Literary v social science political thinking

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.

34 thoughts on “Literary v social science political thinking

  1. Thoughtful piece, thanks. I’d add that constructing narratives is one of the basic elements of leadership. Leaders help followers by telling a story that helps make sense of the world. And politicians are nothing if not wannabe leaders (and sometimes genuine leaders of course).

    For my own part I condemn Howard for constructing narratives that are based on falsehoods, which moreover he knows to be falsehoods. So it might be true that most of the facts he relies upon are true in isolation but the selective way in which he uses them and the ways in which he embellishes the story amount to deliberate dishonesty (or perhaps he’s genuinely dumb, but I don’t believe that for a moment).

    His greatest lies however are the sweeping stories for which there is little or no evidence at all, or at least it’s all highly speculative but he declares it as incontrovertible fact. One example is his story that if America and its allies withdraw from Iraq, ‘the terrorists’ will get massive new support throughout South-East Asia. I suppose one could build a case along those lines, although it would be a pretty dodgy one, but to use the authority of the prime ministership to declare it as an absolute fact is blatantly deceptive. That’s the kind of thing that leads me to call him dishonest and I suspect that’s what others you have mentioned are also concerned about.

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  2. Hi there,

    Pretty hard to make sense of this unless we have a definition of “intellectuals”. I would have thought that in the hands of a the right wing commentariat the term is a pejorative much the same as “leftist”, “progressive” or “civil libertarian”.
    I think this is born out by looking at Kelly’s choice of targets, in the example above Gaita is certainly an academic whilst Marr is a journalist and Burnside a lawyer so we can’t group them on the basis of their vocation. I would suggest that in this instance “intellectual” is used by the right to to attack those who criticize the Government but there, devoid of any real answer to the criticism raised, they attempt to place their displeasure within some ill-defined rubric, in this case “the intellectual”.
    They also seem to be unable to realise that rhetoric has been a very long tradition in our cultural as a tool of argument.

    cheers

    Patrick

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  3. Ken, is that a lie or just an assertion/prediction? Don’t you think the electorate knows when a politician is opining and when he is confirming or denying an event or action? I think it’s even hard to call a broken a promise a lie unless you are pretty confident that at the time the promise was made, the maker intended to go back on it. Is it any more a lie for Howard to say that pulling out of Iraq will promote terrorism in Asia than it is for Labor to say that their broadband policy will make Australia economically better off? One could say that a case could be built along these lines, although it would be a pretty dodgy one…

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  4. Patrick – Kelly does acknowledge that ‘intellectual’ is hard to define, but all three of Kelly’s examples made it to the SMH list of top public intellectuals, and Marr and Gaita were on the ALR’s own list last year. So when people are asked to name intellectuals, these names come up. I think it is because they put events into a broader framework of some kind, and try to reflect on their meaning.

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  5. Pingback: Larvatus Prodeo
  6. Andrew, are you really advocating an ‘objective analysis’ of John Howard’s utterances over a ‘moralist narrative account’?

    If so – what a flimsy proposition. Would this include his dinner table conversation? Only briefings of the press and parliamentary statements? Would his approval of a tiny measure be given the same weight as a decision to go to war? Why? All of these are fundamentally, inescapably moral questions. Moreover, it’s duplicitous to suggest that if these judgements are made under the auspices of ‘social science’ they are somehow above morality.

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  7. Andrew,

    I haven’t seen the lists that you mention. One question that has to be asked though is; does Kelly undermine his “intellectuals as political moralists” stance by focusing only on those that he has an ideological problem with? Were many from the conservative side included in these lists?
    One problem I see with conservative intellectuals is their tendency to react to those they see as critical of the Government. They seem very wary of laying out their moral grounds for supporting the Government, indeed they rarely do so, preferring instead to indulge in attempts to discredit their opponents. This makes the their position difficult identify and thus difficult to analyze, perhaps this explains their absence from Kelly’s analysis.

    cheers

    Patrick.

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  8. Patrick – There are links to the other lists in the old post of mine linked to above. I don’t think the right is as prone to moralism as the left, being closer to the generally pragmatic nature of the Australian population, but it would be interesting to see some detailed content analysis.

    As for the right’s view of the government, I think that is explained by ideological differences. In the eyes of the right, the government is either a necessary evil or an institution inevitably populated by flawed individuals. Expectations are suitably modest. Personally, I don’t expect governments to very good, and they really are. There are however better and worse governments, and it is always worth going for better over worse, but hopes are never too high. For all my annoyance over many policies of the Howard government, I don’t believe Labor would on balance be any better (I hope I am wrong, given the polls).

