As our most senior public officials repeatedly conflate fact and fiction—confusing opinion with information, mistaking wishfulness and crankiness for analysis —the challenges of policymaking in a technologically complex and politically polarized world become even more difficult. In last week’s New York Times Magazine, Jason Zengerle presents a devastating portrait of the delusional and malicious Representative Devin Nunes, who has so misused his position as chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that his sabotage of the investigation into Russian interference in our political process is not even the most disturbing tale of his tenure.
Even before the Age of Trump, though, reference to serious, fact-based research in support of policymaking had fallen into disfavor in Washington. The notion that data could be gathered in a systematic manner, examined according to social science theories about correlation and causation—after which the theories would be updated, revised and then tested again, in order to provide an intellectual foundation for a policy debate—had come to be considered, well, quaint.
Science-based policy discussion is so rare, in fact, that the American Academy of Political and Social Science a decade ago created a prize for it: the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize, “to recognize public officials and social scientists who champion the use of informed judgment to improve public policy and advance the public good.” The AAPSS is a learned society of scholars that dates from a Philadelphia conclave of 22 professors in 1889 and has sought since its founding to bring rigorous research to policymakers.
Moynihan, of course, was a public official and a social scientist. He was a public intellectual who served his country as a naval officer, diplomat, presidential advisor and United States Senator, author of more books than many members of today’s Senate will have read—and surely the only person in American history to have served in the cabinet or sub-cabinet of four consecutive Presidents, two Republicans and two Democrats. As the AAPSS says about the purpose of the prize,
Honoring the memory of Senator Moynihan through a prize that bears his name reminds us of our shared values and goals and promotes bipartisan solutions to the challenges that face our country.
When I worked for him as a legislative assistant, a long time ago, Pat Moynihan cherished the dueling magazine covers featuring caricatures of his long face that he had framed and hung above the toilet in the bathroom in his office in the Russell Senate office building. The Nation, on the stern left, labeled Moynihan a “neo-conservative,” while The New Republic, ambiguously progressive, called him a “neo-liberal.” In fact, he was a social scientist with a PhD from Tufts University whose thesis examined the International Labor Organization, the only part of Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations arrangements that survives to this day. He came to Washington to serve in JFK’s Labor Department, and worked as Richard Nixon’s domestic policy advisor. In his politics, Moynihan sought to bring a small-d democratic sensibility to the realm of public policy, deferring to Democratic orthodoxy only on lesser matters. He often reminded us, the hired help, of what he said in public time and again—namely that “You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are NOT entitled to your own facts!”
Pat Moynihan would, of course, be appalled by what has befallen the Congress he so revered, where he served for 24 years. More than once that I recall, he reminded us younglings, when we seemed insufficiently to appreciate the majesty of the opportunity provided us to inform serious Senate deliberation, that the position of a Senator is a job “written into the #*!& United States Constitution.” (He used some French words—or maybe it was Navy talk.) There was another lesson Moynihan imparted to me quite directly. During an election year, when I dared to offer an assessment of the electoral implications of an upcoming floor vote, he quickly cut me off to say, “your job is to provide me information, and your best advice on what the correct policy is for the United States; others can worry about whatever the political implications may be.” He was clearly annoyed. He just wanted the facts, the analysis and policy input from me. Tell me how many members of today’s Congress would chastise an aide in this manner.
Today, we are far removed from a fact-based discourse. The most infamous case of ignorance-as-policy, of course, is the Dickey Amendment and its consequences. As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Hiltzik has cogently written in the Los Angeles Times, this is the provision of law that effectively bars federal research on gun violence as a public health matter, without actually even banning federal research on gun violence.
The National Rifle Association was outraged by research supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), specifically its National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, that found having firearms in the home sharply increased the risks of homicide. So, the NRA successfully pressed Congress in 1996 to strip the injury center’s funding for gun violence research – $2.6 million. Congress then passed a measure drafted by then-Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.) forbidding the CDC to spend funds “to advocate or promote gun control.” Though the Dickey Amendment didn’t bar gun violence research, the real blow, wrote Hiltzik, “was delivered by a succession of pusillanimous CDC directors, who decided that the safest course bureaucratically was simply to zero out the whole field” in order to avoid another targeted cut in the appropriation.
Even though Mr. Dickey came to regret the role he had played in thwarting this research, as he made clear after he left office in a 2012 column he co-authored in the Washington Post, the Dickey amendment is added every year to the funding law for the CDC. In Dickey’s words:
As a consequence, U.S. scientists cannot answer the most basic question: What works to prevent firearm injuries? We don’t know whether having more citizens carry guns would decrease or increase firearm deaths; or whether firearm registration and licensing would make inner-city residents safer or expose them to greater harm. We don’t know whether a ban on assault weapons or large-capacity magazines, or limiting access to ammunition, would have saved lives in Aurora or would make it riskier for people to go to a movie. And we don’t know how to effectively restrict access to firearms by those with serious mental illness.
It is well worth reading the eight-page 1993 article in the New England Journal of Medicine that started the uproar. Chock full of data, and thoughtful consideration of alternative interpretations, the study was led by Arthur L. Kellermann, then at the University of Tennessee, and concluded that “[r]ather than confer protection, guns kept in the home are associated with an increase in the risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance.” That was a quarter century ago, and the U.S. government has not built on that research in the years since then. Laws to make guns more widely available, even to place them in schools, are proliferating across the country, and there is virtually no social science being done to forecast what the likely consequences will be of these policies.
With the wider war on science being waged these days by the appointed heads of the U.S. government’s science agencies—the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department, for instance—it is time to note that there is a quiet resistance movement under way. And it is centered in the academy, and specifically in the AAPSS.
Last year’s recipient of the Moynihan Prize was Princeton professor Alan Krueger, an economist who spoke in his acceptance speech about the implications of today’s part-time or “gig” economy, demonstrating that “the steady increase in the number of self-employed workers over the last few decades raises concerns about where and how these workers obtain health insurance and other benefits.” Krueger went on to outline the pros and the cons of various public policies that might be supportive of such workers, including a proposed “Shared Security Account” that would be portable and more flexible than current available benefits. Tellingly, Krueger built his lecture around data from the Princeton Survey Data Center, an intensive effort that regularly interviews workers of all kinds.
On May 17, Dr. John P. Holdren, who was Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy throughout the Obama Administration, and is now at Harvard University, will become the 2018 Moynihan Laureate. Holdren will deliver a lecture at the Willard Hotel in Washington on the occasion. In announcing his selection, the AAPSS noted that in a 2010 article entitled “Social Science Data and the Shaping of National Policy,” Holdren wrote:
To make public policy on the basis of bad data or no data is almost always a serious error . . . [R]esearch in the social sciences has given rise to a large array of explanatory concepts and analytic tools such as cost benefit analysis, the concept of risk aversion, the notion of unintended consequences, national accounts, randomized field trials for policy design, and so on.
Historian Timothy Snyder explains the seriousness of this distinction between fact and fiction in his brief 2017 manifesto, On Tyranny. “To abandon facts,” he writes, “is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power because there is no basis upon which to do so. … Post-truth is pre-fascism.”
I myself am not always keen for a lecture on the scientific method or randomized trials. But these days in Washington, it just seems like the right thing to do—to show some solidarity with social scientists and others with actual knowledge. So I will be at the Willard on the 17th of May, joining the scientists in their resistance—to be part of the alternative to the Ostriches all around us—celebrating this year’s winner of the Moynihan Prize, John Holdren.