Wednesday, October 10, 2012

What's (the) Objective

Something that has struck me as odd—although it really shouldn't—is the lack of objective standards in this election.

It is a basic tenet of conflict resolution. After all the emotions and values and touchy feely stuff is done we build. And we build together. Y'know, touchy feely build together as a collective community stuff.

But it's not just touchy feely. The best mediators, the best resolutions to conflict, are ones where there is an objective standard that is measurable and achievable. If the job of the mediator is to level the playing field, an objective standard is the giant steamroller that makes it happen.

And so the basic premise—if my metaphors aren't too confusing—is that achieving goals is a measurable way of knowing something. And we do this all the time in politics. Somehow though, the spin nullifies the measurements.

I think this is the most striking thing here—if the numbers don't jive with the narrative, then the numbers are wrong. Obviously both sides are culpable for this one. And I'm not here to be a referee. I'm here to lay out a disturbing trend.

Three weeks ago O was up in the polls and the GOP fired a line of thinking that the numbers were somehow skewed. Post-debate Mitt made a push and the GOP critics fell silent while Dems started making their foray into the spin zone.

When the jobs numbers came out showing unemployment at 7.8%; Jack Welch—former GE CEO—got up in arms and started a line of thought that the numbers had been trumped up. The cold hard truth is that the numbers have been collected using the same methodology every month for years. Years. If the numbers are inconsistent they are consistently so. Because of that, a fundamental flaw in the methodology is feasible, and would reflect on every report going back to the time that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has been using that methodology. In simple terms, levying an attack on a jobs report without a scientifically rigorous counter-argument is absurd. If anything were a blatantly political maneuver it would be less that the jobs numbers reflect a marginal growth in employment for the month of September (one data point among hundreds) and more that the critics are suddenly unhappy because it doesn't reflect a trend they like.

And believe me, it's a trend. Unemployment in this country has been slowly reflecting a decrease over time. While not politically great for the Republican cause there is little reason to doubt that the numbers are wrong. Further, being “right” on this issue doesn't even have an integral role in the Republican narrative. Overall, their narrative is that they can do better if they were in power, a claim that all sides take when not in power.

Let's take a moment to dissect that message. The easiest way to look at this is through goals. Goals are sometimes not in alignment (pro-life and pro-choice) but very often they are and easily so. Republicans and Democrats both want more people employed and the economy to thrive. Simple enough. Of course, the techniques for achieving this vary greatly—basically, how do you improve the economy?

So, given this divergence, many people are left wondering a basic question, “which is better?” And while the answer varies as the numbers do—should we measure GNP, GDP, employment, inflation, the value of the dollar—the numbers are measurable. And, like it or not, economists (read scientists well-versed in the language and methodology of scientific rigor) largely agree on these numbers. These are the way “points” are scored. Obviously economics is a social science and the human condition—its uncertainty, its irrationality, its passion that so many poets romanticize—makes its way into the numbers. But not in a wildly unpredictable way. As long as variables remain largely constant, large sets of numbers can mostly negate the irrational behavior of a single person. And boy do they have large sets of data!

So, politicians can reliably find numbers that give us a ballpark view of the nation's economic state. The same is true for many other matters of policy. How does the teen pregnancy and STI rate compare in abstinence only education and safer sex education? How are violent crime rates affected by the number of police officers in a given area?

Of course, there is the classic correlation is not causation argument. It is certainly absurd to believe that because ice cream sales and crime both increase during the summer months that they are causal. Committing crime does not make one scream for ice cream or the reverse. But they are good hints that there is a causal relationship somewhere—perhaps heat, open doors, summer break and juveniles unattended, or even the dastardly presence of a high pollen count?

The point is that by making political accusations against scientifically rigorous datasets that have been shown time and time again to reflect observations in the real world we are degrading the integrity of debate. If there are conflicting views or approaches that is one thing. If the data can be shown to be flawed using a similarly robust set of data, there is room for debate. But blind indictment of things that are hard to hear and sometimes contradictory to a position is ignorance of the highest order.

It makes stupid and childish a legitimate debate, it insults the intelligence of the public, and it stalls any collaborative progress that may be had. No political office, no ad hominem attack, is worth the detriment it causes to our international reputation, our collective attitudes toward science, or our future as a whole. Because, when the election ends and only the numbers you want are viable, then only your views will matter, and America will have shed itself of democracy. Not to be dramatic about it, but think about it a bit.