16 March 2013

The Advocate's Dilemma

In today's FT John McDermott has lunch with Noam Chomsky. If you don't know who Chomsky is McDermott explains:
Chomsky is arguably the world’s most prominent political activist. To his opponents, he is a crank who sees evil as made in America. To his supporters, he is a brave truth-teller and unrelenting huma­nist; a latter-day Bertrand Russell. . . Some of Chomsky’s critics have accused him of going easy on the faults of autocrats so long as they are enemies of the US.
Chomsky pushes back on this characterization and in the process points to a fundamental dilemma faced by the advocate - a role distinguished by its focus on reducing the scope of choice available to a decision making, typically to a single preferred outcome.

Chomsky explains the dilemma as follows:
“Suppose I criticise Iran. What impact does that have? The only impact it has is in fortifying those who want to carry out policies I don’t agree with, like bombing.” He argues that any criticisms about, say, Ch├ívez, will invariably get into the mainstream media, whereas those he makes about the US will go unreported. This unfair treatment is the dissident’s lot, according to Chomsky.
What we have here is the old "ends-justify-the-means" challenge. For scientists and other experts this dilemma is particularly acute, because the authority of the expert lies in their claim to integrity and credibility. It is one thing for a political commentator to cherry pick or otherwise make arguments selectively, as their authority does not necessarily rest on the fidelity of their claims.  It is quite another thing for an expert to engage in the same sort of sly tactics, because they risk the very basis for the experts' claim to political authority. It may not seem fair, but that is how it is.
 Chomsky explains that experts often serve political power rather obediently:
Intellectuals like to think of themselves as iconoclasts, he says. “But you take a look through history and it’s the exact opposite. The respected intellectuals are those who conform and serve power interests."
If you think that political battles are mostly about competing power interests, then you will probably have little concern about experts who decide to enlist their authority in service of advancing those interests. In power politics, the ends, of course, justify the means. However, if you think that the substance of alternative courses of action matter as much or even more than power interests, then you will view politicized expertise as not just of concern, but deeply pathological.

Back in 2005, when I was working on the first edition of The Honest Broker I explained on Prometheus how this dynamic was playing out in the climate debate:
[I]f the climate science community were to simply ignore such misuse of their authority for purposes of advocacy, it raises legitimate questions about the role that climate scientists wish to play in the political debate. Context matters here as many climate scientists have shown little reluctance to speak out in response to certain commentators (compare, e.g., reaction to Michael Crichton). . . Under this scenario, letting misstatements stand while selectively correcting others contributes to the conflation of climate science and climate politics.

These dynamics help to illustrate how an observer of the political debate on climate might come to (or even seek) the conclusion that climate science and politics are one and the same. From this vantage point, climate scientists become issue advocates whether they like it or not. For some climate scientists this outcome may be perfectly acceptable (see earlier reference to Madisonian democracy), but if climate policy needs consideration of new and innovative options (see earlier reference to Schattschneiderian democracy) then the climate community's collective actions may limit its future contributions to the climate debate to simply a tool of marketing for agendas now on the table. For issue advocates this may be a desirable outcome, but the question that I have for scientists is - is this the direction that you really want science to go?
The risk of advocacy within the expert community is not so much the consequences for the individual -- after all experts are people too, and each of us has to decide what role we wish to play. In a democracy advocacy is not just fundamental, but a noble calling. There are of course consequences for the individual expert of deciding to become an overt advocate, but taking such a course of action is not problematic. This is one reason that I have long supported Jim Hansen's overt advocacy on climate change -- more power to him. Same goes for Noam Chomsky - his advocacy is welcomed in policy debates, whether I agree with his politics or not. No one would likely confuse Hansen or Chomsky with an honest broker institution or a reliable arbiter of technical questions.

A risk of advocacy to expertise is when it becomes systemic to the degree that alternative perspectives beyond advocacy are not welcomed or even denigrated -- if you are not with us then you must be with the enemy. When an expert community becomes dominated by advocacy you may find yourself playing power politics in the absence of policy substance. At that point the battles may be intense and symbolic, but they won't mean much in terms of achieving the advocate's policy goals. (Ring any bells?) In other words, it wouldn't be desirable if all of our experts followed the path chosen by Noam Chomsky.

The advocate's dilemma is thus not simply about whether to be an advocate or not -- the dilemma is whether to respect and include independent expertise, or to denigrate or even try to silence it when you find it politically inconvenient. Such a situation becomes problematic when policy debate needs a constant influx of new and creative options for action, which can serve both political and policy objectives, or alternatively, when the credibility of expertise actually matters.

The Bush administration found out that sacrificing credibility and options may help achieve short term political successes, but ultimately saw that strategy fail in the longer run (both in terms of policy success and political credibility see my discussion in The Honest Broker). For advocates (experts or other) who disapprove of independent, uncompliant experts, it is a lesson worth learning.