Q and A with Allan Gregg

September 10th, 2012

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Allan Gregg

[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.

Q. Well…

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.

A. Absolutely.

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.

41 Responses to “Q and A with Allan Gregg”

  1. Shadow says:

    Fascinating stuff. A few thoughts:

    1) I like the point about politicians keeping people ignorant. Nothing I despise more than someone putting forward an argument that diminishes our collective intelligence by advancing something demonstrably false or facts/figures so lacking in proper explanatory context that they are purposefully misleading.

    2) I wonder if Allan Gregg has grappled with the limits to his approach in an honest way ??

    Far too often I hear really smart people appearing to say that intractable political struggles are simply a matter of not using reason/logic to discover the right answer.

    Think Dan Gardner or the technocrats’ refrain that its about smart government rather than big/small.

    As if this were math !

    Value judgements should always factor into decision making.

    Philosophy, psychology, ethics, morality, virtue, culture, religion – these things matter and demand consideration.

    I think it would be wrong to dismiss wisdom as “ideology” and advance pure evidence based decision making. Far too reductionist.

    3) Gregg (and The Newsroom) need to make sure they meet their own high standards. Can’t get sloppy and can’t let ego get in the way. That’s always the risk that comes when you’re trying to educate others.

    Just because you believe in reason doesn’t mean every opinion you form is reason/evidence based.

    For example the notion that Osama Bin Laden was killed on “a whim” over a “disagreement”.

    All reports seem to suggest that Barack Obama is not a trigger happy cowboy president. That he agonizes over the implications of military doctrine and applies the very approach Gregg is advocating.

    Michael Ignatieff’s wonderful work “The Lesser Evil” might be relevent here …

  2. Kate says:

    Thank the gods for Allan Gregg!!!! It has terrified me that even the press mostly buys into the Harper government’ s perversion of what this country was, far beyond any right wing positions I ever heard of. I look forward to hearing more from him and his balanced stand for truth, and hope others are inspired to speak up. We need it desperately! Thank you MS Funke as well.

  3. Shadow, Ignatieff supported Bush’s war on terror, and invasion of Iraq for weapons of mass destruction – where none existed to invade another country for political reasons. So the “facts” to support the underlying “reason” for invasion were false. So Ignatieff’s work was not wonderful and used bull as “science” – junk science.

  4. Dan F says:

    I suspect that Allan might be right about the evolution into a 2-party system, but not the 2 parties that anyone suspects at this point in time. Consider the possibility that the Conservatives fall to 3rd place after the next election, if after 9 years of Conservative rule there is no improvement in the stagnant economy, and the haters hate them as much as before, but the supporters are no longer as enthusiastic. The social conservatives realize that none of their objectives can be met by this government, and the Conservatives who may have been former Liberals take another look back at their old party, sporting a new celebrity populist leader.

    I’m not suggesting by any means that the Conservatives fall as far as they did in 1993 (that would require a challenge from the right) but with 3 national political parties, one of them has to come in 3rd, and at the end of a natural governing cycle, governments of all stripes have a way of getting themselves un-elected in a big way.

    Both the NDP and the Liberals could accelerate and benefit from this trend if it begins to appear by framing the election as a choice between the Liberals and the NDP. by challenging each other and dismissing the Conservatives as a totally untenable option far outside the mainstream (which they are) then by not only staying separate, but clearly delineating the lines between them, both the Liberals and the NDP could be the beneficiaries of a collapse of the Conservative vote.

    As for polling numbers, the last 2 provincial elections have demonstrated just how unreliable they can be, and even if they were an indicator of anything, there is no connection between the current numbers and the outcome of the next election until all 3 leaders are in place, as polling is just as much a measure of the leader as it is of the party.

  5. Repost from Chris Hedges: Harper is a poster child for corporate malfeasance and corporate power, just sort of dismantling everything that’s good about Canada.

    So he’s the kind of species that rises to political power and is utterly subservient to corporate interests at the expense of the citizenry.

    Yeah, he’s a pretty venal figure.


  6. Retired in BC says:

    Is there anyone more despecible than someone who uses false and made up “science” to support their particular idealology?

    The Canadian pollsters are obviously not anywhere close to conducting an publishing scientific polls. They are blatantly and repeatedly hiding behind science to launch their partisan idealogic attacks. Time and time again they are proven to be scientifical WRONG.

