Ferey: Populism against science: a new political cleavage?, Part 2/2

This is part 2 of a translation of an op-ed by Camille Ferey in BibliObs. Part 1 is here.

Analyzing the legitimate reasons for criticizing science

If the ideological dimension of the cleavage between rationalism and populism has been clarified, there remains a real phenomenon behind it. There exists a mass of untruths (lies and errors) whose effects on humanity are deleterious: climate-skepticism, historical denialism, anti-Darwinism and various kinds of conspiracy theories. But there is a pressing need to analyze the real causes of these untruths rather than to attribute them to the mental dysfunction of idiots: democracy cannot be defended by being anti-democrats.

The foremost of these causes is a political one: the process of scientification of politics and technicalization of democracy. Liberal capitalism largely subordinates collective decisions to mathematical economic models that are presented by a stratum of “experts” that are linked to power as eternal truths. In this way, presenting political choices as scientific ones, a rhetoric that was widely used in the management of the COVID19 pandemic (the decisions, said Edouard Phillipe, are not political, they are scientific), exposes science to skepticism from that point on whenever choices prove to have negative consequences. How can we believe, for example, the irrefutability of economic laws after the 2008 crisis? Dismissing any critical reflection of a technical-scientific vision of politics, immediately branding such reflection as mistrustful and irrational populism, and eliminating from public debate a set of subjects under the pretext that they are matters of science, thus contributes directly to putting science in doubt.

Another cause, this one sociological, can explain the lack of confidence in science. As history and sociology show clearly: no science is neutral in the sense that it may be produced by an observer with no characteristics and no purpose. Science is produced by scientists and if the scientists all belong to the same social class or to the same group, their products will necessarily be affected. And so, the fact that over the centuries scientists were men can explain the great delay in research about feminine sexual organs as well as about certain diseases such a endometriosis, which afflict only women.

If today women are slowly gaining ground in science (even if with much difficulty, for the scientific establishment is barely opening up and renewing itself), this is not happening with regards to the working class due to the length and uncertainty of the path leading to a career in research (being inversely proportional to the ridiculous sums and the small numbers of the scholarships available). Therefore, as science is going to be done by the wealthier classes, it will necessarily to some extent be done for the wealthy. Objectivity and neutrality grow from pluralism and equality. Without those, as the philosopher John Dewey wrote in 1927, “a class of experts is inevitably so removed from common interests that it becomes a class with private interests and private knowledge, which in social matters is no knowledge at all. [The Public And Its Problems, p. 207]”
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Today German Bundestag Live Committee Discussion of “Citizen Engagement” via Sortition

With the title, “A New Form of Citizen Participation,” a special subcommittee of the German Parliament [of the Bundestag or popular assembly] convenes a “technical discussion” of experts on October 6 at noon Berlin time on the upcoming citizens’ assembly on “the role of Germany in the world.” It will be live-streamed at http://www.bundestag.de.

“A lot-based Citizens Council will produce a report on Germany’s role in the world. This project will be implemented as an independent undertaking of the More Democracy association [Mehr Demokratie e. V.] under the patronage of the President of the Bundestag,” reads the announcement of the Bundestag.

It continues that this kind of participation has been practiced in Ireland since 2012 as “Citizens’ Assembly.” The ambassador of Ireland will be a special guest of the committee to report on the Irish experience with “citizens’ councils.” [In Germany the term Buergerrat or “citizen council” has come to mean an allotted body of either the size of a panel or an assembly; it seems, the literal translation of assembly has the connotation of an Ekklesia or gathering of all.]

  • Dr. Nicholas O’Brien, Ambassador from Ireland
  • Roman Huber, Executive Director, Mehr Demokratie e. V. [More Democracy]
  • Dr. Siri Hummel, Acting Director, Maecenata Institute for Philanthropy and Civil Society
  • Dr. Ansgar Klein, Managing Policy Director, Federal Network for Citizen Engagement, [Bundesnetzwerk Bürgerschaftliches Engagement (BBE)] Advisory Board of Bürgerrat Demokratie [the organization which organized the CA on democratic reform in 2019]
  • Univ.-Prof. Dr. Roland Lhotta, Helmut-Schmidt-Universität Hamburg, Professor, Political Science, specializing in the German Federal System

https://www.bundestag.de/dokumente/textarchiv/2020/kw41-pa-buergerschaftliches-engagement-793926

More info in English regarding the upcoming CA on Germany’s role in the world: https://deutschlands-rolle.buergerrat.de/english/

Rothchild: “Ancient wisdom” in MI’s new redistricting process

John Rothchild, Professor of Law at Wayne State University, writes approvingly in The Conversation about Michigan’s new allotted electoral redistricting commission. Rather naively, Rothchild seems to believe that democratic redistricting could result in the selection of “representatives who truly reflect [citizens’] political preferences”. Alas, this is more than mere redistricting can deliver, however well done.

How, then, should Michigan’s decision to assign unskilled members of the public the job of drawing nonpartisan election districts be evaluated?

Redistricting is a complex task. Michigan’s Constitution says that the districts must be drawn in compliance with federal law. That includes a requirement that voting districts have roughly the same population. It also requires that the districts “reflect the state’s diverse population and communities of interest,” and “not provide a disproportionate advantage to any political party.”

