Another contingent in Halifax

Once again, a CMSS contingent made the trek across Canada to attend the Political Science Graduate Symposium at Dalhousie University in Halifax. As a wonderful opportunity to share research and ideas with graduate students from around the country, the eighth instalment of this academic assemblage did not disappoint!

2013 CMSS Halifax Contingent

2013 CMSS Halifax Contingent

Five students and one professor from the Centre were able to make the journey this year, contributing to discussions on a diverse range of issues and problems. Stephen Hayes and Bill Carruthers – two members of the CMSS Arctic Working Group (affectionately referred to around here as ‘Arctic Friends’ or the ‘Meeting of the Arctic Minions’) – started the conference off with presentations for the Arctic Sovereignty panel.

Bill and Steve on the Arctic Sovereignty Panel

Bill and Steve on the Arctic Sovereignty Panel

While Stephen disputed claims that the militarization of the Arctic is evidence of inter-state tension, Bill presented an informed view of Radar Sat procurement here in Canada, specifically the role of SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) and AIS (Automatic Identification System) functionalities.

They both impressed the audience with their arguments and seemingly boundless knowledge of all things Arctic, while their panel chair Commodore Darren Hawco – currently in Command of the Atlantic Fleet and an Arctic aficionado himself – provided an enthusiastic and very welcome addition to the panel discussion. We’re hoping the Commodore will consider a trip out to the prairies some time soon to continue that discussion here at the Centre!

Commodore Hawco and the 'Arcticians'

Commodore Hawco and the ‘Arcticians’

The rest of the CMSS students – Tim Wright, Maria Robson, and Katie Domansky – gave their presentations on the second day of the conference after some last minute re-shuffling and re-branding saw them take over the Defence panel in an all-CMSS effort. A rather eclectic take on “defence”, this panel featured presentations on security issues pertaining to all corners of the globe.

The Defence Panel

The Defence Panel

Tim focused on Chinese strategy for gaining a foothold in the Arctic, noting that China is already in Canada’s Arctic resources sector, while Maria discussed issues of intelligence sharing, specifically how middle powers leverage their intelligence capabilities to maintain political relationships. Katie rounded out the panel with her views on the re-professionalization of the Canadian Forces, in both practical and normative terms, after the significant changes wrought by the post-Somalia reform process of the 1990s. Each of these presentations were informative and succeeded in generating some significant debate amongst audience members and the panelists themselves. Mission accomplished!

Our faculty contribution to the conference came in the form of Dr. Rob Huebert, who provided an informative look at “the power of ideas” during his keynote address.

Dr. Huebert

Dr. Huebert

As the Centre’s favourite Realist who usually presents his expertise on the Arctic and security issues, Dr. Huebert surprised the attending CMSS students with his thoughtful discussion on the role that ideas and inquiry can play in changing the world. Yes folks, grad students and the work they do, does matter… even when they are social scientists! His personal experiences at Dalhousie during his doctoral studies, and the role of Dalhousie academics and others in fundamentally altering the way in which the world considers the use and governance of international waters, provided a case in point to support his argument. As did the question and answer period, which turned into a debate amongst all in attendance that demonstrated the value of academic inquiry and exercises such as this conference.

All CMSS members in attendance were very thankful for the opportunity to interact with and learn from the other student presenters from universities across the country. With topics ranging from immigration policy, to aboriginal rights, to health care, and conceptions of peacekeeping/peacemaking, this conference fostered discussion on security issues affecting Canada, while also allowing us to interact with scholars studying outside of our usual ‘security bubble’. A highlight was the keynote address given by NDP Environment Critic Megan Leslie. A frank, open, and engaging speech delivered with enthusiasm, Megan’s view of environment issues in Canada managed to captivate all those in attendance, no matter where on the political spectrum they usually tend to dwell.

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Besides the conference itself, something must also be said for Halifax and Nova Scotia, which welcomed our Calgary crew with open arms (not to mention full pints and lively music!). Visiting the Halifax Citadel, Canadian Immigration Museum at Pier 21, the Keith’s Brewery, Peggy’s Cove, Mahone Bay, Lunenberg, and – of course – the many pubs that have led to the cliché that “every second building in Halifax is a church, and every one in between a bar,” made the trip even more rewarding. We defend the old grad student adage that just as many good ideas are formed outside the classroom as in…. especially in the pub over a cold pint of Keith’s!

Storming the Citadel

Storming the Citadel

 

Journalists and Research Methods

— A Rant by Boris Trnavskis, MSS student

Taking a research methods perspective, my rant questions the value of the writings of journalists like Bob Woodward and Ron Suskind, on matters of public policy, people, and historical events.  I don’t have any answers and maybe my question isn’t even valid. That is because I am writing as a new MSS student with only a superficial understanding of how research and analysis is conducted in political science and history.  So I apologize in advance.  My perspective and bias comes from specializing in research methods in my previous grad studies in an unrelated field, using a wide variety of research techniques over a 31-year working life, and teaching research methods to undergrad and grad, business and engineering students.

