Fact value

I don’t know who comes up with titles for op-ed pieces. I hear sometimes it isn’t the author. I won’t therefore begrudge the author of “the case for facing facts” for having picked such a silly title. Imagine someone writing the case for ignoring facts. I can imagine that, actually. And that’s a sad thing.

Anyway, he makes what one might call the “there are bad arguments on both sides” or the “David Broder” argument:

>The problem is one that I have seen cripple our political life again and again and that seems to grow steadily worse. Liberals and conservatives are equally guilty. Neither side wants to face facts that don’t fit its case.

>Consider abortion. Too many pro-lifers and pro-choicers seem determined to ignore the other fellows’ points as they cling to their own rigid positions. And abortion is just one example.

The silly thing about this silly piece (which, by the way, cites no facts that need to be “faced”, but that’s another matter), is that the abortion case isn’t about facts at all–it’s about the value of facts. No one disagrees, for instance, that women can get pregnant, and for one reason or another, don’t want to carry the baby to term. The question is what to do about it. It’s an “ought” question, not an “is” one.

Have faith

Perhaps I should note that the letters to the editor regarding this op-ed by Paul Davies were universally negative. As many have pointed out here, the piece was far worse than my earlier post suggested. Indeed, we’re dealing with an almost D’Souzian (as in the Dartmouth-educated Dinesh) level of badness. One more comment on it, as people seem interested in it. Commenter Matt K writes:

>I believe that this debate continues to arise (and even influences scientists pretending to be bad philosophers) because no one really knows what “faith” is. There isn’t even a broad agreement about what faith is among theologians. Heck, science could be based on faith if all anyone means is something like “not fully supported presuppositions.” I doubt this is what most theologians have in mind when they speak of faith. I have argued elsewhere that the most common notions of faith conceive of it as being a type of justification for belief (or a sub-set of beliefs), and under this conception faith still fails to provide justification for religious belief (much less any other form of belief). I’m still not sure what faith is or what role it is really supposed to be playing in regards to our beliefs. So when I read an argument like Davies I am always left wondering what it is we are really talking about.

That really gets at a lot of the problem, I think. “Faith” plays a lot of different roles in discussions of this sort; despite this, few seem aware of the implications of their view. Davies, for instance, writes:

>Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.” The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science.

He’s really asking the wrong people. He probably ought to talk to philosophers of science. But the real crazy thing about this argument seems to be the notion that faith covers anything short of a complete explanation. While that’s certainly one way to understand the term “faith,” that’s not what most people mean by it. And that’s not really what Davies means by it anyway. For him, faith has a much more substantive character–he means specific claims that lack justification. That’s hardly the correlate of the scientific view. The correlate of the scientific view, on Davies’ argument, is “reasonless absurdity,” not Christian doctrine. The failure therefore of the scientific view to account for itself (something which no one could ever seriously claim), does not produce the specific, if unjustified doctrines of Christianity (whatever the hell that would mean in this case–Catholicism?)

Faith in science

A grad school professor of mine once said: beware of scientists in a metaphysical mood. And lo. Yesterday’s New York Times op-ed section contains this, from Paul Davies, physicist:

>Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

>This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.

>And just as Christians claim that the world depends utterly on God for its existence, while the converse is not the case, so physicists declare a similar asymmetry: the universe is governed by eternal laws (or meta-laws), but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe.

By religion, Davies means his version of the Christian religion, and others that will fit those particular metaphysical presuppositions (this won’t include Mormonism, by the way). And while Physicists don’t have all of the answers about the nature of the objects of their study (which discipline does?), that’s hardly grounds to claim that it’s a lot like religion. The evidence for the basic elements of religious faith (not to mention the truth of various intricate Christian doctrines, among others) is completely like evidence for the physical laws that characterize matter. Just because physics doesn’t tell the whole story (why should it and who claims it does?) does not mean the whole thing is accepted without evidence. Others, I’m certain, can say more.

But the Times ought to be beyond these tales of faith found among microscopes: it’s so washingtonposty.