Dividing the map to meet all of these criteria is not likely to be within the capabilities of a group of randomly selected citizens.

There are several reasons to think that the redistricting commission will nevertheless prove adequate to the task.
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Ferey: Populism against science: a new political cleavage?, Part 1

Camille Ferey is a doctoral student at the Université de Paris-Nanterre where she is writing a thesis about theories of participative democracy and democratic social movements. She wrote the following op-ed in BibliObs back in July.

Populism against science: a new political cleavage?

Rarely does science provoke as many hopes and controversies as it has been doing over the last few months.

It is a matter of great importance: upon the progress of science depends the neutralization of a disease that has confined half of humanity, upon its instructions and warnings depend our rights to travel, to meet and to kiss. However, many commentators talk about the threat of “distrust” that undermines the authority of science, if not of the authority of Truth itself, in our democracies. Furthermore, this dominant narrative confounds this phenomenon of skepticism (which is very real) with a different phenomenon, a political one: populism. The political cleavage is then reduced to a binary opposition between reason and populism, and consequently all criticism of scientific and political institutions is ruled out.

Mistrust of science and political non-conformism: a problematic confounding

It is a widely circulated narrative, with its opinion polls, its statistical studies, its indicators and its media talking points: democracies are suffering because of the irrational acceptance by a growing number of citizens of a mass of fake news, alternative truths and conspiracy theories (vaccines are bad for your health, the theory of evolution is a lie, climate change is a hoax). Yet, this narrative never asks whether what is taking place is a rejection of scientific theories, of scientific protocols, of scientists, of institutions of research, of technical applications of science or of its political uses. This vagueness allows to systematically associate this distrust with a specific phenomenon: populism, which is designated willy-nilly as both a cause and an effect of the regime of errors and lies.

The latest CEVIPOF poll on the relations between science and society establishes a correlation between, on the one hand, “an indicator” of mistrust calculated based on questions such as “Do you think that science brings more good than bad, as much good as bad, or more bad than good?”, and, on the other hand, “and indicator of populism”, based on the following questions: “Politicians are generally corrupt? A good political system is one where citizens rather than a government decide what they think is better for the country? Democracy functions best if the representatives are allotted citizens?”. A surprising definition of “populism”, which rather resembles the definition of democracy, or maybe of common sense.
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Are there measurable benefits in using a lottery to select leaders? A scientific experiment

Short answer: Yes, and no!

Longer answer:

Hubris is a tendency of leaders to hold an overly confident view of their own capabilities and to abuse power for their own selfish goals, sometimes with disastrous consequences for organizations. A major reason for hubris is the rigorous selection process leaders typically undergo. This study proposes a governance mechanism used successfully in history to tackle hubris: partly random selections, which combine competitive selections by competence with lotteries. A frequently voiced concern about the use of lotteries is that it takes no account of the competence of the leader chosen. We propose that partly random selections can mitigate the disadvantages of both competitive selections alone and lotteries alone and reduce hubris in leaders. We conduct a test of this governance mechanism by means of a computerized laboratory experiment. Our results show that partly random selections significantly reduce the hubris of group leaders. [my emphasis]

This is the Abstract from the Report. The full citation is: Joël Berger; Margit Osterloh; Katja Rost; Thomas Ehrmann (2020, May 13) ‘How to prevent leadership hubris? Comparing competitive selections, lotteries, and their combination’ The Leadership Quarterly, ISSN: 1048-9843  http://doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2020.101388 (paywall)

In order to test their theory, this group of Swiss and German scientists conducted an experiment, using a method instantly recognisable to experimental economists (and others, but they are the ones I’m familiar with). Their hypothesis was that a lottery could play a useful part in limiting hubris when selecting leaders.

We conducted a computerized laboratory experiment   ….  864 students of the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich, were randomly selected from a pool of students who had volunteered to participate in behavioral experiments for monetary compensation. Participants on average gained USD 30 for 45 min……The 864 participants were randomly selected into groups of six and randomly assigned to one of three treatment conditions.

Wow! As you can see, this sort of experiment is not cheap, so well done to the guys in Zurich to obtain the funds from the Swiss government to conduct an experiment on lotteries-for-jobs. Note, too, the use of a randomly selected sample and sub-samples. Ok, so it’s students, it generally is in these scientific tests, but for obvious practical reasons.

Briefly, the experiment proceeded thus: A leader for each group were produced by one of three methods. 1. Using a general knowledge test and appoint the top scorer; or 2. Same test, but select at random from the top three scorers; or 3. A simple lottery where every member of the group has an equal chance.

How ‘hubris’ of the selected leaders was measured was complicated, and if you want know, you’ll have to read the article, but it did involve the well-known ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma Game’. It was from this, and 11 pages of statistical analysis of regression models that the conclusion was reached.

Our study follows a pioneering approach to investigate an unusual selection method for appointing leaders in organizations, partly random selection. This selection method has been extensively used in history but has nearly been forgotten. Today, random decisions are considered by many people to be “irrational”. Our study shows that purposeful random selection, in particular combining competitive selections with a random component, is a rational and promising way of recruiting leaders that tackles hubris in overconfident leaders. Our proposal to “draw your CEO by lot” is provocative but may be promising.

