Canadians deserve evidence-based politics

It is about time that political communication caught up to medicine by applying modern standards of evidence to its practices.

The practice of medicine has been revolutionised over the last 20 years by the emergence of evidence-based diagnosis and treatment. The idea behind evidence-based medicine is that doctors should apply the findings of scientific research to medical decision-making.When you go to the doctor, you don’t expect to be treated with certain drugs or diagnosed with a certain disease because the doctor thinks it will improve his public image to diagose or treat you that way. You want the right diagnosis and treatment for your symptoms.

Why shouldn’t politics in Canada be held to the same standard?

This is the Internet era. This is the Information Age.

Canadians must demand that its politicians adopt an evidence-based approach to political communication and political decision-making.  We expect our doctors to present evidence for their diagnoses, but we allow our politicians – of every stripe –  to convince us with anecdotal evidence, generalisations from the specific and a hundred other fallacies of argument.

Gerard Kennedy, Official Opposition critic for Infrastructure and MP for Parkdale-High Park and his team of staff and volunteers have been tearing up the spreadsheets coming up with evidence for how the Conservative Government is distributing infrastructure stimulus money around Canada. His latest press release describes how infrastructure money is being spent unequally, on a per-student basis, on small, conservative institutions based in Conservative-held ridings.

Whether or not you agree with Mr. Kennedy, this is just simply good political communication. He has taken the facts – the data – and parsed them so that they make sense. He has used evidence and simple statistics to start a critical discussion about what the Government is doing. The beauty of Mr. Kennedy’s evidence is that you *can disagree* with him in an intelligent way. You can challenge his evidence. You can produce evidence of your own.

It is no coincidence that Mr. Kennedy has been scooping up news stories and front-pages across Canada with his evidence-based criticism. He is setting a new bar for political communication – away from anecdotal allusions and personal attacks toward evidence, facts and argument.

This can only be good for Canadian democracy.

The challenge for the other Opposition MPs, Liberal, Bloc and NDP, is to meet and exceed his example.

The challenge for the Conservative Government is to respond with transparency – to show Canadians the evidence for their infrastructure program. Here is the Government’s first evidence-based attempt.

Mr. Kennedy is forcing this Government to get away from rhetoric and present Canadians with the evidence.

If medical doctors must use evidence to justify why they have chosen one diagnosis for you instead of another, Canada’s Government must use evidence to justify how its infrastructure stimulus investment is equitable and good for all Canadians – not just those who live in Conservative-held ridings.

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Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie – a great documentary

I have spent the evening writing up a grant to fund a new research project (while eating lots of chicken couscous that I made yesterday) on political communication using the technique of content analysis. I will be submitting it later on this week. More on that project in a future post.

While I was writing, I had a film about Ingmar Bergman‘s creative process playing in the background: Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie. It is fantastic. While watching it, I realised how challenging his creative life must have been. He was identified early on as a creative prodigy and his work usually involved deeply personal insight. Often his work would involve reflections on the nature of God, prayer and the contemplative life. In the documentary, which is composed of a series of interviews with him and his crew, Bergman reflects on his desire to produce films that move people and capture a feeling of place. He describes, quite candidly, how these goals obliged him to always move among people. What is most interesting, however, is how he keeps coming back to the idea of blending in, of anonymity. He says, at one point in the documentary, that he had no greater desire than to fit in to be anonymous – but that the very fact that he was capable of pulling truths and feelings out of the people, society and scenery around him made him stand out and maintained his celebrity. What a paradox.

I think the world of political communication is similar. A good political communicator is always among the people of his or her riding, empathising with them and then finds a way to synthesise the feelings, thoughts and dreams of his or her constituents into policy, communication and action. The politician becomes the tribune for the dreams, fears and everyday concerns of the population – something that requires maintaining a critical distance at the same time. I hadn’t realised how much politicians and artists have in common. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me – both artists and politicians deal in raw human needs and desires. There is a lesson to be learned here somewhere for Canada’s politicians. A little soul-searching is in order. To return politics to its place as the ground for negotiating the order of things in the City, it is necessary for political communication to become less stunt and attack oriented, and focus more on telling the story of Canada’s citizens in the House of Commons, then translating that story into legislation that retains what is good and beautiful, but points the nation toward a better future. This better future cannot be communicated as the imposition of a party’s ideology (“After all, you voted for us!”), rather it should be the weaving together of the stories that all members bring to the House, whether they are members of the Official Opposition, or of the Government.

I highly recommend the movie – very thought-provoking. Ingmar Bergman has a lot to teach political communicators in Canada.

