Saturday, September 06, 2008

Science, Ethics and Truth-Testing

Way back when dinosaurs ruled the earth and line printers had to be kept in sound-proof boxes, I was being prepared for a life in law and politics as being the obvious place for such a legalistic, too-smart-for-his-own-good, arrogant little "gotcha" artist.

Neither I nor those who saw me that way had any idea that all of these attributes were in fact the manifestation of Asperger's Autism, and therefore I was being prepared for a career I was as suited for as - well, let's just say that Sarah Palin is far more suited to be leader of the free world than I to a life in politics.

Nonetheless, I managed to do well enough that I actually teetered on the edge of small town politics for a moment before coming to my senses.

And while I never did well in classical debate, I would have been one hell of a political speechwriter. Indeed, that's most likely where I'd have wound up.

Anyway, the fact that I managed to avoid debate as a competitive speech event, due to the as I am poor at thinking on my feet and it IS a sport in which winning and losing matter to other team members, I was not permitted to evade a basic understanding of the rules of engagement.

"When the facts are on your side, pound the facts. When the law is on your side, pound the law. And when you don't have either the law or the facts on your side, you pound on the table."

The other observation I want to make as setup for this post is the fact that there are several angles of evaluation for a debate; style, presentation of facts, skill in undermining the credibility of said facts and of course, diversion of the judge's attention from the facts are all ways in which you may well win a debate on points, even if you find yourself defending a completely untenable case.

However, this is about as difficult a situation as you can imagine, the rhetorical equivalent of somehow managing to escape an ambush and effect an orderly retreat instead of a rout.

And debate coaches - good ones - are ruthless about finding things for you to defend that insult you to the core of your youthful, self-righteous being, or place you in a Kobayashi Maru situation.

It's a damn fine preparation for becoming Scott McClellan, I might add. I took what I thought to be the real lesson - anticipate situations in which people will be forced to speak well of how well you managed under the circumstances.

Competitive speech is a fine preparation for learning to amorally and impassively evaluate an argument on it's merits. It was repeatedly hammered into my brain that you cannot possibly expect to win an argument against any arguable proposition unless you can craft that argument yourself, as well or better than your opponent could.

This one essential leg for the perspective I have. And I suppose like everything else in my life that matters to me, It could be said to take it "far too seriously."

Indeed, it has been said to my face, many times. But in this particular sort of case, it amounts to a criticism that I'm taking the civic responsibility to attack or defend a premise with one's very best arguments and as many facts to fling into the fray as possible. I see it as deriding the entire idea of having to defend an opinion on it's merits.

It's the "ah got a gaw-damn right to mah 'pinion," which to me is the precursor to all the anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, racist, misogynist, xenophobic spew that has come to replace all that used to be "conservatism."

"Let's get back to the Issues" byjenniekurono who never fails to disappoint when I wish to illustrate sincere idiocy in action. She even thinks this can be categorized as an Insulting Bumper Sticker

It's a sad day when someone who presumably has a basic grounding in civics and politics, the sort that comes from maintaining a C average through a full 12 years of school could think that "issues" are beside the point in politics. Politics is our way of discussing and settling issues, as an alternate to breaking out the pointed sticks.

People like Jenny do tend to underline the side benefit of the latter approach - people dumb enough to say things like that in public are generally the ones who volunteer to charge "over the top." Such repeated social neuterings have done a great deal for European civilization in the long view.

Properly speaking, though it is your humble Conservative nay-sayer that is historically responsible for helping us avoid our glorious martial destiny. The "negative case" is usually the Conservative case.
It is the Conservative who lives to make the Liberal defend their reasoning, their facts, their evidence, their cost-benefit analysis and most critically of all, the underlying, unexamined and quite often silly assumptions as to human nature and best outcomes.

Not that the common "conservative" assumptions are any less silly - and we have all seen those assumptions being acted on without any apparent process between, well, between knee and jerk.

It's a hell of a lot easier to criticize than it is to make an affirmative argument, much less an actual defensible policy. It's much easier to be seen as being a deep, thoughtful, critical thinker when criticizing the blue sky visions of the Left.

Of all the people I ever wanted to grow up to be, the person with the greatest influence upon my style of writing and persuasion has to be Wm. F. Buckley, Jr.

The thing I most admired about him was his ability to make reactionary thought seem reasonable.

But more important to me in practice was the example of his courtesy in conflict and his willingness to gracefully concede a point. His interviews with Noam Chomsky, for instance, should be required viewing for how to deal respectfully with opinions that offend you to the core of your being, and to bravely and openly embrace the possibility that you might lose a argument on it's merits.

That did not happen very often. It is with no little admiration that I state that he lost arguments on the merits far less often than the actual merits of the position he took would lead you to believe. I can enumerate on the dexterous fingers of my left thumb the persons of equal stature and broad-spectrum, earned respect who are still welcomed within that small and shriveled anti-intellectual tent that political conservatism has become.

