Afternoon Inquisition

AI: The New and Improved Ass Kicking Thursday Afternoon Afternoon Inquisition

So last Thursday, I opened the floor to you guys to suggest Afternoon Inquisition questions to pose to Skepchick readers/commenters, with the promise that if they were good enough, I would post them as the The New and Improved Ass Kicking Thursday Afternoon Afternoon Inquisition. Well, you all did a great job, so here we go.

Today’s question comes courtesy of reader and regular commenter davew. He asks:

Do skeptics make good politicians? Would you like to see a skeptic run your country? Is there any chance of this happening?

And just to be sure we meet the lofty standards of what  The New and Improved Ass Kicking Thursday Afternoon Afternoon Inquisitionshould be, davew offers a bonus question:

What is the least likely/most unusual thing you have taken a skeptical approach to? (In davew’s case, he says it was his lawn. Story please, davew.)

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. IMO, a skeptic should make a good candidate for public office because, ostensibly, they have a good head for logically and rationally figuring out if one policy is more appropriate than another based on objective criteria. However, this same skill would apply to their decision-making on whether the job is worth the hassle of playing the politics game and I think they would likely conclude against taking it.

    But, as the saying goes, the person who wants the job least is probably the one best qualified to do it. Maybe we need to draft, er, “volunteer” some qualified brainbox into becoming our beneficent autocrat and fix the crappy mess the d-bag professional politicians have left us in…

  2. Skepticism only takes you so far. It can answer the question “What if”, but it can’t answer the question “Which is better”. IMHO, politics are 50% facts, 50% values. So, even if a skeptic had all the facts, that doesn’t mean that (s)he would be a good president. All that would suggest is the facts are correct. Some of the most perplexing problems of our time isn’t because we can’t understand the fact, it’s the emotional charge behind it. Illegal Immigration, Gay Rights, Abortion, the Economy. These are all things that while some of may have the facts behind these, the emotions and values of one being better than the other divide people. I know there are some issues that I know the facts, (at least some of them, I think), but making a judgement call on which solution is better is too difficult for me to take a firm position.

  3. Ah, yes. The skeptical lawn.

    I’ve never liked taking care of a lawn. It sucks down incredible amounts of water and time and it just sits there doing nothing productive. Still I had never questioned it. My dad had a lawn, and his dad before him, and his dad before him. No exaggeration. I’ve seen my great granddad’s lawn in Rocky Ford, Colorado and what can I say? It’s great. One fine day about two years ago my wife and I were walking through a tony neighborhood in Boulder and my she spied a carpet of blue-gray spilling out of an herb bed and into the yard. She said, “If they let that thyme plant get any bigger it’s going to take over the whole yard.” Eureka!

    To me skepticism encompasses many things, but one of them is a willingness to question assumptions. I had accepted a grass lawn as a default and had never thought to pursue alternatives. A little research revealed that many folks, especially people in the United Kingdom, have lawns of thyme and even chamomile. Creeping thyme forms a dense mat that never needs mowing and never grows higher than about two inches. It only needs water while it is getting established and doesn’t need or even particularly like fertilizer. It won’t take as much abuse as a typical grass lawn, but stands up well to being walked on occasionally and it smells lovely when you do. I checked with the dreaded neighborhood association and they only specify that 75% of your yard must have “vegetative cover”. Because the thyme never gets mowed, I can intersperse useful plants during the warmer months. This year I planted a bumper crop of basil in and amongst the thyme right off the back porch where previously only useless bluegrass had grown.

    The process is gradual, but easy and cheap. I decided to pursue it in stages. First off, kill a patch of grass. I like to till the dead patch with some compost to make future plantings of things like basil easier, but this is optional. Plant a few creeping thyme plants. I got four different kinds to see which did best (red, white, wooly, and Victor Reiter), but they all thrive. In a season a 2 inch plant will spread to a 30 inch circle. At this point I kill of more grass, divide up the large thyme plants into small pieces, and spread them out. I’m two years into the project now and I suspect I’ll finish it up next year. In the end I’ll have a lawn that doesn’t need water or mowing and as much room for edible plants as I could ever dream of. I wanted to call it The Skeplawn, but my wife prefers “yarden”.

