Miss USA and Scientific Illiteracy

There are those who see the theory of evolution as a threat to the viability of their faith tradition.  Why they fear science is itself a question worthy of investigation.  Science can neither validate nor invalidate a faith tradition,  although it may provide compelling reasons to reconsider particular doctrines or interpretations of scripture. Whatever their reasons, these folks have waged a two front war on the theory of evolution.  On one front, they have called into question the evidence for the theory itself.  On the other front, they have advanced various Creationist alternatives, the most recent of which is the theory of “intelligent design.”

Although none of these competing theories have established themselves as scientifically viable, they have been culturally influential.  In particular they have exploited (and deepened) scientific illiteracy.  Put simply, the theory of evolution is not something that one “believes in” or does not “believe in,” as the contestants for the most recent Miss USA pagaent answered when they were asked whether the theory of evolution should be taught in schools.  (Only two answered that it should be.)  The theory of evolution, like all scietific theories, is something that one evaluates the evidence for.

The theory of evolution is an attempt to explain an empirical phenomenon.  It is the prevailing scientific explanation of that phenomenon because the preponderance of evidence supports it.  That is the standard for scientific validity.  The arguments for creationism trade on a willful disregard for the application of the scientific method.  To say there are multiple explanations for an empirical phenomenon is a commonplace.  What proponents of creationism and intelligent design have managed to do is to transform the notion of competing explanations into the notion of competing, equally valid explanations.  If there is more than one expalanation, then fairness would seem to dictate that they all be given equal weight.  What this ignores is the all-important fact that the evidence for these various explanations differs massively.  There is no evidence for Creationism and substantial evidence for the theory of evolution.

And yet we have the vast majority of Miss USA contestants taking the position that both intelligent design and the theory of evolution should be given equal weight in discussions of the origin and evolution of species.  Now, Miss USA contestants are not generally known for their scientific expertise, and one might be tempted not to worry too much about their scholarly dispositions.  The reality is that these contestants were offering an opinion that is commonly expressed in American society (and in Republican primary debates).  Does it matter that so many people don’t understand science?  Maybe not, although I think it probably does–particularly with regard to environmental policy.  But, even if it doesn’t have much impact on public policy, I can’t help but be offended by (and feel some responsibility for) the prevalence of scientific illiteracy.

This is not a Budget Battle

As the Ryan plan and the debate over cutting funding Planned Parenthood and the EPA make clear, the ongoing budget battles are really just the latest incarnation of the same old arguments over the role of the budget.  There is one difference, though, and it is a difference that works to the clear advantage of conservatives:  this time around, (almost) all parties to the debate  have accepted the premise that there is an imperative cut government spending (over 1/6 of the budget at least) and to cut it dramatically. 

Since conservatives tend to favor smaller government (philosophically, at least), they will have the upper hand in any debate that begins from the premise that a successul outcome requires large cuts in spending.  Moreover, the spending cuts passed for the 2011 budget are restricted to the 1/6 of the budget that includes most of the programs that liberals tend to support and conservatives tend to oppose.  They do not touch military spending, Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.

Barack Obama’s framing of the debate presupposes that it was about cutting the budget, rather than about the role of government.  Consequently, he has described the Democrats’ success in terms of the number of dollars that were cut from the budget.  As Ezra Klein argues, this sets up a discursive context, under which the ongoing budget debates will be constrained by the imperative to make further cuts.  This hurts Democrats in two ways.  First, they will probably have to make further cuts to their favored programs.  Second, they will likely be forced into austerity measures in the midst of an ongoing employment crisis. 

Democrats would be better off if they stop competing with Republicans over who can cut more discretionary spending.  They ought instead to recognize that this is a debate about the role and size of government and to make their case on the basis of the programs they have managed to defend and the role of government spending in spurring employment.  They may have to agree to cuts, but that doesn’t mean that they have to agree to allow the debate to be determined by who proposes to cut the most.

Is Honest Public Discourse a Fantasy? Ctd

Yes, I would say it is.  But I would add a couple of caveats:

First, this applies only to politicians, not to those who comment on politics or judge politicians.

