Intellectual laziness and public policy

We live in an age of unprecedented access to information, decision support tools and expert opinion.   When I started in my career more than 20 years ago, I had to get Statistics Canada data by going to the UNB library and photocopying relevant data.  Now, I have CANSIM at my fingertips.    I had to manually read through old editions of Time, Macleans, etc. to look for interesting information that would help us make the case for investment into New Brunswick.  Now, I can keyword search tens of thousands of publications in an instant.

I have no hard data on this but the ‘expert opinion’ industry seems to have ballooned in recent years, too.    From 1996 to 2006, the number of persons working in the occupation “E03 Policy and program officers, researchers and consultants” across Canada skyrocketed from 104,030 to 167,920 – a 61 percent increase in just a decade.  Although for Andy Scott and others worried about New Brunswick, the number of people in this occupation actually declined in New Brunswick from 2,490 to 2,475.

And yet when it comes to the biggest public policy issue of our time, it seems to me that more than ever we want to simplify and boil things down to simple ‘good’ or ‘bad’ constructs.    Following Gladwell’s Blink, we make up our minds on these issues in a flash based on an article or conversation in one of Mike Murphy’s coffee shops.

I much prefer sober second thought.   When you are first confronted with an issue – no matter how it looks to you at first glance – take the time to back away and study the issue from all sides before drawing conclusions.

New Brunswick is facing some big time public policy challenges these days including shale gas development, immigration, an aging population, managing health care costs and expectations – even bilingualism is back in the debate ring in some quarters.  We don’t need snap judgments.  We need sober second thought.

And we need expert opinion to provide us with good analysis of these issues.  So many of our experts from think tanks to trusted public figures draw their conclusions aligned with a hard ideological viewpoint.   When someone breaks this tendency, it seems to be an exception not the rule.

I understand there is no ‘pure’ analysis.  We are all guided by our personal histories and influences.  But there must be somewhere out there reasonably objective analysis.  In the halls of academia  – somewhere.

For example, when the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies – New Brunswick says its supports “responsible” development of the shale gas sector – that gives me some comfort that we might be able to do this without creating a’burned out, industrial wasteland (actual quote in the TJ from a prominent NB environmentalist).  Because I don’t know about you but I have no real interest in supporting anything that will create a burned out, industrial wasteland.

It’s a kind of intellectual laziness to want to boil complex issues down to a simple binary choice.

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One Response to Intellectual laziness and public policy

  1. Chris Baker says:

    David –

    Thank you very much for saying what needs to be said. Keep up the good work.

    Chris

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