Republished: Let’s bring reason back to politics

As part of my attempt to get back into writing this blog, I’ve been going back through my list of published articles and making sure they’re all still live. Many of the links have changed in the years since I wrote many of those articles, but luckily I copied most to this blog. A few were missed, so here is one of the first republished articles.

Some context: In late 2010 while living in Vancouver, I met a few times with a number of friends in the skeptics community to discuss the need for greater evidence-based politics. Our (somewhat) naive efforts to create Reason Vancouver eventually fizzled out but I still think foreshadow (though by no means influenced) the Ask for Evidence and Evidence Matters campaigns at Sense About Science.

Let’s bring reason back to politics

Originally published in The Peak, 15th November 2010

“Politics is the art of the possible,” declared Otto Von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor of Germany in the 19th century. While it is now a cliché, it does eloquently state that good politics is more pragmatic than idealistic.

Idealism comes in many forms, from utopian communism to free-market libertarianism to progressive liberalism to social conservativism. Yet these all tend to fail due to oversimplifications and false assumptions about human nature and the world in general.

If we are to solve the greatest challenges that face us today, we need to limit our idealism by compromising with others. So another cliché – that democracy is the worst system of government, except for all the others – holds true.

Since today’s idealists have sequestered themselves into partisan camps, and gridlocks between them have plagued Canada and the USA, it may be time to step back and reassess how we pursue our political goals.

From a utilitarian point of view, the basic goal of any society ought to be to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people. In our increasingly interconnected world this is only becoming more complex.

With this goal in mind, it is clear that good politics should form a system that protects and encourages its society and others. Obviously, opinions vary greatly on the details, but most would agree that some organization is necessary.

To determine the best structure of this organization, we must consider our history. Every nation, province and city can be viewed as an experiment in perpetuating itself. With some thought we can seek to replicate the successes and avoid the failures; this constitutes a basic framework for an evidence and reason-based form of politics.

Rather than tying ourselves to any dogma, be it left- or right-wing, we choose to pursue policies that are based on empirical evidence.

Consider the local issue of Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson’s expansions of separated bike lanes onto Dunsmuir and Hornby Streets. The goal of this project is to promote cycling to work as an alternative to driving, both to reduce traffic in the downtown core and to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, which has been shown to contribute to global climate change – a threat to every society. The argument is that by separating the bicycle lanes, cycling will be safer and more people will choose it.

This is a relatively easy claim to evaluate. Many cities in the world have experimented with separated bike lanes, with varying levels of success. A key study out of Copenhagen showed that while the separated bike lanes increased bicycle traffic, they potentially made motorists and cyclists more complacent and at intersections accident rates actually started to increase. There are also indications that road controls, such as turn regulations around bicycle lanes, could counteract some of that increase – which of course means more studies into the question.

Yet in a debate with clearly polarized views, it is clear that neither environmentalist hysteria nor thick-skinned science denialism contribute to finding a solution.

To cure the partisan rhetoric that has been poisoning our discourse, I propose two solutions. First, we must frame our policies in light of what works. It is also essential that we acknowledging failures when it has become evident. Second, citizens must be engaged in democracy. Politics should involve everyone in the decisions that affect their lives.

To pursue these goals, a group has begun work in Vancouver to form a new civic political party for the 2011 election. Under the banner of Reason Vancouver, we hope to bring evidence and rationality back to the debate, starting at the local level. To directly engage the electorate in policy we have established a policy wiki, where anyone can contribute ideas and evidence. It is our hope that through a collaborative and evidenced-based approach to politics, we can raise the level of debate and effect positive change for us all.