First I want to distinguish between research techniques and research methods.  Using inferential or descriptive statistics or probability theory, building mathematical or econometric models, applying operations research techniques such as linear and dynamic programming, using sampling survey or interview techniques, conducting archival research using primary sources, and using case analysis to investigate a specific situation, are examples of research techniques – research “tools” in your research “toolbox.”  Research methods refers to the process of deciding and selecting the “tool” best suited or most appropriate for the problem in hand.  [And parenthetically, as Dr. Maurice Scarlett stressed over and over, the term “research methodology” means the “study of different research methods” and not what I am going to do to answer a research question.  Finally, paraphrasing Russell Ackoff, if you have only a hammer and a saw in your research “toolbox,” then all problems are hammer and saw problems.]

Recently, I read three “non-fiction” books by journalists, Bob Woodward (State of Denial and Plan of Attack) and Ron Suskind (The One Percent Doctrine) to gain a better understanding of U.S. security policy.  The jacket on Woodward’s book states, “Plan of Attack is the definitive account of how and why President George W. Bush, his war council, and allies launched a preemptive attack to topple Saddam Hussein and occupy Iraq.”  The jacket on Suskind’s book claims, “Suskind tells us what actually occurred over the next three years by tracing the steps of the officials who oversee the “’war on terror’ and the men and women who are actually fighting the fight.”  The rest of the text on both jackets implies these authors will provide the reader in-depth knowledge and understanding using inside information on the people and events they are discussing.

Before I start my rant I want to acknowledge that Woodward and Suskind are respected, best-selling, Pulitzer Prize winning journalists and authors, and I do not wish to imply any intentional mischief.   However, as a student of research methods, I am troubled by how journalists present factual information.  I think they blur the distinction between creative speculation and verifiable “facts.”  For example, Woodward might have a passage in which he says Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld held a private, SECRET [my emphasis] meeting in the White House on a particular day to discuss WMD.  Woodward then provides very detailed dialogue between the participants, complete with expletives and descriptions of their body language during that meeting.  I presume Woodward is doing this to help me understand the interpersonal dynamics and decision making process within the Bush White House; and to make his book fun to read.  Or if you are a conspiracy buff or cynic, he just wants to sell books.  What is that saying, “the facts and nothing but the facts please?”  Regardless, as a researcher from an unrelated field, I find this troubling on several levels.

First, how would Woodward know (a) if that “secret” meeting was even held; (b) if it was held, who were the participants; (c) what did they discuss; or (d) how did they behave toward each other during that meeting?  But even if one person attending that meeting “leaked” to Woodward “on the record” about a secret meeting, what is the probability the “leaker” could recall the exact words, gestures, etc. – especially when “movers and shakers” are in meetings almost non-stop, every day.  Heck, I didn’t remember my wife asking me to pick up some milk and bread on my way home today!

But even if a meeting participant had no moral or ethical issues revealing publically what took place during a SECRET White House meeting, and that person had a photographic memory, how can we be sure that that person will report the conversation accurately and honestly, without being selective or self-serving?  I mean, who would not want history to record him as a wise and influential, advisor or leader?  So much of the journalists’ writing strikes me as fiction and creative speculation – of questionable validity.  Which is fine, if it is acknowledged as fiction or an editorial position.  But from a research methods perspective, is it a reliable way to gain information or insight?  That is, how much weight should I give to books and articles written by journalists because it is hard for me to distinguish fact from fiction?

It is also troubling on another level.  In the U.S., the media and freedom of the press guarantees exist, to allow the media to be “fair and balanced” (© Fox News) in the performance of its “due diligence” responsibilities on behalf of American citizens, so those citizens can give their “informed consent” to their leaders.  Most non-partisan, news media watchdogs point out that the majority of journalists select and report events through a left-of-centre, liberal lens.  Is the process further corrupted if these journalists can make up stuff and publish it as non-fiction?  What if a journalist wants to demonize, marginalize, or ridicule a person they don’t like or agree with – like Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others?  Books written by journalists are ideal vehicles for selective presentation of facts, misrepresentation, spin, and character assassination.  Why, because if I can make up conversations or take words out-of-context, I can make anyone look out-of-touch, insensitive, extreme, imperial, or almost anything I wish.  Of course, the opposite is also true if journalists like the person they are writing about, like Obama.  Bernard Goldberg’s book, “A Slobbering Love Affair: The True and Pathetic Story of the Torrid Romance Between Barack Obama and the Mainstream Media,” talks about that side of the coin.

But back to the research methods issue, should we rely on books written by journalists on public policy issues simply because there is nothing better?  If yes, how much weight should we give their accounts?  Are there other sources we can use to check the “facts?” I understand that these journalists often get it right but isn’t that an “ends justify the means” kind of justification?  I don’t know the answers.  All I know is I need a glass of single malt when I read Woodward telling me exactly what Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, or whoever said in confidence, behind closed doors.