Second, although there will always be incentives for politicians to be dishonest, these incentives can be minimized if constituents are themselves committed to knowing the truth and acting on the basis of solid facts and sensible arguments.

Is Honest Public Discourse a Fantasy?

Politicians care about be re-elected, passing legislation, and accumulating power.   The may or may not also care about honesty in their discourse.  Say they do.  Is it reasonable to expect them to be honest when honesty is not the best route to re-election, the passage of legislation, and/or the accumulation of power?  Probably not.  The base we can do is understand this brute fact of politics and try to call them out when they lie.

Part of the reason lies and manipulation work so well is because constituents often prefer them to the truth.  The more we insist on getting the facts right and keeping the arguments straight, the more politicians will discover that their interest lies in keeping public discourse honest.

What is honesty?

We intuitively sense that honesty is a disposition toward the truth.  In particular, it is a disposition to tell the truth or at least a disposition against lying.  But, when we begin to think about honesty in more detail, several questions arise, and these questions sometimes make it difficult to determine when and if people are lying or telling the truth:

  • Must we always tell the truth?
  • Is it permissible to withhold truths?  If so, under what circumstances?
  • Is it ever permissible to obscure the truth or outright lie about it?  If so, under what circumstances?
  • Is it sufficient to believe that what we say is true, or must what we say actually be true?
  • How much are we obligated to verify that what we believe to be true is actually true?
  • Is it a requirement of honesty that we share all the relevant information we know to be true, or is it permissible to withhold some of this information?

As these questions demonstrate, what it means to be honest is not as simple as it might initially seem.  This is why it is so difficult to call someone a “liar” or something they’ve said a “lie.”  By withholding certain information or presenting it in a tendentious way, speakers can claim to have told the truth.  While they may not be able to claim that they have been honest, they can at least escape the charge of having lied.  They do this by what we call “innuendo,” “hype,” “propaganda,” “deception,” “insincerity,” “salesmanship,” “casuistry,” “rhetoric,” “bullshit,” “jive,” or “crap.”

Then there are all the errors in reasoning that philosophers refer to as “fallacies.”  These are mistakes rather than lies or dishonesty, but they are often used by people who know better so as to make people believe things that are not true.

Needless to say, politicians make use of all of these tools to convince us of what they want us to believe.  This is probably an inevitable part of politics, and we may not even want our politicians to tell the whole truth all of the time.

Mubarak: "I am the Only Remedy for the Problem I Created"

Hosni Mubarak’s argument for remaining in power is that he is Egypt’s best and only chance at stability, because he is the only one with the capacity to control the forces of Islamic extremism.

This is reminiscent of Machiavelli’s advice to princes:   find a problem for which you alone are the solution.  This will keep your people beholden to you and fearful of any alternative to you.  If this means manufacturing a crisis or threat, so be it.

The success of Mubarak’s claim validates what Machiavelli believed about his advice–that it would apply to princes in any historical context.  For thirty years, Mubarak’s argument has worked, at least in the United States, and it continues to have a hold over the US foreign policy establishment, even as millions of ordinary Egyptians are inspiring the world with their defense of political liberty.

The problem with the argument is that it was Mubarak himself who systematically purged all opposition parties, except for the Muslim Brotherhood.  And it has been Mubarak himself who has alternately empowered and subverted the Muslim Brotherhood as it has suited him.

Mubarak has consciously created the very problem, for which he now claims he is the solution, and somehow, some in the US seem to be still buying it.

Jared Loughner's Sanity

In the course of the debate over the role political rhetoric played in Jared Loughner’s rampage, a lot of people insisted that Loughner is crazy, that he alone bears responsibility for his actions, and that anti-government political rhetoric had nothing to do with the incident.

As Loughner’s trial begins and, with it, his inevitable insanity defense, it will be interesting to see many of those same people walk back their earlier remarks.  This is an example of how exaggerating, mischaracterizing or otherwise getting the arguments wrong can come back around to haunt future endeavors, in which it may be really important to to get the facts and the arguments right.