Canada’s choice: political communication as dance or war?

Yesterday afternoon, I gave a lecture to my first year communications class on George Lakoff‘s idea that our thinking is fundamentally rooted in metaphor. Lakoff explains that the underpinnings of how we structure our understanding of the world is metaphorical. He gives the example of “Time is money” – a metaphor that expresses a principle which guides us to use our time parsimoniously. He also says, in Metaphors We Live By, that “Argument is war” is the metaphor that governs how we interact when we debate a point. Lakoff asks us to think about what the world would be like if we lived by the metaphor that “Argument is dance.” It would certainly change the way we speak about debating and how we behave while debating. For example, we would no longer say things like: “I shot down his argument.” or “I really clobbered him with that point!”

After class, I was walking in the rain back to my cozy mustard yellow corner office in Togo Salmon Hall. A couple of students, excited by the ideas presented in lecture, were walking with me. But I was a little distracted. In fact, I was thinking about how metaphor structures political communication in Canada.

We have seen a marked decline in parliamentary courtesy and civil discourse – both in the House, during Question Period, in the media, and in attack ads. Why is this so irksome, when we have been watching the same thing evolve below us in the US for decades? I think there is an answer that many may have overlooked.

Marshall McLuhan suggested, in Medium is the Message that the United States is a society that was a product of the printing press, like France – a society where the uniform communications permitted by printed media enabled a “legalistic” system of government. One that depended on rules.

Now, Canada comes from a different tradition. Our Parliament is part of the Westminster system, like the United Kingdom. The Westminster system was not born during an age of industrial mechanization and laws. It was born during a feudal time in the midst of an oral culture where relatively few things were written down. This required a much more consensus-based system of political communication where people built the national narratives through storytelling and tradition. These national narratives that would later become – through the power of precedent – principles that would guide political function. This is completely different from the American or French systems, which depend on laws and the interpretation of the judiciary.

On top of this, let us consider John Ralston Saul’s argument, laid out in his latest book, A Fair Country, that our culture is actually a Métis product – a negotiated hybrid of British, French and First Nations culture. The British culture was oral and precedent-based, First Nations culture was oral and precedent-based. And, remember that French Canadian culture was developed in pre-revolutionary France (which was a feudal society) – so French Canadian culture was also oral and precedent-based. This meant that the thrust of our politics has been to encourage negotiation, compromise and continuity. In these oral, precedent-based cultures, “Argument is dance.”

What we are seeing, in the change of tone of our political communication toward warlike aggression, partisanship and spiteful attack, is fundamental change toward a more “legalistic” or “structured” society. We might call it Americanized, because it is becoming more and more similar to the American model and they are the greatest cultural influence we face.

The fact is, though, that it represents a fundamental change in our political culture – a shift away from our roots in oral cultural traditions. An oral cultural tradition which necessitates that “argument be dance” because of our mutually shared responsibility for telling the national story and keeping it alive, renewing it with ever more subtlety and nuance – human nuance – which is inherently subjective and flexible. We are shifting toward a national definition captured in a set of laws that we write down, print out and hammer into shape – and then fight over.

We are seeing the ideas on which our culture is based move away from storytelling, toward objectification and rules.

I think it’s a sad development. I love the stories and myths of our past – Paul Bunyan, Louis Cyr, Gitche Manitou.

Canadians chafe at the ideas of laws – they’re constraining. So let’s decide to be civil.

Maybe we can shake hands over it and give one another our word.

At least then we will be true to our historical roots in oral culture.

Conservative government hubris chequed.

I think that the Conservative Party of Canada wants to remain in a permanent minority position.

For a couple of weeks, they had the Liberals on the run, with the media and NDP ganging up on Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. The Liberals’ popularity was sagging in the polls to below-Dion levels. The terrible mistake in judgment from the Liberals – announcing that they wanted to force a Fall election – pretty much guaranteed clear sailing for the Conservatives until Christmas. But no. The Conservatives made a giant communications error. Someone in the PMO thought, in his or her wisdom, that displaying hundreds of giant faked-up cheques in Conservative-held ridings across Canada was a great idea. It’s true that that sort of prop is fairly common fare at this sort of announcement, but it is completely unprecedented to have the cheques display the logo of the Conservative Party of Canada or to have them signed by the local MP, or by the Prime Minister. It was just simple misrepresentation. And it backfired. And it will have legs.