    The left, by contrast, sees the state as the great agent of social transformation, and they are outraged by its failure to live up to expectations.

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  9. I have never expected politicians to behave like social scientists. They are sales people trying to self promoted in order to gain votes. They will use any tools available to tell people what they want to hear in order to win elections and maintain power.

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  10. Andrew,

    Thanks you for the responses. I think it depends what you mean by moralism or perhaps moralising. If we are to take Kelly’s example then terms such as “mendacious” or comparisons with the Nazis are based a moral judgement.
    However I should point out the the capacity to leap to moral judgment is not exclusive to the left. If this were the case then much of the religious right would have little to do.
    Personally it is not because I feel a greater degree of moral outrage at the current Conservative government that I dislike it, I feel frustrated that we don’t see new and innovative approaches from what are purported to be (at least some of) the best individuals the nation has to offer.
    The view of the right that Government is a fundamentally flawed human project sounds nihlistic, a trait often ascribed to the left and one which suggests an arm’s length approach to ideas like family values, nationhood and the sanctity of marriage, ideas which lately have sprung from the right as a reaction to the mainstreaming of progressive ideas.

    cheers

    Patrick.

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  11. Patrick – I’m sure nobody on the right is about to concede morality to the left, or to say that there is no room for moral judgment. Clearly there is. But the left does seem quick to leap to moral judgment about their opponents, while the right tends to think that the left (or at least the current left) are well-meaning, but misguided, foolish or crazy.

    For all the fuss about the ‘religious right’, they just aren’t that significant in Australia, one reason the right’s political culture in the US is very different to the Australian right.

    Those ideas you mention on the right have always been there, and would be weaker now than ever before.

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  12. Andrew,

    I fear we will have to agree to disagree. I can’t accept your assertion that the ideas I ascribe to the right are “weaker now than ever before”.
    The current Government has, for example, attempted to codify Australian values and has unequivocally endorsed the traditional view of marriage. In introducing or failing to introduce laws such as these the Conservative forces within the Government not only reveal a particular moral position, they seek to bind all of us to it.
    Incidentally Sen. Bronwyn Bishop recently criticized the harm minimization policy with regard to drugs as a failure because it lacked any moral sense.

    cheers

    Patrick.

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  13. Patrick – 30 years ago the ‘conservative’ policy was that a gay couple should go to jail if they consummated their relationship. Now we are arguing over whether gay people should have civil unions/marriages or not, with many Liberals (myself included) arguing for a change in the law. The government hands out huge sums (in total) to unmarried and single mothers, who 40 years ago faced significant disincentives to single parenthood. On ‘nationhood’ the government has run a very large migration programme, and a huge one once temporary migrants are included. The doubts about migration that existed in the 1980s seem to have gone. It’s no doubt too conservative for your tastes, but conservatism has adapted more than gone into reactionary mode.

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  14. I agree with Andrew on this – Australian ‘conservatism’ is in retreat. It is an orderly, gradual retreat rather than a panicked one, but every survey I’ve seen agrees on steadily rising support for multiculturalism, queer rights, abortion etc etc. The Australian public are, if not progressive, then at the very least moderate (apathetic, perhaps) on many of these cultural issues which so exercise the likes of Alex Hawke and David Clarke.
    I would argue the ‘right’ more broadly is also in retreat (or at least, in electoral difficulty) in many areas of economic and social policy. Minor victories in terms of tougher tests and penalties for ‘dole bludgers’ have surely been more than counterweighted by the massive increases in welfare spending during a time of economic prosperity since 1996; a supposedly ‘economic rational’ government has soft-pedalled on industry protection, deregulation, and top end tax cuts and retained a Medicare system with which its leadership violently disagrees, simply because it knows public opinion is not on the side of the economic liberals. Issues like universal health insurance used to be vehemently debated; now the conservatives/liberals mostly just accept the argument is lost (I know some at the CIS would differ, but they’re wasting their breath, frankly). And Labor is pushing a renewed form of protectionism (I’m not happy about it myself) at this election, with Kevin ‘industry policy’ Rudd, Kim-il-Carr and Simon-5-year-plan-Crean in full agreement on the need for energetic industry welfare measures. Clearly they think there are votes in it.

