The Bell Curve, Federalist Paper 37, and public debate

Bell Curve - photo from Terry Blake on FlickrIn my work, it is more often than not the case that extreme examples are used – by both sides of an argument – to make the case for a certain policy or perspective.

It’s worse than policy-by-anecdote, and much worse than policy-based evidence.

It’s policy by the extreme ends of the bell curve (or “policy beyond two standard deviations”, if you’re mathematically inclined).

Not only is this frustrating, but it degrades the quality of public debate and the genuinely difficult issues that politics, policy, politicians and our society face. (It also helps sell newspapers, but that’s effect rather than cause.)

I was struck, therefore, by this passage from the Federalist Papers, specifically number 37:

It is a misfortune, inseparable from human affairs, that public measures are rarely investigated with that spirit of moderation which is essential to a just estimate of their real tendency to advance or obstruct the public good; and that this spirit is more apt to be diminished than promoted, by those occasions which require an unusual exercise of it…

[I]t has been too evident from their own publications, that they have scanned the proposed [work], not only with a predisposition to censure, but with a predetermination to condemn; as the language held by others betrays an opposite predetermination or bias[.]

It is right to be passionate about the causes we stand for and the work we do, and to bring values and views to inform these debates. But it is equally useful, I feel, to keep in mind the “spirit of moderation” highlighted above, and the conclusion the author of the Federalist Paper 37 (James Madison) came to:

[I] solicit the attention of those only, who add to a sincere zeal for the happiness of their country, a temper favorable to a just estimate of the means of promoting it.


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Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

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