I can't find a better illustration than this exchange I stumbled across today.

Yes, Virginia, There is a War on Science

I hate to confess it, but lately I’ve been feeling a bit wistful for the arguments of conservative science pundit Tom Bethell, author of the 2005 polemic The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science. Granted, the “Incorrect Guide to Science” would probably have been a more accurate title, in that Bethell is just plain wrong about everything from evolution (which he tries to debunk) to global warming (which he argues isn’t human-caused) to African AIDS (which, shockingly, he calls a “political epidemic”). Yet despite such outrages, there’s something bracingly honest about Bethell’s book—he really doesn’t accept mainstream science on many issues, and so he tries, very straightforwardly, to argue that his facts are right and everybody else’s wrong.

A new wave of conservative science punditry—epitomized by an essay by Yuval Levin in The New Atlantis entitled “Science and the Left,” which was itself recently publicized by former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson in an oped in the Washington Post—demonstrably lacks such candor. Setting out to debunk the idea that there really is a “war on science” coming from the right, these writers don’t bother engaging on the facts of the case at all. They don’t attempt to show that, say, conservative anti-evolutionists are right, or that conservative global warming deniers know what they’re talking about. Instead, Levin and Gerson ignore, trivialize, and even mock the very serious argument that scientific information has been systematically mistreated under this administration and by the American political right. Here’s Gerson: “There are few things in American politics more irrationally ideological, more fanatically faith-based, than the accusation that Republicans are conducting a ‘war on science.’” As for Levin: “Beneath these grave accusations, it turns out, are some remarkably flimsy grievances, most of which seem to amount to political disputes about policy questions in which science plays a role.”
Now, whether or not the premise stated above is arguable is quite beside my point. This is one of those particular cases in which it should be excruciatingly obvious that unless you bring your A team and your A game, the affirmative team will hand you your head and your ass in separate bags.

Well, someone sent in the water boy...

  1. Whig says:

    In fact, it is leftists who have launched a war on science -

    just a few notes: the Union of Concerned Scientists is not a scientific body, but a lobbying organization; naturally, any `survey’ they conduct is immediately suspect, for the same reason you dismiss without argument any suggestion that leftists are engaged in a war on science.

    but again, the war leftists have launched on science - as with the idea of “feminist mathematics” or “african science”, the war against GMO’s, not to mention pesticides and plastics, etc. etc. - is far more effective than some writer or another bleating about `intelligent design’…

    also - to dismiss work by scientists just because they are `industry funded’ is in itself anti-science; regardless of where a researcher receives his funding, it is the *demonstration* itself which matters.

    by the way, are you a scientist yourself…?

And as predicted, head and ass are neatly separated, leaving little but warm pink mist between.

  1. TimV says:

    I’m, sorry but Whig’s comments are such a tub of lard, they need to be addressed. And full disclaimer, I am a fully trained and practicing scientist. Which means Whig will probably disregard this off the bat.

    Whig says:
    “just a few notes: the Union of Concerned Scientists is not a scientific body, but a lobbying organization; naturally, any `survey’ they conduct is immediately suspect, for the same reason you dismiss without argument any suggestion that leftists are engaged in a war on science.”

    Two things:

    1)The Union of Concerned Scientists is indeed a lobbying organization OF CAREER SCIENTISTS! Naturally they push for greater scientific integrity in public discourse but to disregard their polls as biased without actually analyzing their methods is just plain igornance. Show me evidence of bias in their polling methods (and I’ll hit you back with careful example of Frank Luntz’ work). Mooney disregards the industry paid scientists because he HAS analyzed their methods and shown them to be false. He’s even written a book on it if you’d care to read it.

    2) Actually, if you read the article Mooney actually cites a case where left-wing groups attack science (e.g. the biotech controversy). But this post is talking about the war on science in America, of which the left’s side of the war centers mainly on animal rights issues.

    Whig says:
    “but again, the war leftists have launched on science - as with the idea of “feminist mathematics” or “african science”, the war against GMO’s, not to mention pesticides and plastics, etc. etc. - is far more effective than some writer or another bleating about `intelligent design’…”

    Hmmm… methinks you are mixing up a War on Technology from a War on Science. The topic of Mooney’s post (and Gerson’s and Levin’s essays), is about the attack on the information conveyed by science. The methods and ideals. Not the output. You are correct, that many on the left are weary of technology (I’m sorry but “feminist mathematics” and “african science” are weak examples of radical ideals that never caught on at all or had very little influence on general discourse in America). But there is a fundamental trust in the scientific method on the American Left.