    Mr. Gregg seems to bear a grudge for the Reform party reducing his CP party to 2 seats and him being the architect of the Chretien facial deformity ad.

    This should always be highlighted when his comments and attacks are considered to provide a base line for his opinions.

  7. Keystoneman says:

    Gregg is spot on. However, there is no mention of the imbalance of power between government and the private sector. Corporations dominate politics in this country(much worse in the U.S.) and almost nothing can be done without their support and consent. Focusing on politicians’ use of ideology and wedge issues to pursue a political agenda is extremely important but not enough attention is paid to how corporations shape agendas or block public causes to suit their own purposes.

  8. MyView says:

    If this ideological versus science trend has been going on for decades as Mr. Gregg mentions, why does he think that a renewed Liberal party will save us! They were part of it.

  9. MyView, it seems you’ve completely misread Mr. Gregg’s views on that point.

  10. George Pringle says:

    Perhaps it is people who use the term “scientific evidence” to mislead Canadians for partisan reasons that has caused most Canadians to want the huge amounts of their tax dollars spent in other ways or not spent at all.

    For example, the Hill Times article states that the long gun registry was consulted by nearly every police force and there was a “mountain of evidence” that crime was was on the decline but it is incorrect to assume that the first caused the second.

    Perhaps, the aging population and the decline of the younger demographic that creates most of the crimes caused most of the drop of the crime rate? But that would not fit into partisan needs of those like Alan Gregg.

  11. Sacha Peter says:

    The generic issue here is the politicization of science. Every partisan group wants to translate that 175-page engineering analysis of whatever project of national or provincial significance into a cute five second partisan soundbite. The media is more than happy to oblige.

    When the people doing the science are corrupted with prejudicial feelings about the outcome, the science itself no longer is an objective or neutral analysis of the situation – what is being done is simply more PR material for whatever partisan aim is in mind.

    True science tends to be media-unworthy so it is rarely reported. How many studies do you hear reported where a hypothesis was defeated? Almost none. Instead, what tends to get reported about is the statistical outliers that would otherwise be thrown out if another study were attempted at it, i.e. “Green Jelly Beans Cause Acne“.

    Scientists do not have much of an incentive either to work on studies to defeat their hopeful conclusion since nobody wants to give a research grant on a zero-payoff.

    Fortunately or unfortunately, the people we elect have to sort out this mess themselves, or more likely, hire good people that can do it for them.

  12. Shadow says:

    Dan F I hear that retort about polarization from Liberals and chuckle.

    You’d be better off saying ‘we need the center, people will vote for the center, and so we’ll remain a three party system’.

    Polarization is a left-right phenomena.

    IN order to get an NDP-Liberal 2 party system the Liberals would need to move sharply to the right and absorb much of the existing Conservative party in a BC Liberal style coalition party.

    Even a third place Harper is still going to get 80-100 seats.

  13. Shadow says:

    @Janfromthebruce your claims on Ignatieff are false. Read what he wrote at the time.

    Also your claim that WMDs did not exist in Iraq is false.

    WMDs DID exist in Iraq and had in fact been used by Saddam on at least 3 occasions, 2 of which were genocidal campaigns against his own people that killed hundreds of thousands and the other was during the Iran-Iraq war.

    These were chemical and biological weapons.

    Remaining stockpiles crossed the border into Syria during the invasion prompting fears that the regime there will use them against the rebels there.

    Barack Obama recently declared the use of these WMDs by Syria to be a “red line” that will prompt US intervention.

    What was NOT found in Iraq was an active nuclear research program.

    Nobody claimed there were nukes in Iraq, only that Saddam was going to restart his program and one day there would be.

    That claim is hard to dispute considering his history of trying to build nukes and his refusal to abide by UN sanctions and cooperate with UN weapons inspectors.

    Also 500 tons of yellow cake uranium were found and shipped to Canada a couple of years ago.

  14. I generally agree with Shadow’s initial post, but I’d like to take a couple points a bit further.
    The limitation of Gregg’s approach strikes me as an inherent limitation of the self-proclaimed “neutral”. He can’t talk about the key ingredient of politics–who benefits. The moment you look beyond the fact of a lie to the reason for a lie, you have to say who the policy being lied about will benefit and who it will hurt. The moment you do that it becomes much harder to avoid taking a stance.

