Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Stephen Harper bids adieu to reality

Stephen Harper bids adieu to realityA slim majority of Conservative party members believe homosexuals should be arrested and imprisoned in federal dinner theatres, where they would perform The Sound of Music and other wholesome entertainment for children and seniors. Twenty per cent of the Conservative caucus dropped acid with the Grateful Dead. At least three cabinet ministers have outstanding arrest warrants in Nepal; one is a former member of the Manson family. In the past, I would not have presented these claims as facts because they're not "true," in the narrow sense of an assertion supported by logic and evidence. That stuff mattered to me. I was a "member of the reality-based community," as a Bush administration official famously said about people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." But no more. "When we act," that official said, "we create our own reality." That's where I am now. Stephen Harper, the Conservative government, and me. Creating our own reality. And dropping acid with the Dead. The first stop for Stephen's purple van was the census. Had to be. The census produces numbers that represent reality and people get all bent out of shape if the government's decisions aren't in line with these "facts." Buzz kill. So the reality-creators had to mess it up. Which is pretty easy to do. Just make the mandatory long-form census voluntary and suppress the urge to shout "that's the point, Poindexter!" when statisticians object that the data will be corrupted. Unfortunately, the reality-based community votes -- for now -- and the Chief Metaphysician had to offer some sort of explanation for why the government is sticking it to StatsCan. So he sent out Milhouse. "It's, um, it's wrong for the state to compel people to divulge private information," Milhouse said, as instructed. Hilarious stuff. The state compels people to divulge private information in a hundred ways and Stephen's cool with all of them, so this made about as much sense as the gagging noises that came out of George W. Bush's mouth when that pretzel went down wrong. But logic is a reality-based thing. Say something as shamelessly silly as this and people who get the new reality-creation paradigm will smile contentedly while the old-fashioned types will sputter and froth and wear their thumbs out Twittering their outrage. It's incredibly liberating, this new way of thinking. A little heady, even. It's like being Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty. Say it and it's true! A fella could lose his head. Which brings me to the barefoot dude playing a sitar at the back of the purple van. I speak, naturally, of Stockwell Day. At a press conference this week, a reality-based reporter asked the minister to explain why the government is going to spend billions of dollars it doesn't have to build new prisons when crime has been on the decline for many years. Ah, but the decline in crime you cite is merely a statistical figment, Day sagely observed. It's based on crimes reported to police. People don't report crime like they used to and the government is terribly concerned about the surge in unreported crime. There was a certain truthiness in this because there is indeed a StatsCan survey that asks people if they've been victims of crime and, if so, whether they reported the crime to the police. Most crimes aren't reported. And the last survey shows a decline in the rate of reporting from the one previous. For a guy in the purple van, that's way more than good enough. The reality-based community might find it a little harder to accept, however. For one thing, the decline in reporting is tiny, from 37 per cent to 34 per cent. More importantly, the survey uses such a literal definition of "crime," and such sweeping questions, that a parent whose 10-year-old had a tantrum and broke a window at home would be considered the "victim" of a "crime" that was not reported to the police. Some of what the survey tallies is more clearly criminal, of course. But it's mostly very minor stuff. And since the only criminals sent to federal penitentiaries are those who get sentences of more than two years -- serious criminals, in other words -- this survey has essentially nothing to do with what Stockwell Day was talking about. It's also a little odd that Day cited a survey which found that 94 per cent of Canadians believed they were personally safe, up significantly from earlier surveys. And it certainly didn't help that Day made his point with a six-year-old survey shortly after saying the census was useless because it was only conducted every five years. It might also have been awkward if anyone had told the minister that the voluntary survey he was citing was accurate because statisticians had weighted it to reduce response bias using data from the mandatory census -- a procedure which will no longer be possible thanks to the government's decision to screw with the census. But all that is so reality-based. Facts, evidence, logic. Irony. We've moved beyond that. I might even say we've evolved, but some of the guys in the purple van might not like that. So let's just say we've opened the doors of perception. We make reality, man. Hey, here's something most people don't know. Stephen Harper has a tattoo. Really. It's a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche. "There are no facts, only interpretations." He got it one crazy weekend in Tijuana. It's on his right buttock. Oh, and the former member of the Manson family? Milhouse, of course.