Posted tagged ‘empiricism’

Empiricism Update

October 7, 2008

From xkcd (the perfect solution when real life invades blogging time), this:

This Might Be a Good Day for Andrew Sullivan…

March 27, 2008

to stop sniffing glue — or whatever it is that impels him to write stuff like this:

I am still open to supporting McCain this fall, primarily because of character and decency. Hagee and Falwell should not be ignored; but nor should they be dispositive.

This is supposed to be a science blog. So the one point I’d like to draw out here is that Sullivan offers here a case study why training in scientific thinking matters far beyond science.

Here goes:

Sullivan has been one of the earliest and most persistent defenders of the right of gay men and women to marry. Not to form partnerships, nor gain legal protections through some contractual basis, nor even gain all the qualities of marriage but the name under the euphemism of “civil unions,” but marry.

Good for him. He’s absolutely right on this issue, in my humble opinion. (You can tell I really mean that because I committed the intertube faux pas of spelling the words all the way out.) But then what about this:

Sen. John McCain said Thursday that he supports an initiative that would change Arizona’s Constitution to ban gay marriages and deny government benefits to unmarried couples.

It gets more painful when you watch him trying to talk his way through his reasoning. Watch this:

The first thirty seconds there should put paid to any “Straight Talk” nonesense. The poor man cannot bear to confront this head on.

So: the score so far: McCain opposes what Sullivan and I agree is a basic civil right, and he does so with an incoherence that suggests an essential weakness of character.

That is: he does not on the evidence (his prior opposition to a Federal ban on gay marriage) actually hate the idea of same sex unions, but he is unwilling to follow the logic that leads him there to a position that would, most likely, kill his chances of being President. I can understand the pressure he feels must be intense — but this stand together with the at-least-partial flip-flop hardly commends McCain’s courage or the quality of his convictions.

Then there’s the issue of torture. This matters enormously to Sullivan, to his credit, and he has written passionately condemning it and all those associated with the Bush administration who have furthered the official endorsement of the practice as legitimate US policy.

John McCain, for his part, famously experienced torture as a prisoner of war. In his five and half years of captivity, he displayed reserves of courage and personal integrity that earns him an enormous reserve of respect, certainly from me.

But — as Sullivan knows — McCain has still served as the leading enabler of the policy of torture enacted under the Bush administration.

For example, having very publicly made a point of “challenging” Bush on torture with the 2005 “McCain Amendment,” the Senator then acquiesced silently to claim made in the following signing statement:

“The executive branch shall construe Title X in Division A of the Act, relating to detainees, in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief and consistent with the constitutional limitations on the judicial power, which will assist in achieving the shared objective of the Congress and the President, evidenced in Title X, of protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks.”

Which is another way of saying that this President reserves the right to torture.

McCain has since gone further with his vote to permit the CIA to waterboard and use other methods of torture first when he opposed the proposed ban in February, and then again when he supported Bush’s veto of the legislation on March 8.

McCain has stated clearly that he knows waterboarding to be torture. His former position of opposing torture by the US seems to have mutated to one of opposing it except when carried out in secret by trained pros. It is both a dumb and a morally bankrupt position, as Sullivan has himself argued in other contexts.

So has he no sense of decency, sir? What kind of character does it take to choose support for a President over conscience and bitter personal experience?

But of course, this post is not about the gap between the John McCain as the man wishes to be seen and the John McCain that is really there. It’s about Andrew Sullivan, standing in for a host of others who fail to examine that gap.

Sullivan abhors torture. McCain was tortured and has said he hates torture. Therefore, McCain stands on the side of decent men and women in actively opposing the use of torture…how could it be otherwise? Except it is.

And so, finally, to close the loop: this is why learning to think like a scientist matters beyond science.

Elsewhere I’ve trumpted the virtues of one half of the scientific approach to reality, its use of quantitative abstraction to isolate patterns and to draw inferences across disparate observations. Here’s the other half: science is empirical. It demands observation and experiment, and the gathering of reliable, testable data.

That’s what it takes to begin figuring out more or less anything, from the correct shape of the orbits of the planets (Kepler, working with Brahe’s incomparable data set), to artificial selection as an analogy to evolution by natural selection (Darwin, among the pigeon fanciers), to the causes of a mass extinction, 65 million years ago (Luis and Walter Alvarez measuring iridium abundances at the K/T boundary) and so on and on.

If you want to take Pete Townsend’s advice to heart, that is, you have to force yourself to look past what you imagine or hope might be out there, and address yourself directly to the real world of experience.

So, when you don’t want to get fooled again as Sullivan did (by his own admission) by George W. Bush, then you have to ask yourself some basic questions, including, “is my perception of John McCain (0r Barack Obama, or whoever) based on the knowable facts of his career?” Ask the same question a scientist asks when she wants to know if what she believes is so really is so.

Sullivan hasn’t, and maybe he can’t do that. He’s clearly got a lot invested in a fantasy of McCain’s tough, fair, manly good character. But it is a terrible error to let yourself believe the truth is what you so desperately wishes it were. Dreamers, fools and bankrupts rise and mostly fall on that kind of thinking. So can countries.

Bonus video:

Image: Francisco de Zurbarán, 1639. Source, Wikimedia Commons.