  4. I think that skepticism is unrelated to political skills. Same with intelligence. Politics requires finely honed social skills and the ability to compromise and make deals. Not everyone can do that. I would never vote for someone based solely on their beliefs. I would want to know if he or she is going to do the kinds of things I want him or her to do. You should vote for the politician who will represent your interests.

    The most unusual thing I have taken a skeptical approach to is to atheism itself. I no longer feel as sure as I used to that “it is very likely god does not exist”. I doubt my doubt and hence I simply do not know what I used to think I knew. My position is now more in line with existentialism rather than the scientific positivism I held before.

  5. Effective politicians seem to have leadership skills and an ability to stay on message that borders on the irrational at times. And if one wants to be rational about policy good luck getting a room full of economists to ever agree on what a logical course of action is; or a room full of PhD’s in international studies to agree on a rational and logical foreign policy. Politics is some messy shit and good politicians need to be able to work a crowd, compromise, build consensus and twist arms and I wonder how many skeptics would be willing or able to engage in that level of necessary social wrestling. Perhaps skeptics are better suited to the role of trusted advisor.

  6. Do skeptics make good politicians?

    I don’t think skepticism per se would guarantee a good politician — as noen pointed out there are many other factors that make for a good politician — but it sure as hell wouldn’t hurt.

    Would you like to see a skeptic run your country?

    I sure would. Canada is now dealing with its own version of G. W. Bush. A right-wing, theist fundy who at one time hired a health minister who believed in homeopathy, and a foreign affairs minister (I think that was his role) who believed in the 6000 year old Earth. Un-fucking-believable.

    Is there any chance of this happening?

    Almost certainly not in the foreseeable future. Canada is following fairly closely in the footsteps of the United States and devolving into a candle-free land of faith-begorrahs, magic-thinkers, and Palin-like people.

  7. I have to agree with previous commenters. Being skeptical does not necessarily make one a good politician. What’s more: I think skeptical people are disadvantaged at reaching positions of power. The reason is rather simple: being skeptical requires a certain kind of disregard for others, for traditions, for authority, for the feelings of others. Such attitudes do not help being elected. Politics is a game that requires compromise, building a base of supporters and allies out of people that not necessarily act rationally. Of course one can be skeptical and a cynical hypocrite at the same time, but maybe that is not the kind of politician one would want.
    There is more: not believing whatever bullshit one is supposed to believe can easily lead to gaffes even if one has good social skills. And the wrong kind of gaffe can be rather costly as we could see in James Watson’s case.

  8. @Nador: I have to agree with previous commenters. Being skeptical does not necessarily make one a good politician. What’s more: I think skeptical people are disadvantaged at reaching positions of power.

    I’m going to go along with this too. In my experience critical thinkers tend to lurk behind the scenes. Arguably they can exercise more power from these positions, however.

    We now have a black US president and two openly gay men in congress so I won’t say ‘no, never’, but a skeptic or atheist politician is starting from a disadvantage.

  9. @davew: I have to split some hair regarding your comment (sorry). Being atheist is perpendicular to being a skeptic. Well, i concede these two things are more correlated in the US, but for example my atheism is really not a result of skepticism. My surroundings (country + people i know weighed arbitrarily according to my discretion) contained at least as much non believers as religious people.
    And i know you did not write atheist and skeptic as synonyms, but i took the liberty to assign some extent of suggestion toward the interchangeability of the two concepts in this case, to which i would object. In a society where atheism is common it ceases to be a proof of skepticism and also removes related difficulties.

  10. @Nador: I have to split some hair regarding your comment (sorry). Being atheist is perpendicular to being a skeptic.

    You are correct on all counts. I didn’t equate the two words, but I did carelessly conflate them. To refine my point I consider both skeptics and atheists as similarly disadvantaged in US politics. Skeptics are portrayed as elitist eggheads and atheists, of course, are evil.

  11. Do skeptics make good politicians?
    Sometimes, if they are in the right position at the time of conception. However, we need more trials.

    Would you like to see a skeptic run your country?
    I would be happy seeing just about anyone running this country. Please, Mr. Senator, get off your butt!

    Is there any chance of this happening?
    Not from what I’ve seen of our senate.

    What is the least likely/most unusual thing you have taken a skeptical approach to?
    Bananas. It turns out that they were created just for Man. The outside is the perfect girth and shape for my fingers. After gently peeling it open, the turgid banana fits so well in my mouth, too. The only logical conclusion is that there is a God and He likes … that.