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  15. I think it’s important not to be categorical about stories. We can lead ourselves astray just as easily with analysis by, for example, assuming we are dealing with normal distributions and excluding outliers. For a thoughtful exploration of how analysis and narrative can both go wrong check out The Black Swan by Nassin Taleb.

    But as an aside I’m just finishing the Political Brain by Drew Westen. In one of the last chapters Drew talks about how humans will naturally become more conservative when reminded of their mortality. And it’s this reason why fear campaigns are so effective for conservative parties. The antidote, it turns out, is simple. We are less effected by this pyschological preference if we know it is happening. So if the voters know that fear campaigns will make you become more conservative the effect diminishes.

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  16. Andrew I entirely agree with you about the usefulness of a social scientific mindset compared to a moralistic one. However I don’t think looking at the number of true words spoken by John Howard compared to the number of untrue words or the number of lies told by John Howard compared to the number of lies told by an average person is meaningful.

    John Howard is not an ordinary person, he is the Prime Minister. To assess his trustworthiness I would suggest comparing his record to that of previous Australian Prime Ministers, that of current leaders of other nations and that of politicians in general.

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  17. Oh and suggesting that the left makes a big deal about alleged deceptions because it is moralistic and does not like Howard seems overly simplistic. Surely each alleged lie should be looked at in detail. Take WMD for example. This was probably an unintended deception, but is widely spoken about as if it was an intended one. I think this is because of the way the wars proponents reacted to the lack of WMD in Iraq.

    They had not made the case for the war in a particularly civil manner to start with. John Howard said some extremely unstatesmanlike things about the wars opponents being friends of Saddam Hussein, and some of his mates in the press took it much further.

    When the WMD failed to turn up rather than doing the sensible thing, that is admitting a cock up and citing the Pottery Barn Rule (you broke it you own it) as the reason for staying in Iraq the Bush Administration actually ramped the hyperbole up several notches, carrying on about the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East and so on. The Howard Government did the same thing.

    Had Howard handled it better there probably wouldn’t have been nearly as many people still carrying on about WMD today.

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  18. The Iraq war is actually an interesting case study in how stories can lead astray. In the past, Western intelligence had under-estimated Saddam. The story became that he would try to develop WMD and threaten his neighbours again. That the inspectors couldn’t find anything only showed that Saddam was hiding them cleverly. The available evidence was too inconsistent with the story to be believed.

    And on the things said about the critics, again there is a story behind it. The ‘peace’ movement has spent decades making excuses for dictators. The narrative says that they were doing it again.

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  19. Check out the moderated discussion between Paul Kelly and Robert Manne tonight. They both have some great points to make. I think they’re both right and we should all vote Costello 😛

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  20. “On these issues, central bankers should be taken as seriously as celebrities.” – not really, a central banker (and celebrity) like Greenspan had constant access to decision makers at the highest levels of government.

    I don’t get your point about truth and ‘outliers’ – as related to your claim that Howard doesn’t lie most of the time. If you were Jeanette Howard and you found out that John had a secret second family – de facto and kids – would you think “Well, he told me the truth about most things – that other woman is just an outlier”. I know you like to count things, but numbers aren’t the only important thing here.

    You say novels are stories, what are biographies – a combination of fact and story? If you looked at each of the articles in the latest Policy magazine, couldn’t every one of them be seen as a story – don’t they have ‘point-of-view’? Don’t social scientists tell stories, with data?

    “Bowling alone” might tell me something about life today, but Don Quixote will tell me something about what being human is, at any time. When it comes to matters of judging character and truth I’d like to hear from the novelists as well as the social scientists.

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  21. In any event, theory-free empirical work in the social sciences is problematic. The identification problem and the Lucas critique come to mind. Fixing these requires some sort of theory. In a sense, theory is simply an internally consistent story. An important part of the art of empirical work in the social sciences is in choosing among the variety of possibly plausible stories.

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  22. Russell – The story surrounding a claim (ie context) is of course important, but context (as Kelly argues) undermines the claim that Howard is a liar. In at least two of the three major cases, children overboard and WMD, there is no evidence that Howard believed what he was saying to be untrue when he said it (there was some argument at the time about WMD, but the weight of opinion was that Saddam had them). In the case of the GST, I doubt he seriously believed that Australia should not have a GST when he promised before the 1996 election not to have one. On the balance of probabilities I would class this as expedient election promise he knew he would not keep if the won more than one term. But as Kelly says, he remedied the problem by taking the GST policy to the 1998 election. This brings out another aspect of Kelly’s critique – the tensions between personal and political morality. A case could be made that individuals should keep promises even at significant personal cost. But if you are PM, keeping promises could be at significant national cost (and as on old-style 1970s big-spender Russell, would you rather the PM keep a 1996 promise or improve the tax base?). I assumed for the sake of my post that Howard was a liar, but I don’t really believe this is the case. Like all pollies he dodges questions and puts the most favourable spin on things; that’s what the role requires. But he is not a liar.

