American Revolution. When he introduced the “Aliens and Seditious Act”, that’s what he called it. It cost him one run at the presidency, but that’s what it was.
We’re going backwards from the Enlightenment thinkers and the Enlightenment leaders, who were really inspired by that sort of stuff.
Q. One more question. The clear implications of your criticism of the current government is that the trend can only be changed at the ballot box in 2015. So, I’m wondering where are the internal critics of the current government? The Liberal Party is often thought of as representing the knowledge class – do they need to come back in order to reverse this trend? Do you think the party system is undergoing transformation and that the split at the ballot box is a temporary phenomenon, or what’s your take on politics these days?
A. I think we’re in a period of transition. It would not surprise me if we end up with a two-party system with much clearer choice, as one of the professors was advocating last night. That wouldn’t surprise me at all. Probably the Liberal Party has become … you know they’ve gone from being the governing party, the natural party that most people identified with. If you asked people “which political party has values that best reflects your own”, overwhelmingly for all my adult life, the Liberals won that question. Today they’ve become a party that basically represents no-one and stands for nothing. And that’s how they’re viewed — I’m not being cruel or anything. I mean, I could see that [meaning a move to a two-party system].
But the other thing too, is that for all of their [now referring to the Conservative government] – and I do believe that that’s very genuine on their part; they think it’s wrong what has happened because this mythical Canadian Tire / Tim Hortons person has been not represented and their voice hasn’t been heard in the public discourse in Canada – they’re not irrational to the extent they’re prepared to commit political suicide. I mean, the extent to which scientists stood up to them and could actually put forward their case in a persuasive way, they will throttle it in; they will rein it in.
Q. And, are you going to be playing a role in that election, or in politics in the future?
A. No, no. I’m finished partisan politics. I will certainly weigh in on issues, but not on one [party] side or the other.