Expertise vs. Emotion at Ann Arbor City Council

Removed from scientific context, vaccinating your kid sounds crazy.  Let’s stick a needle in their arm and put disease and chemicals into their body.  To prevent an illness nobody you know has ever gotten.  And on top of your kid crying, and your own lack of experience with the disease, you have neighbors whispering in your ear (or posting loudly on social media) how dangerous vaccines are.

Instead of putting it to a popular vote, though, or listening to the loudest voices on your Facebook feed, you listen to your child’s pediatrician (I hope) and bodies of experts like the AMA and CDC, who unanimously cite overwhelming evidence in favor of vaccinations.

For every decision, there are gut feelings and personal opinions about the issue, and then there are the scientific arguments – what does the evidence say?  Most often, these come from experts in the field, who have devoted years to mastering the topic.

Would #a2council vaccinate?

The greatest  conflicts in Ann Arbor politics are often driven by clashes between gut feelings (either voiced by citizens or held by CMs) and expert opinions.

Each council member brings different professional expertise to the job.  For instance, CM Kailasapathy as an accountant, CM Warpehoski on equity and community outreach, and CMs Westphal and Smith as urban planners.  Council members also rely on city staff (who themselves have expertise) to do research, or do their own fact-finding, learning from the experts in the field (take a look at CM Briere’s reading list for examples of this).

The lens of “emotions vs. expertise” is a useful one through which to view politics, in Ann Arbor as well as nationally (think climate change).  Here are some of the recent issues where gut feelings & loud personal opinions have clashed with evidence and expertise:

Traffic & roads

This conflict manifests every time there’s a “road diet” and lanes are narrowed or reduced, for instance, on Jackson Road.  You have the professionals at MDOT and in the city, who have studied the traffic flow and modeled the effects, versus furious drivers commenting on MLive.  And roundabouts are perhaps the best example of this: they unquestionably save lives and improve traffic flow.  And yet instead of trusting the science, former CM Mike Anglin ranted at the May 4th 2015 meeting about the danger posed by roundabouts.  You might not like roundabouts, or understand how they make things safer, but it takes great chutzpah to think you know more than the experts in the field.

Urban planning

This area may be the most common source of the opinion-vs-evidence conflict in Ann Arbor.  Mayor Taylor’s 2015 Year in Review touched on possible locations for an expanded Amtrak station (emphasis mine):

I have previously stated my belief that the Fuller Road location would likely work best – it has more space for necessary parking <…> Some have objected to the Fuller Road site on the grounds that it is within the boundaries of Fuller Park <…> Ann Arbor needs a train station that works well now and for years to come. If the Fuller Road site is the optimum transit location according to the federal criteria, then that’s where I’d want to place the station; if the federal criteria give the nod to the Depot Street site, then that’s where I’d want to place the station. Time – hopefully not much more of it – will tell.

There is a federal study in progress on where the best location is for a train station.  Mayor Taylor notes his personal preference, but also pledges to yield to the voice of experts.

Another urban planning conflict is the potential park on the Library Lot.  There are two professional planners on council – and both are concerned about the viability of a park there.  CM Westphal spoke to the evidence on January 4th 2016, prior to his vote.  Mayor Taylor’s 2015 Year in Review acknowledges the emotional appeal of such a park, but also frankly discusses its potential downsides, drawing from expertise and evidence.  However, his 2015 Year in Review went against the voices of experts in the most contentious issue of them all these days at #a2council…

Deer control

I see three main factions on this issue.  Two are opinion-based: residents who are frustrated by increased deer presence and property damage, and those who are scared by the cull and/or who object to it on moral grounds.  Neither of these parties speaks from the position of impartial expertise, though both selectively cite evidence.

The third faction, smaller and quieter, is that of the experts: scientists, including biodiversity professors, and natural area stewards.  These experts calmly make an evidence-based case for the cull.  See:

  • Biodiversity professor Christopher Dick’s “why ecologists support Ann Arbor’s deer cull
  • Forest ecologist Ben Connor Barrie’s post “Oh Deer” (written in 2014, when less emotion accompanied this issue)
  • The wealth of evidence compiled by botanist Vivienne Armentrout
  • Support for the cull from the leader of Ann Arbor’s Natural Area Preservation efforts (I think this was mentioned at council though I can’t find a citation.)

Mayor Taylor cast the lone vote against the cull.  In his 2015 Year in Review, he essentially says: yes, the cull might be the scientific thing to do, but so many people have such strong feelings against it that it’s not worth upsetting them – even if their feelings are not rational.  He writes:

Shooting in the parks, even under controlled and person-safe conditions, will alter and degrade too many residents’ conception of their city and their home. That’s a fact. The cull will cost – has cost – our community spirit greatly. Reasonable people can differ on the cull, but in my view the cure is worse than the disease.

The deer cull puts great tension between expertise and gut feeling: the expertise and evidence is solidly on one side, but the emotional backlash against it has been tremendous.  Especially as this issue is a low priority for council, it will be interesting to see which force triumphs in the end.

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