A Rare Parrot-Teacher

While we’re not in the business of questioning motive, The Post’s Robert D. Novak’s work in the past few weeks has had a familiar ring to it. Whispers of background plots and internecine “dilemmas,” and, most of all, an eager use of the politics of fear. Karl would be proud. But finer folks than us have already made quick work of the Rove’s puppeteering of Novak. More interesting to us are passages like this:

>Democrats want to assume a strong anti-terrorist position while deploring U.S. military action against Iran as it develops nuclear weapons. While the prospect of such an attack before Bush leaves office is reviled on the left, no Democrat can be seen as soft on an Islamist Iranian regime whose president denies the Holocaust and calls for the destruction of Israel. The trick is to condemn both Dick Cheney and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Beyond the fact that, once again, this sounds very familiar, is this fact: repetition does not cash out to truth. Just because every parrot-teacher in the Rovian cabal prattles on about Iranian nuclear weapons does not mean such things actually exist, or that the technology to produce them exists in Iran, or that the technology to produce the technology to produce them exists in Iran. In fact, Rove’s Iraq War patsy, as well as the International Institute for Strategic Studies, argue that the claim of Iran possessing, or being able to possess, a nuclear weapon within the decade is patently false. This troubles his second claim. The trick is not to “condemn” anyone; the trick is disengage ourselves from a costly, dishonestly premised, and pointless war of conquest while not engaging ourselves in yet another costly, dishonestly premised, and pointless war of conquest. But far be it from Novak, in a fit of Rovian excess and bile, to let the facts intrude.


Paul Krugman has written much of late on Reagan and racism. David Brooks even responded, however cluelessly, to some of Krugman’s arguments. As someone at Salon pointed out, Brooks ended up giving evidence for Krugman’s position–that is, that the Republican party was cognizant of the significance of Reagan’s announcing his support for “states’ rights” at the Neshoba County Fair (site of a 1964 Klan murder). Reagan knew what he was doing, Brooks argued, he just bumbled into it. Besides, Reagan, Brooks and others argue, was not a bigot. And they go on to list all of the evidence of that. He had black friends, etc.

As Krugman correctly points out, however, that’s not the point:

>Reagan’s defenders protest furiously that he wasn’t personally bigoted. So what? We’re talking about his political strategy. His personal beliefs are irrelevant.

Indeed, one has heard stories about Reagan’s personal opposition to some forms of segregation, his friendship with African Americans, and so on. Those observations, one might argue, are red herrings. Would that it were true that these things were sufficient to make one not racist. If that were the case, no one would be racist, nor would but a few be criminals, and almost no one would do anything immoral–or, according to Plato at least, no one:

>Now we may ask (1) how a man who judges rightly can behave incontinently. That he should behave so when he has knowledge, some say is impossible; for it would be strange-so Socrates thought-if when knowledge was in a man something else could master it and drag it about like a slave. For Socrates was entirely opposed to the view in question, holding that there is no such thing as incontinence; no one, he said, when he judges acts against what he judges best-people act so only by reason of ignorance. Now this view plainly contradicts the observed facts, and we must inquire about what happens to such a man; if he acts by reason of ignorance, what is the manner of his ignorance? For that the man who behaves incontinently does not, before he gets into this state, think he ought to act so, is evident. But there are some who concede certain of Socrates’ contentions but not others; that nothing is stronger than knowledge they admit, but not that on one acts contrary to what has seemed to him the better course, and therefore they say that the incontinent man has not knowledge when he is mastered by his pleasures, but opinion. But if it is opinion and not knowledge, if it is not a strong conviction that resists but a weak one, as in men who hesitate, we sympathize with their failure to stand by such convictions against strong appetites; but we do not sympathize with wickedness, nor with any of the other blameworthy states. Is it then practical wisdom whose resistance is mastered? That is the strongest of all states. But this is absurd; the same man will be at once practically wise and incontinent, but no one would say that it is the part of a practically wise man to do willingly the basest acts. Besides, it has been shown before that the man of practical wisdom is one who will act (for he is a man concerned with the individual facts) and who has the other virtues.

Exactly as I predicted

If you relocate the horizon of success, you can win at anything. Michael Gerson teaches us how to do that with arguments:

>On cultural issues, conservatives have been ambushed by hope. And Wehner and Levin provide two main explanations.

>First, societies can, over time, recognize their own self-destructive tendencies and reassert old norms — not just arresting decline but even reversing it. Many Americans, for example, have seen the damaging effects of divorce on children — sometimes from the firsthand perspective of their own childhoods — and divorce rates, especially among upper-income couples, have fallen. Over the decades the social wreckage of drug use has become undeniable — and the social judgment on this practice has shifted from “stylish rebellion” to “suicidal idiocy.” In many cases, our culture has benefited from the natural healing mechanism of simple sanity.

>The second reason for this cultural renewal is bold, effective public policy — welfare reform with time limits and work requirements; zero-tolerance approaches to crime; education reform that tests and requires basic skills; and comprehensive anti-drug efforts, including enforcement, treatment and education. In all these cases, good government and rational incentives have made a tremendous difference.

Lower crime, less drug abuse, lower divorce rates, real book learning of course, are all of them uniquely conservative positions. Liberals, of course, advocated drug abuse as stylish rebellion, no investment in quality public education, unlimited welfare, and a tolerant attitude towards crime.

