What makes someone a conspiracy theorist?

One thing that many people have noted about Donald Trump is that he seems particularly vulnerable to conspiracy theories. It is seldom made clear in these discussions, however, exactly what a “conspiracy theory” is, or what particular mental habits make people vulnerable to them. I thought, therefore, that it might be an opportune time to republish a small excerpt from my Enlightenment 2.0 that attempts to explain this. Basically, a conspiracy theorist is someone who falls victim to confirmation bias. He or she sees a pattern in the world, develops an account of the pattern, but then fails systematically to consider, much less investigate, any evidence that would contradict this account. Instead, he or she simply observes more and more instances of the pattern, treating each one (fallaciously) as more “evidence” of the account.

Conspiracy theorists serve as an excellent example of the phenomenon that Keith Stanovich refers to as dysrationalia.… Continue reading

Kellie Leitch on Anti-Canadian Values

It has been interesting to observe the reaction to my local MP and Conservative Party leadership contender Kellie Lietch’s proposal to screen prospective immigrants to Canada for “anti-Canadian values.” Many people have expressed outrage at this proposal, although most are at pains to say exactly what is wrong with it.

There is, of course, a totally pragmatic objection, which is that in practice it is impossible to tell what people’s values are, and so the only way to implement such a program would be by discriminating against certain groups, or people from certain countries suspected of harboring anti-Canadian values (such as women who wear niqabs, etc.) After all, immigrants talk to one another, and so if there were to be a quiz administered, with questions such as “do you believe that men and women should be equal?” word would quickly get out about what the correct answer is. So really the only way to implement it would be by barring individuals suspected of harboring anti-Canadian values based on observable characteristics.… Continue reading

The news is not about information (or, why everyone hates the media)

When I became managing editor of the Ottawa Citizen in 2011 (then Editor in 2013) I started to have a lot of contact with readers — emails, phone calls, and a surprising number of handwritten letters. It was through this contact that I began to get a sense of what our readers really cared about, and what they valued in their subscription. Two things stuck out:

The first was that, by and large, what readers cared about were things like comics and puzzles, the daily weather map, the TV listings. Somedays it seemed like we could have put a picture on A1 of the prime minister consorting alien space prostitutes, but if we also printed the Sudoku upside down or got the “On this date in weather history” wrong, that is all I would hear about.

The second was that readers would often call, angry, because we had downplayed (or ignored, or missed) a story they knew all about from another media outlet.… Continue reading

America needs a Parliament

Joe thinks America needs electoral reform. I’ve long thought that there was nothing wrong with American politics that a quick switch to a Westminster-style form of government couldn’t fix. Forget about the usual complaints about campaign finance or gerrymandering. I’m talking the big-picture stuff. For example:

1.The dynastic trend that has given us (or will have given us) a Clinton or a Bush for most of the past thirty years is, to a large extent, an artifact of the term limits on presidents. A move to a confidence-based system would allow popular presidents to burn themselves and their supporters out with a tired third term, while reducing the incentive for former presidents to build an independent power base and install an heir (or spouse) in his or her place.

2. The Supreme Court problem. Scalia died four months ago, and the GOP is straightforwardly refusing to to confirm Mark Garland.… Continue reading

Is Brexit a crisis for the Parliamentary system?

Everyone knows American democracy is a gong show. As Joe Heath argues a few posts below, it’s so bad that Americans have given up even thinking about how to reform their institutions. Francis Fukuyama says the country is suffering remorseless institutional decay. And surely Trumpism is the final proof, if any is needed, of how messed up things are down south.

Then there’s Tyler Cowen, who had this thought about Brexit (I bolded a few things worth emphasizing)

4. More generally, might the Parliamentary system be worse than many people think?  I’ve seen it praised so many times in the blogosphere for its clean, swift, up or down properties.  But when there is a leadership void, it hits the legislative and executive branches together, and either before or after the void it is possible to shift very badly off course very rapidly.  There are fewer intermediate institutions or checks and balances to set things right, and as Martin Wolf noted: “36 per cent of eligible voters have been allowed to decide “without any appropriate checks and balances””. 