    So instead he talks about contrasting reason with ideology, where the facts will tell you what the policy should be and the reason those facts become unpopular is some kind of revolt against elites, or being blinded by ideology. This puts carts rather before horses. The reason to undermine research and lie is that governments are voted for democratically (majority rules more or less), while policies are generally shaped in quite different ways by quite different interests. So if you want to shape policies to serve constituency A (for example wealthy individuals or banks), but you have to get constituency B (a plurality of the population, mostly neither wealthy nor bankers) to vote for you, you have a problem: Research will reveal the truth, that the policy serves constituency A and damages constituency B.
    So you try to stop the facts from getting out or the research from being done, and failing that you push a rhetoric that the people doing the research are an “elite” with little culturally in common with constituency B, so they shouldn’t listen to them. You cultivate a political climate that relies on sound bites and emotion. But all of this process originally stems from that one question–cui bono? Who gains advantage, at whose expense, and who needs to be fooled in order for it to happen?

    I would say it’s no co-incidence that distrust of eggheads is most common on the political right–the people on the political right are there in part because they have been convinced by right wing rhetoric, which encourages them to distrust eggheads. And right wing rhetoric encourages this not because they are pursuing policies that are in the abstract “bad”, and they just hate the thought of learning what the technocratically “best” solutions would be. It’s because they are pursuing policies that, in order to gain advantage for certain groups, hose the people who vote for them, and they are desperate to avoid letting them find out.

    Barack Obama and the politics of US Democrats seem like an oddity in this description, but they are not. Obama is, for these purposes, effectively right wing–that is, he backs various money and military elites against the people who vote for him, and so, like the Republicans, he has to keep the facts out of view.

  15. Jerry Prager says:

    Dan F.
    The Liberals are in essence liberal conservatives, a la the people MacDonald used to create Canada, Canadian Liberals other than Pierre Trudeau in contemporary culture are neo-liberal versions of corporatists. Ignatieff’s maternal grandfather George S. Grant believed that the NDP and the Conservatives are both conservative in their political philosophy, because they are not liberals with an individualist ideology, but communitarians, one of which (the NDP) have a more inclusive concept of society. We do have not had a strong democratic tradition in Canada except through British workers and farmers from the 1830′s on, our business class has always been an evolutionary family compact of liberals and conservatives.

    Our Protestant work ethic and Catholic personalism embrace genuine liberalism to the degree that in Canadian liberalism, the rights of the individual are defined in a social contract community. Dion sought to place that community as the Green movement and failed.
    Ignatieff – in the midst of the birth of the Occupy movement – went back to Sir John A.’s model of a compact between liberals and conservatives, ignoring the democracy platform he himself had developed through the committee room forums during Prorogue and the Party idea conference, a democracy platform that was approved by the caucus at Bedeque, but that never made it into the campaign. Ignatieff triggered an election on dewocratic principles and the Liberal Party failed to deliver, that’s why he lost, that’s when his momentum faltered, after the platform came out and it had no democracy renewal, and nothing but convenience food marketing, Family Pack babblespeak bullshit. In some ways I hope only the Greens and the NDP remain.

    The Canadian Liberal Party, like disappeared Liberal parties around the world, has so far failed to address post-war corporatism. I think the Liberal will disappear if it doesn’t defend democracy individual by individual against the inherent anti-democratic nature of corporate power in an economic system in which companies can’t sign affidavits in court “because they have no conscience to bind them.”
    They could start by separating the state from ‘invisible hand’ worshippers of Mammon.
    The decline of democracy since Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney is rooted in the Free Trade deal that Chretien promised he would get rid of when he ran against Kin Campbell. Free trade has destroyed democracy because it became the means by which the corporatists staged the world before their Wall Street coup.
    If Liberals cut off the head of the capitalist religion,science and reason would have a better chance of finding peace with ethics.
    The best practices in almost every field already exist, we need to cooperate and share the commonwealth; allow people their idiosyncratic arcs of existence in a free association of common humanity and it is coming, we will get there.

  16. Shadow says:


    The problem with this frame is that in the social sciences there are fewer demonstrably correct answers than in the hard sciences.

    So the way this conversation is playing out and the way its being interpreted in the media is that Conservatives are anti-science.

    However, this can easily be applied to any party.

    When the NDP criticize corporate tax cuts are they being anti-science ? When they bring up the dutch disease ?