    (I also have a skeptical thoughts about cantaloupe that has been cut longitudinally.)

  12. @James Fox:
    No problem, I know my skill set is relatively uncommon amongst sceptics, so I like to spread the love a little.

    It can be frustrating that economists are pretty much only ever called on in public discussion to do forecasting or calculating multipliers or some such, which is nearly impossible to do well and there is no clear expert consensus on. Whereas the areas where we pretty much all agree (for instance economists have been in agreement on trade since about 1776) don’t sink in.

    In fact it’s gotten to the point where economists joking conclude that a fundamental law of economics that the level of influence held by economists is inversely proportional to the level of agreement among economists.

  13. While I would like to see a few, s/he would never make it right now. I’m thinking of a political commercial in Illinois now where a younger guy is suggesting raising the retirement age. Cue outrage from seniors and an obnoxious commercial of elderly people calling this guy by his first name, telling him he “has a lot to learn”, that “he’s stealing my money” (kind of hilariously stereotypical in an unintentional way), and generally sounding like entitled old folks who hate anyone who isn’t old.

    Because I hate that commercial so much I’m pretty convinced it will work. So if suggesting a logical solution (that may or may not be appropriate) gets people all riled up, it would be an even bigger step if you didn’t believe in Jebus or Jehovah.

    I would have said that Jews didn’t have much of a chance but I’ll bet Rahm wins mayor here.

  14. James K
    “While you could implement a programme of policies that the vast majority of economists agree on, to do so would be electoral suicide.”

    It probably has more to do with the fact that Greg Mankiw is a former Bush economist and the policies he proposed helped to destroy the middle class.

    So if you love outsourcing American jobs overseas, and yeah, that would benefit the rich, or if you think that McDonalds is a manufacturer then Greg Mankiw is your kind of economist.

  15. I’ll have to second noen’s sentiment on Greg Mankiw. In the article that James K linked to Mr. Mankiw says that one of the things that economists are divided on is the virtues or defects of Keynesian economics. This seems to be true. (I am not an economist, so I say this as an outsider.) Mr. Keynes’ theories are somewhat controversial amongst a good portion of the economists that are trained in the last 50 years.

    What also appears to be true is that economics is one of the few areas of study in American academics that lean heavily to the right. In particular, the theories of Milton Friedman seem to be taken as gospel truth by many in the field. It seems to me that many of the “propositions that most economists can agree on” are quite Friedmanian (is that a word?) and it is not surprising considering the reverence that exists toward Friedman in some circles. A good amount of Friedman’s ideas have largely been disproved (let the flames begin) including a full-scale experiment afforded by a coup in Chile in the ‘70s.

    I would suspect that if you were to ask psychology students about that things they can agree on many of the now debunked theories of Sigmund Freud would be believed by most to be true.

    As I stated above, I am not an economist and this is just my opinion, so please show me how this is not true if I am wrong.

    I don’t want to sound like a global warming skeptic when I say, just because a lot of experts believe something doesn’t make it true.

  16. noen:
    The reason trade liberalisation is so popular among economists is that we realise there’s no such thing as “shipping jobs overseas”. Trade changes the pattern of production – some industries grow and others shrink but there is, over the medium to long term no net effect on unemployment. Most people believe otherwise but most people are wrong – there’s no meaningful uncertainty on this by economists left or right. As far as I’m aware the only noteworthy economist who isn’t entirely on board when it comes to trade is Stiglitz, and he is well outside the consensus in his views.

    Economists don’t lean heavily to the right. Economists are more right wing than most social scientists, but that’s not really saying much. In The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan reports (based on survey data) that the average economist is a moderate Democrat. It’s true that Mankiw is more to the right among economists, but he’s also the lead voice in the “Pigou Club”, a group of economists calling for petrol taxes to help combat global warming. Equally, Krugman wrote a piece praising sweatshops (with reservations) some time before he became a New York Times columnist. Most economists do not line up neatly on the political spectrum, expert knowledge make it too hard to take the red vs. blue divide seriously.

    It’s true that most of the items on the list are more free market than the voting public would be comfortable with, but most of them are well established across ideological divides. Items 1, 3, and 10-13 do have Friedman’s fingerprints on them (though he’s hardly the only economists to advocate for them), but items 4 and 8 actually cut against Friedman. And as far as the performance of his policy advice in the real world – perhaps the best thing for me to say is that there isn’t a strong consensus on it, I have my views of course, but there are real expert controversies on some of it, though other items like eliminating general price and wage controls or ending the draft aren’t controversial anywhere any more.

