Two weeks from now, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Democratic Progressive Party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) will hold a public debate on the merits of an economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA), a trade agreement with China that, depending on who you talk to, will ruin Taiwan or save it.
Given the importance of the decision facing the country, and amid calls for less partisan and more balanced deliberation, it is worth considering how to improve the odds that this will happen.
The fact is, other recent hot-button issues have fared badly in the critical arena: The response to Typhoon Morakot, the US beef fiasco and preparation for swine flu.
Indeed, swine flu is again in the news, although the debate today is very different from last summer when the WHO declared a level-six global threat, the highest in 40 years.
Critics now say it was an overreaction, and nothing remotely close to the public health catastrophe we were led to expect materialized. In the last year, many countries actually saw a decline in their usual rates of flu-linked deaths.
Greater than the WHO’s overreaction were the costs resulting from it, from direct government spending on drugs, to eroded trust in the WHO and losses incurred by industries, such as tourism. Egyptian authorities even ordered that all pigs in the country be slaughtered.
In Taiwan, health officials resisted overreaction, taking an approach that balanced preparation with ongoing scientific reassessment. However, this changed once swine flu became a political issue. Initial questions raised about flu readiness were met with the government’s usual indifference, followed by increasingly virulent claims and counter-claims as political opportunism and fear mongering replaced rational discussion.
This has become a common pattern in public debate in Taiwan as politicians, closely backed by the media, take over from experts — whether they are scientists, healthcare professionals, economists, political scientists, legal academics or even the military.
This is not to say that experts always agree or that they always get it right. The WHO has shown this in its response to swine flu. It is also not to say that the views of experts are politically neutral.
Yet, there are strong professional incentives for scientists and academics to remain objective in their work. These range from disciplinary imperatives, such as scientific method, to the loss of respect for those who let political bias compromise intellectual rigor.
Ma and Tsai are both serious people. Whatever their ideological differences, both will argue for what they believe is the best way forward for Taiwan and Taiwanese. However, they are also politicians, with followers to placate and elections to win. Given that the issues before them are by their nature highly charged, the process is bound to suffer.
Perhaps the next public debate should be between professionals trained in areas relevant to it. Even in the arcane field of economic theory, Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz regularly demonstrate that experts can explain complicated issues in language that ordinary people understand.
Just as important as language, however, is the professional integrity of such figures, which helps to contain passions and anxieties associated with the often contentious issues before them.