    Smart people like Jack Mintz, Stephen Gordon, and Andrew Coyne roundly critize them and point to reams of research that undermine their case.

    But not so fast !

    Here comes Jim Stanford with research and arguments showing that those guys are wrong and the NDP were right all along.

    This is where the Alan Gregg approach comes up short. Who do you trust ? Which version of “science” and “reason” and “logic” is right ? Both sides have so much research and smart people advancing their case.

    That’s why this conversation cannot be reduced to some kind of ‘Harper hates science’ critique.

    Every party has people who support it for superficial reasons.

    Every party has people who support it because of well informed opinions about public policy.

    Every party needs to reach out to BOTH groups of voters.

  17. I disagree with you Shadow, re: the false reason to attack Iraq. That has been determined, after the fact. And Iggy supported that – and pretended to “back pedal” and apologize.

    I agree with what Jerry said – thank you.

    In addition, both sciences have merit – and hard science is also imperfect and can be influenced. And talk that science is objective and neutral is also bunk – what one choices to “investigate” “or not” is not objective or neutral.

  18. Shadow, I really think it can–at least, to the extent I did, which wasn’t great. My main point was that politics is not about what is universally correct, nor about disagreements springing from essentially random or arbitrary sources, happening to hold different philosophies or whatnot, but about clashes of interest between groups. Sometimes one group wins, sometimes another, sometimes workable compromises can be hammered out. What’s a good policy for you may not be a good policy for me, and what may be a good policy for the objectives of technocrats in Ottawa may not be a good policy for the objectives of the urban poor in Winnipeg. The reasons a particular interpretation is advanced often have little to do with the claimed philosophical, ethical or economic reasons for it–rather, those are largely justifications for advancing particular interests.

    But that said, Harper really is anti-science, and not because he dislikes science or resents elites. And this has nothing to do with arguments over interpretations of the facts. Having clever people interpret facts differently is one thing, and as long as that’s the nature of the playing field yes, all you can do is evaluate the nature of the arguments and see who you believe is (a) closer to correct and (b) on your side. But when a group actively suppresses efforts to unearth facts to interpret, that is a completely different matter, and that is what Harper has been consistently doing. The census, the experimental lakes, the research stations up north, the gagged scientists in Fisheries, Environment and, well, everywhere in government . . . there’s a concerted effort.
    The social sciences, and economics, are certainly far less determinable than orbital mechanics. There is latitude of interpretation. But that doesn’t mean they’re the same as just making shit up. There are still facts and it remains possible to draw conclusions from them, and while it’s always possible to argue interpretations (and indeed it remains possible in physics), it can become obvious that certain interpretations are very strained.
    Now in a value-neutral world where politicians were motivated sheerly by what they believed to be true and were strictly in the business of arguing those beliefs to the voting public, trying to suppress facts that disagree with your viewpoint would be insane. Just by admitting to yourself that those facts undermine your beliefs about what’s true you would be changing your beliefs and so you should be motivated to argue for your new beliefs.
    But if on the other hand politicians have interests which they wish to advance, they have to convince the voting public to back those interests whether it’s good for the voting public or not. At which point, if the interpretive story line you’re advancing to persuade the public to side with you fails to match the facts, you suppress those facts. That Harper is doing this tells us quite simply that the facts are inconvenient to the interpretations he favours, that the claims of his side that their policies have benefited or will benefit the public will be made less plausible if the facts come to light. Why does he push those policies anyway? Because the policies are not useless, they are not wrong–they genuinely do benefit him and his chosen constituency, just not enough of the voting public at large to elect him.

  19. Shadow says:


    I think there’s a combination of factors at play here.

    Part of it is a conscious decision to serve the interests of economic development at the expense of the environment. (research lakes, fisheries)

    Part of it is anti-government/privacy sentiment amongst the base being chosen over social science. (census)

    And part of it is just collateral damage.

    Federal budget cuts are hitting everyone across the board.

    As i’ve said I don’t think its fair or helpful to say Harper is anti-science. That’s a caricature.

    I think its fair to say he’s anti-environmental science that gets in the way of resource development.

    That’s his coalition. Western. Corporate. Blue collar.

    As you say, he’s advancing policies that help them.

    All of this being said I don’t think “science” has an unlimited right to public funding.

    Governments have a right to set priorities amongst departments. They even have a right to prioritize which scientific field/area they want to advance over others.

