Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Scholarly Embarrassment

Or … rethinking ballistic missile defense

Should scholars be embarrassed if it turns out they are wrong? Theoretically, I'm a scholar so some might argue I have a built in self-interest in this question. This might also be an unfair question. To be good, scholarship requires some level of freedom and part of freedom is being wrong. There is nothing wrong with being wrong. We all make mistakes. To argue that someone should be embarrassed about making a mistake, then, is to run against human nature and threaten good scholarship by imposing some sort of limit on it (even if this limit is a feeling).

I'm not at all certain I agree with this proposition. Recently, I was re-reading In the National Interest: Canadian Foreign Policy in an Insecure World, which I had assigned to my third year Canadian/American relations class. This report was authored by a who's who of Canadian foreign policy studies. But, to put it bluntly, it is so wrong in its interpretation, conclusions, recommendations, and even evidence that its authors should be embarrassed. Indeed, if the lines these scholars penned had come out of the lips of a politician, we'd call it spin-doctoring.

I'll give you an example to illustrate my point: this report argues that Canada should have participated in the missile defense shield. It was in our national interest to do so and it cozied us up to the Americans which, the report argues, should be our main goal. What is wrong with this statement? It is a political view and a recommendation produced by a think tank. Do not hte authors have the freedom to make it?

Sure they do. That's not the issue and anyone who says it is … is … well … just being silly or trying to distract attention from the real question. The real question is that a team of leading scholar made a recommendation that was wrong. Why was it wrong? The missile shield does not work. The US conceded this point a number of years ago so you don't have to take my word for it. The people who developed it say it is a no go. Let me make that point more bluntly for anyone who says "yeah but it might work one day." Anything "might" happen. One cannot base foreign policy on "mights." One needs to base it on reason and evidence and here a group of scholars fell down completely. They made a recommendation without bothering to check to seei if their recommendation was actually practicable. Again, it is not Andrew Nurse saying this but the US government, the very people who this group of scholars said we should believe.

Why should they be embarrassed about this recommendation? After all, they gave the best recommendation they could on the basis of the evidence … right? Wrong. They did not bother to check the evidence. If they had, they would have found problems with this missile shield from the get go. They would have noticed that just about everyone and their dog -- aside from the Bush administration and a couple of smaller countries it could lure into line -- was steering clear of it. Why? It does not seem they even bothered to ask. The project was years behind schedule and seriously over budget. Again, the folks writing this report never bothered to ask why. This is what they should be embarrassed about: bad scholarship.

What is the upshot of bad scholarship. Well, most of the time, not a lot. In the case of foreign policy, however, there might be an upshot that is worth thinking about. What would have happened if Canada -- as these folks recommended -- had bought into the missile shield? We would have ended up supporting an American initiative that the Americans themselves abandoned. In other words, we would have looked like he international equivalent of an Edsel dealership.

Perhaps these scholars have done this and perhaps I missed it, but what I would like to see is these folks to author another report that says "sorry, got that one wrong."  Instead, what has happened is that all those people -- and these scholars were not alone -- who argued in favour of things like the missile shield and the Iraq War have quietly tried to ignore the fact that they were wrong. Scholarship is about freedom but it is also about trust. If these folks got one thing wrong … what else is wrong in their recommendations … and they continue to make recommendations.  Years ago I say Globe columnist John Ibbitson admit he was wrong when he recommended deregulation of the Canadian banking industry. He said something like "thank Heavens no one listened to me." I wonder if the authors of In the National Interest are saying the same thing?

Here is the upshot: I'm not concerned about mistakes.  What I am concerned about is the supposedly scholarly  edifice that argue for a dramatic change in Canadian foreign policy after 9/11. Involvement in Iraq, security perimeters, common currencies, missile shields, abandonment of multilaterialism (something in which the US seems to now have an interest), btw. In the National Interest does not support all these measures. I'm really only concernee with their one big faux pas and the reason why they made it. Scholarship is not supposed to be partisan. It is supposed to provide a different, more researched voice. Those scholars who argued for the Iraq War and for the missile defense shield should be embarrassed.  They neglected their responsibilities and urged their country to take a dangerous path.

I do have a self interest in this. I expect scholars to be better than this.

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