Most of the members of this group engage in philosophical discussion, where the merits of a proposal are a matter of persuasive rhetoric. Elsewhere, exhortations to ‘follow the science’ abound, and mere rhetoric is treated with caution. Even calling in aid ‘common-sense’ can be suspect.

This is, I believe, the first time any hypothesis of us Kleroterians has been subject to what has been described as ‘The gold standard of science’. I have another example from Levitt of Freakonomics fame which almost constitutes Science, which I will post about later.

Executive Harmony

In the third post in my executive series, I explore how a pluralistic executive deals with conflict among independent office holders. While this apparatus might seem like a waste of resources, what is the cost of authoritarianism? I think it is much better to ask the question: Can’t a pluralistic executive just get along with itself?

Chumbley: Abolish student government elections now

Robert Chumbley writes in the Tulane Hullabaloo:

Elections are detrimental to the establishment of diversity of thought in any given student government. Cognitive diversity is more important to the success of political leadership than relying solely on demographic diversity, which can potentially foster differences in thinking but does not guarantee it.

When individuals with varying opinions interact, these relationships are more conducive to innovation and the development of problem solving abilities. Given that cognitive diversity and the ensuing boon to collective problem solving should be a higher priority than the maintenance of elections for traditional-ideological purposes, Tulane ought to replace USG elections with sortition, the random selection of individuals for offices.

The reason for that logical jump may not be intuitively obvious, but the fact is that random allotment of political offices promotes cognitive diversity and improves problem solving ability.

Random selection does not produce a mob of unqualified commoners. In truth, those who object to sortition on the basis of “lack of qualification” are effectively dividing the population into commoners and elites, the former of whom deserve to be managed and the latter of whom deserve to manage by virtue of their special “qualifications,” whatever those are alleged to be.
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Citizen initiative review in Switzerland

Grégoire Baur reports in Le Temps about “Demoscan” – a Swiss experiment with citizen initiative review initiated by Nenad Stojanovic, a University of Geneva political science professor:

The concept of the Demoscan project is simple: “ordinary citizens” inform their peers during a referendum campaign. An allotted panel representing the population, having had the opportunity to hear the experts as well those pro and against the proposal put up for a referendum, write a report which is sent to the citizens together with the voting materials.

“Very encouraging” results

At Sion [the capital of the Swiss canton of Valais], 20 people took part in the experience as part of the campaign regarding the popular initiative proposition “More affordable housing” last February. “The objective of the pilot project was to see to what extent could information provided by citizens encourage people to vote, what level of confidence the citizens would have in an allotted panel. The result are very encouraging”, says Nenad Stojanovic.

Whereas usually the turnout in Sion is low, in this case the turnout was somewhat higher than the average in the canton. The confidence accorded to the panel by voters was higher than they have in the federal parliament. In addition, the citizen report was the second most consulted source of information, behind the official brochure of the Federal Council, but ahead of the media and the campaign party slogans. “The citizen panel will not replace the democratically elected authorities, but it can complement them”, emphasized the political scientist.

Stojanovic is already engaged in another experiment in Geneva and hopes to launch others.

People in “increasingly autocratic” regimes show confidence in “democracy” in their countries

The Centre for the Future of Democracy is based at Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge aims “to explore the challenges and opportunities faced by democratic politics over the coming century”. Back in January, the Centre has published a report [PDF] titled “Global Satisfaction with Democracy 2020”. The report is based on what seems like a very useful data set created by combining multiple survey data sources comprising 3,500 surveys from many countries around the world over the years 1973 to 2020 asking citizens whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with democracy in their countries.

The key findings are not surprising:

Across the globe, democracy is in a state of malaise. In the mid-1990s, a majority of citizens in countries for which we have time-series data – in North America, Latin America,Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australasia – were satisfied with the performance of their democracies. Since then, the share of individuals who are “dissatisfied” with democracy has risen by around +10% points, from 47.9 to 57.5%.

This is the highest level of global dissatisfaction since the start of the series in 1995. After a large increase in civic dissatisfaction in the prior decade, 2019 represents the highest level of democratic discontent on record.The rise in democratic dissatisfaction has been especially sharp since 2005. The year that marks the beginning of the so-called “global democratic recession” is also the high point for global satisfaction with democracy, with just 38.7% of citizens dissatisfied in that year. Since then, the proportion of “dissatisfied” citizens has risen by almost one-fifth of the population (+18.8%).
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The French Assembly votes to allow the CESE to convene allotted citizen bodies

Following up on Macron’s commitment to reform the CESE (Conseil économique, social et environnemental) as part of a drive toward “participative democracy”, the Assembly has voted for a law making several changes to the CESE. One of the changes is allowing the CESE to convene allotted consultative citizen bodies, modeled after the recent Citizen Climate Convention.

The conservative Républicains party voted for the reform but was displeased by the idea of using allotted bodies: “Sortition does not guarantee competence” and does not guarantee representativity either, said Julien Aubert, one of their MPs.