    A lot of this war on science talk is going to be seen through a prism of big public sector union employees trying to fight lay offs.

    Or pollsters (Alan Gregg) who’s lives have been made harder by a lack of reliable census data to weight responses to.

    Science can act like an interest group like any other.

  20. But there was no privacy sentiment among the base with respect to the census. Relevant cabinet ministers claimed there had been an outcry, but it turned out there was none. They did start backing the decision after it had been made, but there’s no indication anyone cared before the government decided to act.
    “Part of it is a conscious decision to serve the interests of economic development at the expense of the environment. (research lakes, fisheries)”
    Well, yes. But that’s my point–the people they shut down were not environmentalists, after all. They were researchers. The Conservatives made a conscious decision based on whose interests that decision served and concluded that any facts gathered by researchers were likely to show problems sufficiently serious that large chunks of the population might decide that much damage to the environment was more important to them than things like increased oil patch profits. So for the sake of those served by their conscious decision, they decided it was best to hide or stop collecting the facts that might enlighten those not served by their conscious decision.

    Politics is about interests. I haven’t said that Harper dislikes science. I’ve said his project consciously serves a minority interest at the expense of the majority, and so he needs to conceal facts from that voting majority.

    “That’s his coalition. Western. Corporate. Blue collar.
    As you say, he’s advancing policies that help them.”

    But that’s not what I say. The key is precisely the distinction between his coalition overall, which I suppose is broadly “Western. Corporate. Blue collar.” and those his policies are designed to help. Harper is not advancing policies that help the “blue collar” or even policies that help the “West” broadly construed. He sure isn’t helping Saskatchewan wheat farmers, for instance. Nor is he helping manufacturing workers, forest workers and so on and so forth. Much of his coalition would be less reliable the more they knew about various facts having a bearing on Conservative policies, because contrary to their belief he is actually harming rather than helping them.

    In short the more I look into how politics works, the more clear it gets that the simple explanation is the correct one: When politicians hide facts it is because people who knew those facts wouldn’t vote for them. And they don’t pursue policies that wouldn’t require hiding facts because they are pursuing the interests of backers which are at odds with the interests of the voters.

    Note that there is no left-right symmetry here. Leftists pretty much by definition are in it to pursue the interests of the majority. Sometimes they will be captured by elite interests (e.g. Blair Labour party) and cease to actually be leftists. But when that has not happened, leftists may well come to wrong conclusions in terms of policy, but their ideology, the interests they pursue, do not in themselves lead to a need to conceal facts or block research.

  21. AntiNonsense says:

    I have rarely seen such a preposterous and illogical screed as Gregg’s remarks to Carleton.

    He cites the ‘Freedom is Slavery’ and ‘Ignorance is Stength’ slogans and has the gall to accuse the Tories of being of the same spirit as the authoritarian regime of Orwell’s 1984.

    As evidence he cites the abolition of the long-form questionnaire distributed at census time.

    Consider that that questionnaire demanded — using the coercive force of the State — that Canadians reveal their religious affiliation. Failure to comply could be punished with imprisonment.

    Certainly knowledge is to be valued. Indeed, I personally try to acquire as much as possible. But I do *not* have the right to coercively demand that people answer my questions.

    The long-form questionnaire, with its personal questions and threats and intimidation was the very definition of tyrannical State action. Far from being a move towards ’1984′, its abolition is a step away from authoritarian government and towards increased individual liberty.

    It’s amusingly ironic that Gregg cannot even recognized that *he* is the agent of tyranny and the advocate of 1984-style government.

  22. Ken Summers says:

    I agree with Shadow on this:

    Part of it is a conscious decision to serve the interests of economic development at the expense of the environment. (research lakes, fisheries)

    Part of it is anti-government/privacy sentiment amongst the base being chosen over social science. (census)

    In other words, different particular drives are operative at different times. I’m less sure that the differences amount to anything.

    For example, does it really make a difference that the census thing may have been “only” red meat for the base, while the attacks on science that gets used by environmentalists is part of a more systematic battle/war of attrition?

    You dont have to agree [or argue] with Shadow’s idea of what interets/coalition are being served. Arent we to a degree discussing the “mechanics” in themselves here?

  23. Shadow says:

    @Ken, @PLG

    To me Harper’s view is simple. Why bother spending money so environmental researchers can tell us that resource development is bad for the environment ?