Continue reading

In praise of status quo-ism, or, 10 theses arising from the Brexit fiasco

1. Citizens of reasonably free and reasonably democratic societies tend to underweight the value of stability. This is particularly the case when that society has been stable for a couple of decades or more, and so memories of previous instability are either foggy or non-existent.

2. The leader of a reasonably free and democratic society should overweight the value of stability. That is, in the absence of an overwhelming or unavoidable reason to do otherwise, he or she should strive to maintain the status quo at almost all cost. Put a bit crudely: A prime minister’s prime directive should be to defend the constitution.

3. The leader of a reasonably free and democratic society should never confuse intramural instability for national instability. That is, just because there are deep and existentially threatening cleavages within a political party, it does not mean there are similar cleavages within the nation that need attending to.… Continue reading

Trump and electoral reform: connecting the dots

I did two media pieces this week, the first an article opposing electoral reform for Policy Options, the second a panel discussion on Donald Trump on TVO’s The Agenda. There is actually a connection between the two, but I didn’t have enough time on the TV show to explain it. And so let me do so here.

First, electoral reform. The point I’m always trying to make in this debate, which is very difficult to get across without being misinterpreted, is that there is a family of recognizably “democratic” voting systems, all of which have advantages and disadvantages, but none of which is more inherently democratic, or fair, than the others. This is why most academic experts, when they debate the merits of the various systems, tend to talk about extremely pragmatic and consequential considerations, not fundamental democratic principles. In other words, the type of discourse engaged in by Fairvote Canada is, in my view, rank demagoguery.… Continue reading

Politics and the Pen 2016

I’m off to Ottawa tomorrow to attend the Politics and the Pen gala, sponsored by the Writer’s Trust of Canada. The highlight is, of course, the announcement of the winner of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. The nominees this year are the following books:

Greg Donaghy, Grit: The Life and Politics of Paul Martin Sr.

Norman Hillmer, O.D. Skelton: A Portrait of Canadian Ambition

John Ibbitson, Stephen Harper

Andrew Nikiforuk, Slick Water: Fracking and One Insider’s Stand Against the World Most Powerful Industry

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, The Right to be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic, and the Whole Planet

Looking back, it’s amazing what a difference a year can make in politics. I must admit that last year I didn’t enjoy myself much at the event, since I was one of the nominees, and I had to figure out what I was going to say, if indeed I won.… Continue reading

Three observations on the Leap Manifesto

With the way that the NDP convention played out last weekend, it looks like we’re going to be hearing a lot more about the Leap Manifesto over the course of the next year or two. So in the spirit of discussion, I thought I’d throw in my two bits.

I have three specific observations, but before getting to that, I’d just like to comment on the public reception of the manifesto. Setting aside stylistic complaints, the thing seems to me fairly reasonable as an aspirational document. Other than being a bit of a laundry list, I don’t see that much specifically wrong with it. However, the idea that we are in a position to take this “leap” right now is just old-fashioned balderdash (I’ll elaborate on this a bit below). But if you wanted to map out where we should be in, say, 50 years, there’s not all that much to object to in this document.… Continue reading

Final Ford

Rob Ford’s recent death has prompted some great thinking and writing (e.g. here, here and here). I don’t have much to add, except for one little observation, which I don’t think has been given enough play. It is about social class.

Rob Ford was often described as a champion of the little guy, of being the “people’s mayor.” He was also inordinately popular among what we academics refer to, euphemistically, as “low-SES individuals” (SES standing for “socio-economic status”). And yet it was often pointed out that Ford himself was rich, he was born to a rich family, and had never really had to work for a living – outside the family business – before he entered politics. He was, in other words, a comfortable member of the economic elite. (Furthermore, many of Ford’s policies did not really benefit his supporters. Property taxes, in particular, are about the closest thing we have to a pure wealth tax in our society, so his insistence of keeping them as low as possible generated significant benefits for the wealthy and little more than spare change for the downtrodden.)

And yet somehow the charge, that Ford was just a rich guy, pushing through an agenda that benefited the rich, never seemed to stick.… Continue reading