Don’t know much about history

Bloodthirsty historian Victor Davis Hanson might be familiar to some who read this blog. It turns out that in addition to being a rather sloppy thinker, he’s also a downright crappy historian. What makes a good historian? Mastery of facts.

For instance:

>Because this is my wrap-up essay, I must apologize for the disjointed nature of some of the material I am bringing up now. We have already noted how, when writing about his own period of specialization, the Classicist Victor Davis Hanson is both sloppy and inconsistent. (Mixing up, for example, the Eastern Roman Emperor Valens, who died at Adrianople in 378 AD, with Emperor Valerian, who was captured by the Sassanids in 260 AD. This is akin to confusing the current conflict we are in with the Spanish-American war because, you know, they’re pretty close in time.) But mistakes like these do not really annoy me as much as another problem, the lack of documentation in Carnage and Culture.

The whole thing, as well as previous installments, is well worth the read. Makes one wonder whether we ought to have a special category for Hoover Institution Scholars.


It depends on what the meaning of “waterboarding” is (courtesy of Digby):

>DAVID RIVKIN, MILITARY LAW EXPERT: Incidentally, it is not a debate about whether torture is permissible, at least in my mind, it’s what things amount to torture. And with all due respect to my friend Charlie, there are several forms of waterboarding. Waterboarding is a very capricious term, it connotes a bunch of things. There are clearly some forms of waterboarding [that are] torture and off the table. They may well be some waterboarding regimens that while tough and useful in extracting information are not torture. My problem with the critics is that they don’t want to have, contrary to what Senator Edwards said, we are ought to have a debate as a serious society about what stress techniques of interrogation and what to do with it. Let me point out one thing, we actually waterboard our own people. Are we torturing our own people?

That silly and convenient relativism is matched only by an even more ridiculous sophistry:

>FOREMAN: But we’re waterboarding our own people to give them an idea of what they would encounter if they were captured by somebody else.

>RIVKIN: Well, forgive me, as a matter of law and ethics, if the given practice like slavery and prostitution is officially odious, you cannot use it no matter what our goals is, you cannot even use it to volunteers. So, if all forms of waterboarding are torture then we are torturing our own people, and the very same instructor who spoke before Congress the other day about how it’s torture, is guilty of practicing torture for decades. We as a society have to come up with the same baseline using (inaudible) in all spheres of public life instead of somehow singularizing this one thing, which is interrogation of combatants and we need to look at it in a broader way.

Um. So, in order to teach preparedness for torture, the military has used its methods on its own people, but in using these methods, by definition, they are not torture, because you cannot torture someone who is a volunteer. But if it was torture, then the instructor is guilty of torture. So it follows that these people are either guilty of torture, or since no one wants to be guilty of torture, their students learned nothing about torture, since waterboarding isn’t torture.

On a similar theme, Glenn Greenwald discusses Jonah Goldberg’s agony over the definition of torture.

Golden Wingnut winner

This post from the Power Line (a major, mainstream conservative blog–not a fringe yahoo) was voted winner of the Golden Wingnut Award, a prize given to the most ludicrous post from the conservative side of the web. It might be fun, I thought, to see if anyone can identify why it is so bad.

Here it is:

>It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can’t get anyone to notice. He is like a great painter or musician who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile.

>Hyperbolic? Well, maybe. But consider Bush’s latest master stroke: the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate. The pact includes the U.S., Japan, Australia, China, India and South Korea; these six countries account for most of the world’s carbon emissions. The treaty is, in essence, a technology transfer agreement. The U.S., Japan and Australia will share advanced pollution control technology, and the pact’s members will contribute to a fund that will help implement the technologies. The details are still sketchy and more countries may be admitted to the group later on. The pact’s stated goal is to cut production of “greenhouse gases” in half by the end of the century.

>What distinguishes this plan from the Kyoto protocol is that it will actually lead to a major reduction in carbon emissions! This substitution of practical impact for well-crafted verbiage stunned and infuriated European observers.

>I doubt that the pact will make any difference to the earth’s climate, which will be determined, as always, by variations in the energy emitted by the sun. But when the real cause of a phenomenon is inaccessible, it makes people feel better to tinker with something that they can control. Unlike Kyoto, this agreement won’t devastate the U.S. economy, and, also unlike Kyoto, the agreement will reduce carbon emissions in the countries where they are now rising most rapidly, India and China. Brilliant.

>But I don’t suppose President Bush is holding his breath, waiting for the crowd to start applauding.

I have my theory. What’s yours?