    We know this. We don’t care.

    Is there an element of 1984 information suppression at play ?

    Perhaps. Although I would strongly argue that both the base and the opposition have already made up their mind on the question of resource development.

    PLG is suggesting Harper is fooling his base and witholding information from them.

    This is a take off on the “what’s the matter with Kansas” theory of downscale voters voting against their interests.

    I don’t think that applies at all here.

    Economic development IS strongly in the interests of the workers of this country.

    Harper believes he is serving the public good here. I see no point in impugning his motives or suggesting he’s serving a narrow interest against the majority.

    So who is he trying to fool here ?

    I’d suggest its the slice of suburban voters in Toronto and Vancouver who used to support the Liberals.

    They like the environment. They like money. They don’t like to be made to choose.

    Getting and keeping their votes is the driver of policy on the environment.

  24. Shadow says:

    @PGL and of course there is left/right symetery.

    Just as many dissemblers in opposition as in government.

    If the NDP were in power in Ontario they would have not hired Don Drummond for budget advice like the Liberals did.

    If the NDP were in power in Canada they would not have hired Jack Mintz for advice on corporate tax cuts like the Liberals did.

    If the federal government was giving out huge research grants to the Frasier institute, the Frontier center, or the Atlantic policy institute and the NDP came to power they would slash them in a second.

    Nobody likes funding hostile causes/voices.

    Leftist governments don’t like scientific research showing redistributive tax policy or class warfare policies, while good base politics, are bad economics.

    Science and truth are in the eye of the beholder.

    If we didn’t think the opposition was demonstrably wrong we’d belong to them.

    That’s why in my view these are intractable differences that Alan Gregg is glossing over.

    No shortcuts or magic formulas here. Just messy democracy.

  25. Ken Summers says:

    Nobody likes funding hostile causes/voices.

    Leftist governments don’t like scientific research showing redistributive tax policy or class warfare policies, while good base politics, are bad economics.

    Science and truth are in the eye of the beholder.

    This is where we diverge.

    On the general level: I dont buy that simple relatativism. And here is the concrete place it diverges in this discussion.

    On whether redistributive tax policiies and overall levels of government spending help or hinder you can have endless grounded science-based arguments from both sides. And they will flourish whatever the government and regardless of whether the government of the day funds any side of it.

    There is no science based argument that the environmental concerns do not matter. At best, for political utility, there are arguments that can be put together that the risks are effectively triffling. And Communications 101 tells you you dont go there for policy debates like we have begun now.

    Another bit of bogus relativism that we have seen a version of from right wing media sources [that our government and its base has far more of to appeal to than they like to say and think]: the notion that the reason the opposition wants more science is because it serves their cause of having their minds equally made up about being ‘opposed to resource development’.

    The reason the opposition has so much traction is because there is no science based argument that we can just keep ignoring the speed of climate change and therfore keep pushing back the deadline of when we make DEFINITE moves to scale back emmissions…. as opposed to what we have been doing and the Harper government works on continuing: risks to “the economy” come first, and if there are any possible risks to any economic interests, we wont even talk about whether those can be sufficiently addressed and managed, we just wont go there.

  26. Shadow says:


    “because there is no science based argument that we can just keep ignoring the speed of climate change”

    Actually there has been some interesting and credible economic research showing that it would cost more to try and prevent climate change than it would to simply adapt to a warming planet.

    The key is obviously the rate and scale of temperature increase as well as their cause.

    On this point there is “endless grounded science-based arguments from both sides.”

    The problem is we only hear alarmist voices who advocate for drastic societal change.

    And yes, obviously, at the expense of resource development.

  27. Ken Summers says:

    I didnt say there was no evidence based argument whatsoever. And my point was there is no science based argument for IGNORING the speed of climate change.

    The Harper government is not bringing up the arument you just made for going [ever] slower on doing anything about climate change. They are just ignoring it.

    There is a good political reason for that. While in the classroom or a bar someone can make the case you just made, its not a good argument for a government to make. They are better off ignoring the questions, to the degree of repressing or sandbagging the science as much as possible, and stick to cheerleading the economic benefits.

  28. Ken Summers says:

    Where I diverge from Alan Gregg- as a number of us cutting across political perspectives do- is his appeal to science as ‘neutral’, or at least more neutral.

