Hubris, Wisdom, and Political Judgment

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

When MCC’s Ottawa Office was established in 1975, one of its primary functions was to serve as a listening post, seeking information on developments in the federal government “affecting the life and work” of supporting churches.

This function still looms large at times. When I speak with colleagues (not to mention family and friends), I am frequently asked for my perspective on the latest political drama playing out in Ottawa.

In most cases these people are already reasonably well informed about the issue in question. They read reputable newspapers. They listen to reputable radio programs. Some are even self-described political junkies.

So I am tempted to think that what they are really looking for is something they can’t get from the media. Perhaps they are hoping for a tidbit of information or even gossip from a presumed “insider” who will give them the scoop on how things will shake out.

My conversation partners shouldn’t hold their breath, according to the American political psychologist Philip Tetlock.

In his book Expert Political Judgment, Tetlock argues that experts often lack political judgment. Indeed, his data shows that the more political expertise someone possesses, the less likely they will be able to accurately predict the outcome of a political debate or conflict.

There are many reasons for this, including that fact that experts

  • “can talk themselves into believing they can do things that they manifestly cannot”;
  • “are reluctant to acknowledge that they were wrong and to change their minds”; and
  • “fall prey to the hindsight effect. After the fact they claim to know more about what was going to happen than they actually knew before the fact.” (p. 161-62)

In sum, experts have a problem with hubris. And the more they know about a subject, the deeper their level of expertise, the more this problem tends to rear its head.

At times this list describes me well!

However, I do have a problem with Tetlock’s definition of political judgment. I simply don’t agree that the measure of political judgment should be predictive accuracy.

At the risk of sounding defensive (or overly concerned about justifying the existence of MCC’s Ottawa Office!), I would argue that political judgment is brought to bear in a whole host of ways that have nothing to do with assessing the likelihood that various scenarios will, or will not, come to pass.

For a start, the marks of effective political judgment are things like wisdom or savvy rather than forecasting ability. Beyond discerning the probability of future events, judgments more often need to be made about what is true or good, and what is possible or desirable.

After all, the point of political analysis is to be able to figure out how to maneuver within a particular context—how to create the space to play a constructive role in a particular scenario—not to simply watch things unfold from the outside.

Thus MCC’s partners and constituents are served well not by employing pundits or prognosticators in Ottawa who serve up political commentary, but by employing policy analysts and advocates who are politically engaged.

The point of having a listening post is not only to listen well, and then help others make sense of what is going on, but also to help MCC know how to act well.

There are times toward the end of his book where Tetlock seems to agree. For example, in commenting on the general decline of public intellectuals, he notes (with regret) that the psychological function they now serve

“is not the pursuit of truth but rather enhancing the self-images and social identities of co-believers….We right-minded folks want our side to prevail over those wrong-headed folks.”

Not surprisingly then, “the psychology [of political debate] is that of the sports arena, not the seminar room.”

And thus political judgment serves the needs of partisan spectators preoccupied with the drama of politics itself.

I must admit that this can be hard to remember in the heat of the moment as contentious issues are being debated. But the Ottawa Office has always been motivated by the pursuit of truth, not political triumph, even as we recognize, along with Tetlock, that this pursuit is “a precarious balancing act” and “no easy art to master.” (p. 215)

These are the kinds of things I try to remember when people ask “So what are you hearing in Ottawa these days?” There may be times when I am tempted to play the role of a political commentator. There may be times when I overreach and presume I know more than I really do about a particular issue.

But at the end of the day, the measure of the Ottawa Office’s political judgment is found in our ability to provide insight that goes beyond the limited intellectual terrain mapped out during Question Period or debates over a particular piece of legislation, and that goes beyond the lifespan of any single Parliament or the interests of any single nation.

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