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  23. Damien – I’m certainly not arguing against having theories, and indeed theory-free empirical work can be a problem (particularly in economics for some reason – perhaps because economists have fewer off-the-shelf theories to work with than other social scientists). While you could say theories are stories of a kind, they are I think more demanding that just internally consistent. Are they consistent with other facts, for example? Stories tend to rely heavily on personal experience (‘I went to university because it was free in the 1970s’) or coincidence (‘there was a recession i the early 1990s, therefore it was due to deregulation’). Theories are far more systematic.

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  24. The Iraq war is far from the only recent “case study in how stories can lead astray”. A lot of people in Australia (not only intellectuals by any stretch of the imagination) seem to make their minds up about issues by fitting them into a prefabricated story. A lot of people with no scientific background at all, for example, seemed to make up their mind about climate change based on wether they preferred a story about the foulness of capitalist society or a story about the foulness of the environmental movement.

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  25. What seems to be unsaid here Andrew is that Kelly’s reputation as a commentator was made through his political histories more than his comment pieces. IN particular it is his history of the long Labor Decade -The end of Certainty – that has had a major impact on Australian Intellectual Life. In other words Kelly is disingenuous to critique public intellectuals while leaving himself above and outside the field.

    Kelly is the preeminent public intellectual of the last 16 years. One way of backing up this claim is to use Andrew’s definition of public intellectual – story telling. What is Kelly’s the End of Certainty but reporting and analysis which is structured by two narratives: the political contests between Hawke & Keating and Howard and Peacock; and the Nation Story – the Breaking of the Australian Settlement. Even you Andrew have taken up Kelly’s notion of the Australian Settlement. This is a narrative of nation – a narrative of inevitable modernisation and I think what has prompted Kelly to come out and stake his claim as THE public intellectual of the period from 1991-2007 is that Workchoices is what is central to the current political debate. For if the Australian Settlement being broken (note how this heuristic focuses on 1901 and not the Invasion of 1788) is a disavowal of Deakinite Liberalism then any retreat from the neoliberal project that Kelly has been chief booster for in terms of industrial relations needs to be defended through Kelly’s Olympian narratives of nation formation.

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  26. Michael – I agree Kelly acquired his high reputation by telling a story, but one that made careful use of the evidence. If you read left-wing critics of ‘neo-liberalism’ you’d assume that it swept the country, when in fact government spending did not go down, even under WorkChoices the labour market was extensively regulated, and major sectors such as public education and health remain old-fashioned state bureaucracies. Unlike Kelly, they extrapolated too far from the examples of reform. And I think Kelly is stressing that modernisation was not, as you say, ‘inevitable’ – to the contrary it ran counter to Australian political culture and was bitterly opposed all the way, particularly by intellectuals. That’s why in this article he is saying that politicians deserve more credit than they receive.

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  27. “there was some argument at the time about WMD, but the weight of opinion was that Saddam had them)” – but whose opinion – Hans Blix, whose opinion might have counted more than most? It was ‘opinion’ not supported by the the weight of evidence, as former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook pointed out when he resigned from the government. The ‘opinion’ was manufactured.

    I think that nearly all politicians are dishonest nearly all the time. If it were individual instances of consciously telling lies they couldn’t keep doing it – they’re not that evil. It’s just that self-interest, and the drama of politics, leads them into a very narrow script that has to be aggressively followed – everything that doesn’t fit the script is screened out. No one in politics asks “is this true?” – inconvenient facts are ignored, every story is spun ’till it sounds the way they like it.

    The WA Premier would like to think he’s a straighforward bloke – a couple of weeks ago he sent a directive to departments telling them to leave certain things out of annual reports (number of complaints etc). When this was criticised he replied that it was better if annual reports just reported on the core business of the departments blah blah. In other words they wanted to hide negative information. No doubt his spin doctors worked out how to answer the criticism. It’s just another example of the daily dishonesty of politics.

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  28. Andrew – sorry, I overconsidered my post and forgot to mention that it was on Lateline!

    Just to rehash: moderated interview of Robert Manne and Paul Kelly on Lateline on Friday.

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