Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Healthy Rhetoric - what is a crank?

I'm about to go and give a talk at a certain institution (let's just say it's in a capital city, and it's an educational institute, and it was traditionally concerned with the science of the flow of money...) The talk is on the subject of my "second string" research: argumentation for policy making. The main thrust of the talk is that policy making at its best occurs where people of good will engage in meaningful discourse.

Aye but there's the rub - there are plenty of special interest groups and, let's face it, cranky individuals that won't play by the rules: creationists, pseudo-medics and pseudo-scientific racists. And these people can have a hugely detremental effect on the policy making process because it's hard to identify when these individuals have strayed from "misguided" to "dangerous loon". At best, they sap the time and energy of those people who are prepared to stick to the niceties of debate. At worst, their screed sounds convincing to the scientifically inexperienced and bad things happen.

So how do you recognise cranks? Sadly this isn't the area of my expertise (formal argumentation frameworks anyone..?). So I was pleased to run across this post from Denialism Blog. The heuristic still seems to be, in the words of Winston Churchill,

A fanatic is someone who can't change his mind and won't change the subject.

Now if only I could represent that logically.


davidc said...

I like the Denialism entry and the Kruger/Dunning paper they cite. That in turn has this:

Charles Darwin (1871) sagely noted over a century ago, "ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge" ([The descent of man] p. 3).

Hardly a new idea, but nicely expressed. Or at least, I think so, but I'm not confident... (boom, boom!)

Anonymous said...

How does this fit in with current trends in gov't for 'evidence based' policy making?

And how does this differ from current techniques in gov't policy making?

Do you have a couple key references in this area - this would be interesting to follow up.

Auntie Em said...

Hello Anon.

A good primer is Majone's Evidence, Argument and Persuasion in the Policy Process.

General primers for argumentation include Toulmin's The Uses of Argument and the New Rhetoric by Perelman and Olbrechts-Tytecha.

If you have access to Athens or an academic library you may also want to look at:

Elliott H, Popay J. (2000) 'How are policy makers using evidence? Models of research utilisation and local NHS policy making'. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 54:461-468.

Gabbay J et al, (2003) 'A case study of knowledge management in multi-agency consumer informed 'communities of practice': implications for evidence-based policy development in health and social services'. Health 7(3):283-310.

Sounds like we should talk! Any chance of decloaking or contacting me "off blog"?

Martin Sewell said...

We can’t go against human nature in any radical sense: all we can do is to alleviate the impact on individuals of inherent serious problems. Unfortunately, the majority of people—including those of good will and those in power—fail to appreciate this to the detriment of modern human society.

DavidC said...

Martin - what is this "human nature" against which we cannot go? If I'm on a bus and someone has their Walkman up too loud, I feel annoyed. I feel an instinct to lash out and hit them. However, I'm a (quite) civilised human, so I don't, I just tut under my breath. But which is my "human nature"? The violent instinct or the civilised inaction? My guess is that (in this context) you define "human nature" as "that which makes some people do some bad things sometimes" which is too woolly to be useful, I'd have thought. Perhaps I've missed something.

Martin Sewell said...

Humans have evolved to both compete and cooperate, and as such, both violence and civilised inaction are consistent with human nature. Human nature dictates that men will always exist in a dominance hierarchy, men will always compete with other men for access to women, women will always be the more discriminating sex, etc.

Auntie Em said...

Martin - in what sense is this relevant to this post?

Martin Sewell said...

My first message concerned policy making, my second was a reply to David’s question.

Auntie Em said...

I still don't see how your first message has anything to do with:
a) how good policy can be made
b) how policy can be made well by using rehtoric rather than restricting oneself to the narrower interpretations of EBPM or
c) how to prevent monomaniacs from derailing a healthy discussion (as seems to be happening here)

The second doesn't answer David's question.

I'm traying to make this a forum in which it is possible to discuss matters of general interest. Can I request that if you want to continue in this vein, rather than shoehorning it in wherever you feel it might be tangentially relevant on my blog, you simply refer readers to your own.

Wonkette said...

Thx for references. majone book is in my library: will have to get it. Any more talks planned

Martin Sewell said...

Communism failed because it prevents men from competing with other men, whilst market economies succeed thanks to competition. Multiculturalism frequently fails because every human being is equipped with the same psychology—of perceiving their membership of their own community or nation as an "in-group"—whereas other foreigners belong to an "out-group". Democracy in Iraq is failing for the same reason. Hitler and Stalin advocated a pan-global common single human group that would be the end of conflict between rival social groups; this was doomed to failure because human groups become fissile when they reach an unwieldily size.

Saddam, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Bush and Blair were not "cranks". They were in some sense not even "bad", in that they were certainly acting in what they firmly believed was the interests of the societies they governed. It is simply that they did not have an insight into human social psychology.

Auntie Em said...

Baseless statements aside, none of this relates to policy discourse. Please stop spamming.

Martin Sewell said...

You wrote: The main thrust of the talk is that policy making at its best occurs where people of good will engage in meaningful discourse.

Policy making is at its best when the best policy is made. Good policy making requires an understanding of the motivations behind the people the policy affects. People of good will (and those who are great orators) can get it very wrong indeed.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand how rhetoric is an improvement over evidence based policy. As far as I know this was an attempt to combat rhetoric and policies which were implemented purely for political reasons.

Will have to read the papers but from my limited practical experience I can't see how using rhetoric (argumentation) is any different from old style policy making.

It is also already common to argue for the applicability of ones evidence to a policy.


Post a Comment