The surprising hubris and arrogance of this minority Conservative government began to be brought to light by the targeted communications campaign carried out by Gerard Kennedy. He went on tour and engaged in something that sells like hotcakes in political communication: evidence-based politics. Mr. Kennedy, his staff and volunteers gathered, parsed and then distilled the data about where the Conservatives doled out the infrastructure money into catchy narratives and punchlines. Then they targeted specific ridings where the most egregious offenses stuck out. It was easy pickings, but brilliant none-the-less.It resulted in some great coverage.

If the Liberals want to make some headway against a Conservative government that, even in minority, is behaving bloated, entitled and arrogant, they need to learn from Mr. Kennedy’s example and behave more like an Official Opposition party and engage in more evidence-based political communication.

It’s easy pickings out there. The Conservatives have left lots of low-hanging fruit. The Liberals just need to get organized and grab the golden apple.

Variables, Sampling and Content Analysis

I had a seminar class today with my Communication Studies 4N03: News Analysis class. It was great. We focused on units of sampling, variable selection and defining the population. I really enjoy teaching this class, because it is problem- and project-based. The class is divided into 7 groups, each of whom is taking on a specific news analysis challenge. Some are looking at digg.com, some are examining the tonality of Olympic coverage in leading Canadian and American newspapers, others are examining colour schemes on popular news websites, others are looking into equally fascinating research challenges. All of the projects are fascinating and should yield relevant results. I spent most of the class making the distinction between three often confusing elements of a content analysis research design: the units of sampling, data collection and analysis. Then we talked about different sampling techniques. Unitization and sampling are often the pitfalls in content analysis research design and have to be very well thought-through. We went around the class and worked out the units for each study. I left the three-hour class confident that they got it.

My first MCM student defends his thesis.

Today was a truly a happy day. I woke up early and met my thesis student in the Master of Communication Management program, an executive MBA program offered by the DeGroote School of Management at McMaster University, in which I am an adjunct faculty member. We rehearsed a little and drove into McMaster for the presentation. He did a fantastic job – no nerves, no fear. Just a great speaking style, a great defense of his ideas and, of course, great data and analysis. I was so pleased to see him succeed. It was just excellent – very insightful and full of humour. He even included a clip from the Beatles song, “The Taxman” and a clip from “Corner Gas.” Excellent job, Don! Congratulations. After that we went for a celebratory drink at the Collins in Dundas and then a long walk out to see Webster’s Falls and Toews Falls in the Spencer Gorge. So beautiful. The leaves were aflame with colour and seemed to glow as the fading light of the evening gave way to crepuscular gloom. Then dinner at the Bean Bar, where we tried the most decadent chocolate cake I have ever had – I think it was called Utopia. Highly recommended.

An evening at Rosewood Estates Winery

I had a beautiful day today. First, my parents surprised me by coming over and helping me clean my house in exchange for a lunch of couscous with tilapia, red bells, tomato and garlic that I prepared. I love cooking and it was my pleasure to whip something up for them. They left at about 5pm, and then I drove over to Rosewood Estates Winery in Beamsville, Ontario, where I joined the MCM students (Master of Communication Management, in which I teach) for a case study about the winery by Eugene Roman, who is also the owner. It was fascinating.

Eugene explained how he has applied the same sort of innovative thinking that led to his success at Nortel, Bell and now at Open Text. He focused on how thinking differently has always been the key for him. The winery is just stunning. Château Rosewood is beautiful – I was struck by Eugene’s comment that “I wake up every morning overlooking the Riesling vines.” These words took me back to the time that I lived in Montpellier, in the Languedoc-Roussillon in France when I was 17. I spent many happy hours both on the seaside near Palavas-les-Flots and also at a winery owned by the father of a close friend. I too remember waking up to see the clear morning Mediterranean sun spill its soft yellow light over the vines. We would sit and drink espresso, and sometimes play pétanque – that lazy version of bocci that has filled countless quiet afternoons for southern French men.

Eugene served us an extraordinary dinner of butternut squash soupe aux poires accompanied by a scrumptious venison stew with gnocchi so light that they floated in the  russet broth like little cumulus clouds. Dessert was a crème brulée with blackberries and blueberries. What a wonderful feast – just right for a brisk fall evening. Many thanks to Niagara Gourmet for catering the tasty fare. It was a nostalgic experience for me to dine on heavy, rustic, French-style wooden tables, surrounded by the oaken casks containing the vineyard’s wines.

I took home a wonderful Sémillon and two bottles of Ambrosia honey wine, which I particularly loved during our tasting. I also took home one of Rosewood’s cherry-honey wines to experiment with. I look forward to enjoying them with friends.

Honey wine over vanilla ice cream, anyone?