    And just to clarify the surveys Mankiw refers to aren’t of students, but of fully educated economists.

    While it’s true that expert consensus is a weak form of evidence, often it’s the best we have. The levels of consensus Mankiw reports are too high for them to be the product of ideological bias (since 76% of economists don’t lean in one direction), I have reservations with some of the items on the list, but then I have enough of a background to engage with the arguments they are making. If an interested outsider wants to engage with those items, chances are most of the objections they raised would be already known and either accounted for or refuted.

    What ultimately convinced me of the reality of global warming is that the consensus of experts was so strong, too strong for ideological or other bias to be a likely explanation. At that point my options are either study up enough become a climatologist or take the experts at their word.

  17. @James K:
    First of all, let me thank you for talking to me like a human being even though I was expressing opinion. Not having a formal education, I get dismissed regularly by those with degrees.

    Secondly, when I said economics was far to the right I was talking compared to other academic disciplines, not the general population.

    Finally, I can understand the ideas behind the theories on the list. The problem is these theories are for “perfect world” situations and, because real-world experimentation is nearly impossible, can’t anticipate all contingencies.

    The example I would use is supply-side economics. It seems (again, from the outside) that the basic idea has been discredited, and isn’t talked about by anyone but the most staunch conservative pundits. And, although the ideas of lowering taxes on the rich to increase job production has never, to my knowledge, worked it is ingrained in the public consciousness. It is one of the (misguided) reasons behind the Tea Party movement.
    The inability to experiment make economic policy by its nature more conservative (as in incremental, not as in right wing) and harder to change with honest debate as opposed to emotional appeal.

  18. @mrmisconception:
    You’re quite welcome, I enjoy civilised conversations and I get how counter-intuitive so much of economics is, so I try to explain things as much as I can in a medium as limited as blog comments.

    The “economics is too theoretical” objection is one I hear quite often, and while there’s truth in it, it’s partially a product of how economic theory is structured. Because of the complexity of economies we start with a set of strong simplifying assumptions that describe an ideal world. Then we step back, and try to work out what happens if each assumption is relaxed. It’s true that there are conditions under which some of the items listed by Mankiw would be a bad idea, but most of those exceptions are rare and don’t actually apply in the real world very often.

    TO use trade theory as an example (it was one of my specialities at university, and there’s very strong consensus among economists on the subject), there have been many contributors to trade theory that have pointed out circumstances under which protectionism could have social benefits (Paul Krugman actually got his Nobel for doing this), but then pointing out that in the real world it would be effectively impossible to implement the protectionism correctly to get the beneficial effects. It’s also worth remembering that real world governments are also flawed institutions, and while a Philosopher King could probably implement any number of improvements over market operations, real world political processes simply can’t do well enough (at least much of the time).

    Supply-side economics is an interesting example of what happens when an economic idea escapes into mainstream politics. The idea that tax cuts always pay for themselves is absurd and no economist believes it. There are circumstances however when tax cuts could pay for themselves, the distortionary effect taxes have on an economy increases with the tax rate so if taxes got high enough they could start suppressing revenue. It’s highly unlikely that any of the broad-based taxes in the US are high enough to cause this effect however. In the real world the most important insight of the Laffer Curve is that tax increases won’t yield as much revenue as linear arithmetic would indicate, not that tax increases yield negative revenue. Economist supply-siders and pundit supply-siders aren’t speaking the same language.

    Job creation is a wholly different subject.

    Frankly if there was one topic I could permanently banish from political debate it would be creating jobs. As a general rule government cannot create jobs, except through make-work programmes that are just welfare in disguise (I’m not objecting to welfare, I’d just rather we were honest about it). In a recession things change somewhat, and monetary stimulus (cutting interest rates) and fiscal stimulus (running a deficit) could work. Some tax cuts could help in a recessionary environment, but it would depend on the tax (cutting payroll taxes could work because in the short run it would make it cheaper for businesses to employ people), income taxes would be a poor choice because it would promote saving just as much as spending.

    The inability to experiment make economic policy by its nature more conservative (as in incremental, not as in right wing) and harder to change with honest debate as opposed to emotional appeal.

    I agree completely.

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