In this month’s The Australian Literary Review, Paul Kelly offers a wide-ranging critique of Australian intellectuals. One thread of his argument deals with intellectuals as political moralists, giving many examples of attacks on John Howard as dishonest. Kelly disputes the interpretations often placed on Howard statements that turned out not to be true, that he would never introduce a GST, children overboard, and Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. As Kelly points out, none of these were straightforward lies if they were lies at all. But assume they all were lies, and I still think we have an interesting insight into how Australian intellectuals think.
Take for example some of the inferences drawn from these statements that turned out not to be true, all from Kelly’s article:
For Raimond Gaita, writing in an earlier Quarterly Essay, Howard is “systematically mendacious”. … [David Marr] asserts Howard was “a liar from the start” … [Julian] Burnside has compared Howard’s manipulation of language to Hitler’s Germany. “The Nazi regime were masters at it,” he said of doublespeak. “The Howard Government is an enthusiastic apprentice.” For Burnside, Howard has a “congenital dishonesty”.
In an earlier post on intellectuals, I pointed out that almost all of the people who make it to the lists of top public intellectuals are moralists or storytellers, and often both. This I thought helped explain why they were more successful with the public than intellectuals with a more empirical or analytical approach. Our brains find it easier to follow narratives than arguments, and almost everyone is concerned with issues of right and wrong.
There is nothing wrong with using stories to make a point. But when stories are used as the model for analysis things can – and do – go badly wrong. We need to distinguish here between ‘literary’ and social science forms of social and political understanding.
In a novel (or at least a good novel) almost nothing is random; everything is there to tell the reader something. All the events link into a bigger story. Whatever a character says or does, it is telling you more about what kind of person they are. You are supposed to generalise from a single incident or statement.
In social science, that’s not the way things are seen at all. Much effort is put into identifying what is typical and what is an ‘outlier’, individuals that exist or events that have happened, but which do not tell us anything useful about a broader group or situation.
There are millions of John Howard’s words on the public record. Some of them were untrue (assume for the sake of the example that they were lies from the beginning). But the overwhelming majority were true, if perhaps selective – politicians prefer the good news to the bad. The literary mode of understanding would say that the lies tell us what the man is really like, the social science mode of understanding would tell us that most things the PM says are true.
A social scientist would probably conclude that John Howard is less likely to lie than a member of the general public, not because he is necessarily at the exceptionally honest end of the lies-truth spectrum, but because he has the greatest chance of being caught. Nobody’s words are subjected to more scrutiny than those of a Prime Minister. And if as we know behaviour adjusts to the chance of being caught (just watch the rush to the ticket validating machines when inspectors get on Melbourne trams…) even if the PM wants to tell fibs he is less likely than the rest of us to do so.
As regular readers know, I much prefer social science as a way of understanding the world. The evidence often doesn’t match the story – Kevin Rudd’s free university education narrative is leading him seriously astray, for example. And analysis suggest that plausible sounding future stories, for example that reduced HECS for maths and science would produce more mathematicians and scientists, are unlikely to be right. But the preference of public intellectuals for stories not just as a form of communication, but as a tool of analysis, helps explains why they so often, as Paul Kelly argues, get things wrong.