    As if it could be above ideology. That has always been a dubious proposition.

    And his not entirely explicit appeal to expert knowledge has been consigned to the dustbin of history. While I agree with Alan that a lot of the policy outcomes were better in practice than so much of what we get now, I still have no desire to return to deference to eggheads.

    But whether any of us would like to or not is pretty moot. There are some substantial remnants of that left, but as a driver of policy making it is gone gone.

  29. Ken Summers says:

    “The problem is we only hear alarmist voices who advocate for drastic societal change.”

    Just a reminder that this is the in the eye of the beholder of stuff. From where I sit, we’re getting drastic social change from your crowd.

    I dont accuse you of being alarmist voices. But you would not expect to hear cries from those turning the screws.

    Dont take that too seriously. Its just that what you said called out to be stood on its head.

  30. Shadow says:

    @Ken oh i’m completely aware that “drastic societal change” is in the eye of the beholder.

    When a sensible reform like raising the retirement age to 67 (its 70 and automatically increases with life expectancy in liberal democract Sweden) is condemned as “gutting public pensions” I just shake my head.

    This is why the US is in the mess it is in.

    From my view point its like a segment of society is at war with basic math.

    That’s why I am somewhat bemused that a conversation about the place of science in public policy decision making so quickly descended into ‘Harper hates science’.

  31. Ken Summers says:

    I dont know Shadow if you want to keep bringing up examples of allegedly hysterical reaction to social engineering from the Harper crowd.

    But since you bring up raising the age on old age pensions to that happening in social democratic Europe, lets have apples to apples.

    In Europe, social democratic national histories or not, the social safety net is much more extensive. So there are income supports specifically targeted as a floor under poverty. Essentially, you get it if your income is low ,period… not as in North America after PROVING you are needy and worthy of assistance.

    Public pensions in Europe do not have a dual role of poverty support. Canada’s OAP is specifically targeted at poor seniors [and there is nothing equivalent in the US as part of Social Security]. 25% of seniors under 65 are under the poverty level, and a high proportion fell that far recently in their lives. In other words, they are hanging on waiting for the OAP to kick in to “elevate” them from very dire need to at least a safe level of penury.

    That has nothing to do with longevity- the excuse for raising the age in Canada to 67. It has everything to do with joblessness in general, and especially of seniors.

  32. Ken Summers says:

    To be fair, I’m sure you can find examples of hysterical reactions to Harper policy agendas.

    One of Gregg’s points is that this government is in a category by itself for manipulation and avoiding substantive evidence based arguments. They might be “worse”. But since it has become a central theme of our democracy that all political parties engage in this- who is worse is to me a pointless discussion.

  33. Shadow says:

    Ken the OAS/GIC programs are targeted at low income seniors because Canadians have a very low rate of saving for retirement and are often living pay cheque to pay cheque, falling into poverty when they stop working.

    Increased health and longevity mean people can and should be working longer.

    Those who are already jobless are a responsibility of provincial welfare programs some of which very well may expand as a response to these changes.

    Strengthening provincial welfare programs is a seperate issue and outside federal jurisdiction.

    Two areas to look into to explain poverty in this age group might be mental health issues and substance abuse. I don’t think means/work testing or the lack of a guaranteed minimum income have much to do with this discussion.

    Back to Europe though, I think its important to distinguish between northern european countries (inc Germany) with their high retirement ages compared to southern european countries (inc France) with their low retirement ages.

    Assuming the safety net is similiar across Europe this seems to be a key policy difference.

    In fact the last round of deficit crises 20 years ago caused a policy shift in many Euro countries.

    This included the embrace of free trade, low corporate taxation (although still high income taxes), labour market reforms, higher retirement ages, and more targeted welfare programs at those who needed them.

    Its interesting to note that this is essentially the Harper agenda and basic good public policy.

    Those who didn’t make the shift are rapidly approaching insolvency.

    Their choices are now austerity or inflation, both of which hit fixed/low income individuals the hardest.

    So who’s really engaging in social engineering with vote buying and pretending there is such a thing as a free lunch ?

  34. Ken Summers says:

    Not surprisingly, I dont agree with you.

    But that isnt the point.

    I have my arguments, you have both. And they are both arguments based in the interpretation of evidence… even if the principles behind are the real drivers.