    Whig writes:
    “also - to dismiss work by scientists just because they are `industry funded’ is in itself anti-science; regardless of where a researcher receives his funding, it is the *demonstration* itself which matters.”

    Actually, if you read Mooney’s book (or the many reviews done by actual, hard-working scientists), there is ample EVIDENCE that industry funded scientists present biased or even false data. The “demonstration” is often done through abuse of scientific tests (e.g.- only presenting 1 null finding out of 10, biasing your tests to give you a null, etc). There is ample evidence of such scientific misconduct that it is worthless to point out except for the simple fact of pointing you to “The Republican War on Science” as a good reference.

    Whig says:
    “by the way, are you a scientist yourself…?”

    Actually, if you use this new thing-y they call “Google”, you’ll find that Mooney is in fact a freelance writer. So he’s independent of the story. However, unlike the zealots on the right, being a scientist does not mean we adhere to dogma. Unless you care to redefine dogma as “facts.”

It's not that there are no reasonable people who could at least conceive of a credible argument to the premise stated. Not that I'd try. It's both easier and generally far more valid to criticize the conclusions drawn from the facts than to argue with the facts themselves, once, of course, the source, methodology and basic honesty of the process in bringing the facts to light has been established and of course doing a quick look-see to find any facts that happen to have been left sadly neglected in a corner.

For instance, The Club of Rome model described in the 1968 publication, Limits to Growth, was factually indisputable - given that you accepted that the facts presented were the only facts to take into consideration. It was well argued - and time proved - that the fundamental assumptions that went into making the study and drawing conclusions from it were simplistic. Not incorrect, precisely. Merely insufficiently correct and presented with entirely inappropriate authority and finality.

Well, that's how you go about dealing with a Left-Wing panic attack, or indeed any social panic; you go out and see what a few more reality checks will buy you, instead of foolishly arguing that the facts cannot be true.

But for asserting what I think should be clearly obvious, I'm accused of being (often in the same breath) of being a liberal, a fascist or a communist. This tells me they don't know the difference between the three, and think them all interchangeable with "poopy-head."

I always preferred taking the negative; that is to say the conservative position. In debate, it's like having the home court advantage and winning the toss, all at once. All you have to do is defend the status quo and show that the affirmative fails to make a case as to why it would be worth the expense, trouble and difficulty to make a change to, say, a hydrogen economy or universal health care.

That, of course presupposes that the "status quo" is defensible, or indeed that the present situation bears ANY resemblance to an historical Constitutional, Individualist American Status Quo Ante. Moreover, it requires that the political presumption of that the current status quo is and what the actual state of things in the real world are in some agreement.

I'm just going to assert that it's obvious those things are not at all true, and then point to why that is a reasonable assertion to make.

Remember, I've stated that the Conservative side is the easy side. It is the "Meanwhile, back here in the real world" side. It's the "And how is that workin' out for you" side. If Obama is such a wild-eyed socialist radical promising an spiral into an orgy of taxing and spending leading inevitably to cannibalism, communism and widespread paedophillic marriage, we should far FAR more coherent arguments against the Change Obama represents than what we see.

And I will tell you this; the Conservative response to an inarguable case is to shut up and walk away. If you cannot do anything else, you can at least avoid calling attention to it. Well, look around, in the blogs, in the media; how many skilled conservative speakers and writers are still in this fray upon the side of Bush?

There are other things that we should be seeing Conservatives arguing against coherently and with facts, from positions that cannot be overset with a feather of fact, if they were indeed actually foolishly liberal propositions.

For one painfully obvious example, we should see far more intelligent arguments against climate change than we do, unless we admit that the only really conservative approach to climate change is prudence. You cannot be a conservative while arguing against a conservative approach to potentially unpredictable situations. If you will not accept at least that, I don't care what you call yourself - because whatever it is, you don't belong any where near the levers of power.

Or really, ANY levers.

If being equipped and willing to do the intellectual heavy lifting required to check my preferred world view against reality is "elitist," I'll cop to it. And I'll be happy to check yours too. No charge, I'm on salary. You see, my job is to be that still small voice that calls out in the wilderness saying, "No! No! Don't touch that red..."

I refer to it as a "smoke test," the engineering term for the final test for any real world manifestation of theory; the theory is proven by the fact that it works. If you plug it in and it blows up, there is something wrong with the theory, the application or the idiot who soldered it up.

CRT-Screen-shirt Template shirt

CRT-Screen-shirt Template by webcarve
(This is what I do to put off proofreading)

Now, we have had eight years for George Bush's views to pass the smoke test. All we have to show for it is smoke, and it's painfully obvious that his supporters believe that blowing even more toxic smoke and spreading bits of breadboard around the lab is the entire point to the exercise.

I think it's time to go back to at LEAST Moderately Conservative Values and the Status Quo, circa Eisenhauer, and that means Obama.

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