"Government Takeover of Health Care"

The Health Care law involves the government in certain aspects of health care policy, such as setting up exchanges and enforcing the individual mandate requiring everyone to carry health insurance.  To call this a “takeover” of health care is disingenuous at best, particularly since the public option was removed from the final bill.  It’s probably safe to go ahead and call this claim a lie, as the people advancing it generally know it to be false.  We can, in other words, fairly confidently establish intentionality in this case.

The rhetorical advantages of calling the new law a “government takeover” are obvious.  It would be difficult to get people into the streets over “government regulation of insurance companies.”  This is the problem with President Obama’s call to honesty.  Honesty may be the best policy, but it’s not the best politics.

The Obama-is-a-Muslim Lie Lives On

One of the most egregious lies floating around American political discourse is the claim that Barack Obama is not the Christian that he frequently and repeatedly professes to be, but is rather a Muslim.  Last year, a Pew poll showed that more than 30% of registered Republicans believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim, and then, this week, the false claim was made by a large portion of a focus group conducted by Frank Luntz and broadcast on Fox News.

Initially, this mistake would seem to be easily remedied.  After all, it is a simple question of fact, requiring no explanation or context.  Barack Obama has never been a Muslim, nor has he ever claimed to be a Muslim.  On the contrary, he has frequently professed his Christian faith and described his personal path to that faith.  And, yet, the falsehood nevertheless persists.

It is possible that those making this false claim do so with the sincere conviction that it is true.   This, in fact, seems to be the case for those in the Luntz group.  Unless we can demonstrate that those making this claim are knowingly propagating a falsehood, we can’t say they are lying or being dishonest.  At most, we can say that they should know better and are guilty of not knowing better.

So, the important question then–if we are interested in a more honest public discourse–becomes why this falsehood has come to be so widely believed and so widely propagated.  In one sense, the answer is quite clear.  As has been documented by Media Matters and many others, various Tea Partiers, Republicans, and conservative talk show hosts have propagated this lie or, in many circumstances, issued various forms on evasions, shoulder shrugs, non-denial denials, and so on.  Most commonly, Republican leaders could be heard uttering various versions of Mitch McConnell’s pseudo-denial: “The President says he’s a Christian.  I take him at his word.”

But none of this constitutes a sufficient explanation as to why this particular lie has proven so powerful.  Lies are propagated every day, and most do not gain the traction that this one has.  Really, it is not even the lie itself that is worrisome.  (As Colin Powell said on Meet the Press, Barack Obama is not a Muslim, but if he were, so what?)  What’s troubling is the larger narrative within which this lie is propagated and gains traction.  That larger narrative is clearly intended to suggest that Barack Obama is in some way foreign, un-American, or “not one of us.”  As Steve King (R-IA) put it in response to a constituent who was making the claim that Obama is a Muslim:  “He does not have an American experience.”

Public discourse is often dishonest, because public figures benefit (or at least they think they do) by making it dishonest.  Steve King knows the game he’s playing, and the political expedience of playing it.  He may or may not worry about the long-term effects of cultivating ignorance and chauvinism in his constituents.  Again, our only option is to change the political calculus of public figures by making the truth more politically expedient.

Late addition:  Here is John Boehner trying to walk the fine line between being dishonest and capitalizing on the dishonesty of others.  He accepts that the President is a Christian; he “takes him at his word,” using the latest term of political obfuscation.  But, he adds, “It’s not my job to tell the American people what to think.”

Boehner is trying to avoid being called  a birther himself, while, at the same time, capitalizing on the political advantage made available by the birthers and avoiding the costs associated with calling them out on their lies.  And, so far, it seems to be working.

Variable Standards of Evidence

One way public discourse becomes dishonest is when speakers deploy or demand different standards of evidence for truth claims they agree with and those they reject.  There is a temptation to see almost anything as sufficient evidence for a position that we either already endorse or would like to endorse.  Conversely, we tend to have a much higher standard of evidence for positions that we oppose.

In reviewing the work of David Irving–who is most famous for his being a Holocaust denier–Deborah Lipstadt captures the point:

“[Irving] demands ‘absolute documentary proof’ when it comes to proving the Germans guilty, but he relies on highly circumstantial evidence to condemn the Allies.  This is an accurate description not only of Irving’s tactics, but of those of deniers in general.”