    That is a different animal than you dismissing opposition to the OAP cuts as knee jerk reactionary hysteria of people who ‘cant do the math’.

  35. Ken Summers says:

    Nobody is pretending or even talking about a ‘free lunch’. Thats a trivializing attribution.

  36. Shadow says:

    Ken you didn’t put forward an alternative to the changes to OAS. Neither did anyone else.

    Your statement was that OAS is good because it addresses poverty in seniors.

    That’s nice. Most public spending does good things. Its also beside the point.

    The opposition has chosen to demagogue every spending cut. Don Drummond’s instructions to Ontario are key here – if you don’t like my cuts then you need to find an alternative cut that saves just as much money.

    Not noticing that Canada is in a deficit position that will only get worse with changing demographics IS a sign that people can’t do the math.

  37. You know, it amazes me that Shadow continues to misrepresent my position as “Harper is anti-science”. It’s barely worth engaging with him since he argues without actually dealing with any of my major points. For instance, I more than once raised the distinction between discovering facts and interpreting them and Shadow proceeded to ignore it.

    However I do feel like dealing with one often-repeated claim which has little basis in fact. The claim goes like this:
    Bad for the environment means good for the economy. And good for “the economy” means good for most Canadians. Therefore, most Canadians will have reason to support anti-environment policies, and (in Shadow’s formulation) therefore Stephen Harper is sincerely trying to help most Canadians with his policies.

    This is nonsense. Harper is supporting one and only one form of economic development: Raw resource extraction. Raw resource extraction does not create large numbers of jobs even when the resource sells for a lot of money. That is, it’ll create thousands of jobs, maybe even tens of thousands, but in a country with tens of millions of people that isn’t a big enough sector to drive a healthy economy, although the raw sales numbers may loom large in GDP measurements. Further, resource economies are prone to large boom-and-bust swings.
    So the environmental damage we’re dealing with here is that caused by raw resource extraction, not by “the economy”.
    So, say you instead encourage a more broad-based economy. Say you encourage manufacturing, including green manufacturing. Say you encourage value-added to those resources, perhaps harvesting somewhat less but processing them more in Canada. Say you encourage agriculture (rather than killing the Wheat Board). Say you build (and maintain) infrastructure. Say you encourage tourism. Heck, BC wine sales alone are at about $200 million a year; not that huge compared to a pipeline but far, far more labour-intensive. The wine patch in BC employs far more people than pipeline construction ever will. But not if someone dumps toxic crap in the watershed feeding Okanagan Lake. So how is pollution good for “the economy” there?
    Policies encouraging the broader economy are not particularly at odds with environmental issues; sure, industry pollutes, but mitigating that actually makes it more efficient. It is only policies encouraging a narrow focus on raw resource extraction that can’t handle a bit of environmental research or review. And a narrow focus on raw resource (mostly oil) extraction is not actually good for most Canadians in the first place, and Stephen Harper surely knows this. But it is good for accumulation by a narrow, wealthy elite, as are Harper’s corporate tax cuts and other measures to increase inequality. Harper may talk about “the economy” but the economy he emphasizes is not one which results or is intended to result in widespread prosperity.

  38. Shadow says:

    PLG you’re suggesting failed industrial policy.

    The government subsidising industries that lose money to ‘create’ jobs.

    Where does the government get the money for these subsidies ?

    They levy job killing taxes on sectors of the economy that are actually profitable or they go into unsustainable debt.

    Value added ? If its economical then we’d do it. If not you’re suggesting lower profits and lower productivity.

    Profits which, through taxation, pay for our generous social programs.

    This is literally the model Spain tried.

    They focused on tourism, coastal real estate, and became the largest green energy manufacturer in Europe.

    They are now broke and have double digit unemployment. Their poor are suffering from harsh austerity measures.

    Finally, you’re just off base when you suggest that resource extraction isn’t labour intensive and doesn’t create very many jobs.

  39. Shadow says:

    @PLG i’ll refer you to your remarks “there is no left-right symmetry here” and “Leftists pretty much by definition are in it to pursue the interests of the majority.”

    You’re the one who suggested Harper was trying to keep the public uninformed to advance some narrow corporate interest.

    In my view its the opposition who are ignoring basic economic reality to make unrealistic promises to the public and levy unfair criticisms against the government’s handling of the economy.

    Seems pretty symetrical to me.

    Every party ignores facts that don’t help its messaging.

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