Technocracy Now!

Most American conservatives now believe that any statistic more sophisticated that the arithmetic mean is witchcraft and comes from the devil. This is problematic because we live in a world which has been deeply shaped by sophisticated statistics, probability theory, and other related mathematical subfields. Google works because of statistical methods. The annoying messages from your credit card company warning you of possibly fraudulent transactions work because of statistical methods. Even the input method on your smart phone is based on statistical methods. Much more importantly, scientific research—in the earth sciences, the biological sciences, the social sciences, and more—rely on statistical methods. Though these methods are only as good as logic according to which they are applied, and recent debates have called into question the way that certain techniques like null hypothesis significance testing have been used, statistical methods are essential to science as it is practiced today. Not only that, they have facilitated many of the scientific advances from which we have benefited and on which we have come to rely.

We can improve the condition of people living in the United States if we use scientific research to craft, test, and revise policies. This is not a new idea: For example, in the early 20th century, academics and politicians in Wisconsin developed what is know as the Wisconsin Idea, the notion that academic research can and should find solutions to economic problems, technological problems, and problems in quality of life. Not coincidentally, Wisconsin's semi-literate governor, Scott Walker, recently attempted to strip the Wisconsin Idea from the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin. Of course, a movement that is increasingly based on the rejection of science and its tools should be expected to be hostile to the technocratic legacy of the Progressive Era. While conservatives frequently accuse liberals and progressives of being slaves to their emotions rather than reason, most of the evidence suggests that, instead, conservative political cognition is driven by emotions like fear and disgust (indeed, conservatives tend to have hypertrophied amygdalae—the part of the brain where fear and disgust responses are localized—and less gray matter in the prefrontal cortex—where higher-order cognition takes place). They rightfully assert that their conclusions are based in common sense, but common sense has much less to do with reason than with prejudice, folk wisdom, and hillbilly Platonism (my term for the assumption that highly local differences represent essential contrasts on a cosmic scale). This kind of populistic conservatism is compelling precisely because it appeals to emotion and categorical ideals and does not have to answer to the call of evidence.

The successful movements on the left usually have the same secret ingredient and the same fatal flaw as conservative Populism. Marxism, while currently in decline, was—in its—heyday able to motivate large numbers of adherents to engage in dramatic and sometimes bizarre behavior. This was not because there was any empirical basis for Marxism or any of its degenerate derivatives like Leninism, Trotskyism, Stalinism, or Maoism. They were all based on flawed theories of economics and a highly speculative stage-theories of history (“historical materialism”) that—despite materialist commitments—was based on an intricate dance of essentialistic categories rather than empirical evidence. This allowed Marxist politics to be understood viscerally as a struggle against vilified (class) enemies. It leveraged the same insidious “common sense” that is foundational to right-wing populism. At the same time, this idealistic, quasi-religious orientation meant that Marxist parties have typically have had as many schisms as churches in the Adventist movement.

The explicit (but illiterate) religiosity of al Qaida and ISIS place them in the same boat. They are able to motivate throngs of young people to make common cause with them despite the fact that they can present no evidence their millenarian promises have any merit. Misguided western pundits often suggest that the solution to these movements is introducing a “Moderate Islam,” but as Anthropologist Scott Atran has pointed out (based on his fieldwork with past and prospective ISIS members) it is precisely the idealistic extremism of groups like ISIS that attracts people to them—especially young people. “Don't any of you have teenage children?” Atran asks. “When did ‘moderate’ anything have wide appeal for youth yearning for adventure, glory, and significance?” And just as “moderate” does not draw young people seeking glory, few youth are going to sacrifice their energy and time top promote “evidence-based” policy. The people with the energy and position to change the world are essentially manicheans (whether secular or religious), not pragmatic technocrats.

Does this mean that all is lost? Not entirely. Barack Obama is a relatively technocratic politician (though I do not always agree with his evaluation of the evidence relevant to policies). He is no slave to ideology. Rather than pushing for the healthcare reform desired by his base—a single-payer system—he put together a diverse team of policy wonks who took a reform package developed by the right-wing Heritage Foundation that had already been test-implemented by Mitt Romney's administration in Massachusetts. They developed this plan into a set of reforms that made the US medical system more like that of Switzerland than that of Sweden. Obama then staked his political capital on this body of legislation. This showed a willingness to compromise and to seek the best policy outcomes that were acceptable to his weak-kneed supporters in the House and Senate. However, Obama's supporters did not raise money, knock doors, and phone bank for him because he was a technocrat or pragmatist. Instead, they were inspired by an idealistic message of hope, change, and trans-partisan cooperation (the last illusion was quickly shattered). In other words, it appears that anyone who wants to bring about policy reform and good governance must grapple with the somewhat distasteful task of coupling pragmatism with idealistic promises and an essentialist battle plan.

I want policies that work and I want them in place as soon as possible. Unfortunately, most members of the electorate—be they aging conservative populists or young progressives—have neither the ability nor the interest necessary to evaluate the reams of published research relevant to the pressing policy questions of the day. Statistical operations, no matter how well-founded, look like trickery. When presented with evidence in this form, most members of the body politic will either recoil in fear and disgust or yawn indifferently. They want to fight cosmic battles, not evaluate academic debates. For a vibrant and effective technocracy to succeed, it must be allied to the sort of rhetoric that is most foreign to the measured discourse of science (granted, scientists and scholars can get very snippy, but academic discourse has conventions that keep the rhetorical cars on track). This feels wrong. However, if the goal is implementing policies that work, the most effective pathway may be through framing policy debates in ways that compensate for a lack of empirical rigor with a vividness and immediacy that draw votes and voices.

David R. Mortensen

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

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