How do scientists think? Lots of ways, of course, as any human being does, drawing on intuition, visual reasoning, leaps of analogy, hard, slogging calculation, day dreaming…anything that works.
But what distinguishes scientific habits of mind from the everyday interpretation of experience is that there are certain rules scientists learn to follow to transform initial ideas into reliable conclusions. Among them is the notion of a metric, a standard of measurement that you can use to compare one state of a system with another. Absent some reliable set of measuring sticks it is impossible to draw more than impression, a feeling out of any observation. Instead of data, you have anecdotes, and the dangerous license to draw any lesson you want from that absence of solid information.
All of which leads to today’s back-and-forth on the campaign trail.
The furor has mostly raged around the question of what exactly McCain meant by that eye-popping remark. But I think that the more important claim McCain made has been missed, and it is, IMHO, the key both to his campaign and to one of the most significant problems with the idea of a McCain presidency.
Just before the “not too important” line, McCain repeated what’s becoming common “wisdom,” that the surge is working. In his words, he said “anyone who knows the facts on the ground says that” [the surge is working].
In order for McCain to have any hope of winning the presidency, that has to be true — there have to be “facts” throughout the hard ground of Iraq that tell us the surge has been and continues to be effective.
But the phrase “the surge is working” is meaningless without a metric. Working how? By what standard? What does it mean to “work” in the context not just of the facts on the ground, but intended goals of the policy, the baseline metrics established before the surge took place?
In fact, McCain is or ought to be aware that the surge has not worked by those original metrics.
There were two established at the beginning of the policy: to create a security environment in which normal life could resume; and with that cessation of violence, to create a window of opportunity during which the incumbent Maliki government could achieve the political reconciliation that would ensure that improvements in security would outlive the surge.
Of those two, the first, the military goal of quelling violence, was instrumental; the second, more fundamental one of establishing a stable polity, was the essential, ultimate purpose of the surge.
So far, only the military one has been partially achieved; the political one, the one that actually counts, remains a mess — perhaps growing yet worse as the Maliki government’s army has confronted the Sadrist’s political and armed power bases in what has at times verged on a full internecine civil war.
The only way to say that the surge is working as established fact is to ignore the more important of the two metrics and to give the best possible gloss on the ongoing violence in Iraq.
Now — none of this matters in the first order politics of McCain’s statement. He’s trying to say that a policy he has championed is the right one, and at the same time to make the barely coded claim that his opponent who has yet to visit a Baghdad marketplace in the usual kind of street clothes one wears to go shopping, doesn’t know what’s going on. All that is going to get lost anyway in the back and forth on the homecoming gaffe. (I know — Josh Marshall argues that this wasn’t a gaffe, and he’s right.)
But one of the features of an endless campaign is that over time you get a sense of how the candidates competing for the job actually think — how their minds work.
Here McCain is losing the long war. One of the most basic tasks of a leader is to set goals and then recognize whether or not the actions taken to achieve such ends have done so. You have to set your metrics and pay attention to the data as they are, not as you wish them to be.
If, however, you choose to shift the goalposts so that any outcome is a success — you may have a smile on your face, but you don’t become a president worth having.
PS: Shame on the Today interviewer who uncritically put to Senator McCain the unqualified claim that the surge is working.
Image: Ford Maddox Brown “The Proclamation Regarding Weights and Measures 1566 A. D.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.