Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Al Gore: The Assault on Reason

It appears that Al Gore does not fully appreciate people’s ability to believe what they want to believe in the face of contradictory evidence.

In his new book, “The Assault on Reason,” Gore suggests that members of the Bush Administration was repeatedly presented with evidence that Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction and that there was no evidence that he was involved in the 9/11 attacks. On the basis of having been presented with evidence, Gore asserts that the Bush Administration was aware of these facts and that it intentionally deceived the public about what it knew.

More generally, Gore writes his book using the assumption that people have a fundamental ability to reason. However, in order to reason correctly, people need true premises – that is to say, they need accurate information. The ‘assault on reason’ that Gore write about is an assault on the institutions for providing the people with true premises (facts).

This assault on reason comes from corporate interests with the capacity to profit by misinforming the American people. Those same interests have control of the media through which they can promulgate their misinformation. Plus, they have purchased and put into place a administration that endorses the same policies of advancement through campaigns of misinformation and misdirection.

It is difficult to fix a problem if we do not accurately diagnose it to start with. I would like to suggest that the “assault on reason” is not limited to a failure to provide the people with facts. It also involves an inability to deal with those facts reasonably.

I would like to offer the Creation Museum that opened earlier this week in Kentucky as Exhibit A. This museum illustrates how easy it is for people to believe the most absurd things, and to continue to believe then in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The best explanation for the observation that the Creation Museum has been built is not one that involves a conspiracy by people who seek to profit through deceiving the public. The best explanation is that a lot of people lack the fundamental ability to reason – even with complete access to all of the relevant facts.

[Note: I really enjoy this whole scientific method thing. Observation. Theory. Prediction. Test the prediction. Prediction fails. Offer an new theory or make modifications to the existing theory. I think people ought to use it more often.]

For example, one of the events that Gore wrote about was a request the Bush Administration sent to the intelligence community to find evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the attack on 9/11. When the report came in that there was no evidence of such a link and reason to believe that Hussein represented just the type of secular Arab government that the theocratic Al Queida despised, the Administration sent the report back with the comment, “Wrong answer.”

Gore seeks to interpret this as indicating that there was a group of people in the Bush Administration that did not care about the fact of the matter as to whether Hussein’s involvement with 9/11 was true or false. They wanted to present it as being true even while they knew it to be false, and needed a report that fit their policy.

I would like to suggest a different model for interpreting these events. To see how this model works, imagine the organizers and financiers of the Creation Museum going to the National Academy of Sciences and saying, “We want a report showing that there were dinosaurs on the Arc.” The National Academy sends back a report that says that the dinosaurs died off 65,000,000 years ago and could not possibly be on the Arc, if there was an Arc, which itself is a dubious proposition. The Creation Museum then hands back the report saying, “Wrong answer.”

The comment in the case of the Creation Museum does not mean, “Okay, I know that the evidence doesn’t support my position. However, I want you to come back with a report that does support my position because I want to use it to mislead others.” In this case, “Wrong answer” means, “I have a different and far more reliable source of information. If your report contradicts my more reliable source then this proves that you have not done a good job preparing your report. Get it right.”

The question is: Which view best explains and predicts the Bush Administration’s behavior.

It may be difficult to believe that people can be so deaf to such strong evidence that contradicts their views. However, the presence of the Creation Museum itself stands as clear testimony to the possibility.

Gore also reported that members of the intelligence community felt intimidated not to turn in information that the Administration did not want to hear. People who did so felt that their career – their chance for advancement – was put at risk. Gore explains these observations by suggesting that an administration willing to mislead the public to promote a sinister agenda was willing to intimidate anybody who said anything that they did not want to reach the public.

My alternative explanation suggests a different attitude. “We know that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction and was tied to the 9/11 attacks. We know this from a higher and more reliable source (sometimes described as ‘Bush’s Gut’ though often given additional weight by calling it the voice of God or Jesus). If you are too incompetent to find the links that we know are there, then you have proved that you are not a very good agent. Clearly, we are not in the habit of promoting incompetent agents such as yourself.”

If it becomes too difficult to believe that a large number of agents are too incompetent to find the links, the next step is to accuse them of belong to some sort of conspiracy that is not actually concerned with defending America and Americans from attack. Since the Administration ‘knows’ about the weapons of mass destruction and the ties to Al Qaeda, one can only conclude that people who are hiding the information have hidden sympathies for the terrorists and, perhaps, want them to succeed. At best, those who fail to find the link are too lazy to concern themselves with the implications (in the form of a mushroom cloud) of their failure.

Again, we see this type of thinking from people like those who constructed the Creation Museum. Scientists who do not come back with evidence of dinosaurs on the Arc or poor scientists. Or, if it is too difficult to believe that so many scientists could be so poor at their job, then they are involved in a liberal alliance working against God by pushing an atheist agenda. As agents of the dark side, they are intentionally trying to bury or distort evidence that does not serve their political ends.

There is another pair of options to mention supporting the thesis that the problem rests in a failure to reason. The campaigns to bury the facts have buried them from everybody equally. However, we clearly see that the tendency to believe that which is unreasonable to believe affects the same people. Those who fail to reach the reasonable conclusions regarding evolution and the age of the earth are the same people who fail to reach reasonable conclusions regarding global warming, which are the same people who continue to believe that Hussein was responsible for 9/11 and had weapons of mass destruction.

The same inability to reason infects all three issues. Those who cannot deal rationally with the evidence on one issue, it seems, also cannot deal rationally with the evidence on the others.

I will offer a cautionary remark. At this point, I am at risk of cherry-picking my own data. I may well have selected these three examples because it supported my thesis, and simply tossed out (or failed to consider) examples that would have contradicted my thesis. So, there is a weakness on this point.

Still, the human capacity to draw absurd conclusions in the face of clear public evidence to the contrary is an observed fact. A solution that says that all we need is to present people with the facts, and they will certainly draw the most reasonable conclusion, is idealistic at best.


Anonymous said...

"Which view best explains and predicts the Bush Administration’s behavior... My alternative explanation..."

Wrong Answer.

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm. I'd love to say that you were wrong, given either explanation reflects badly on our species, but I've seen enough examples of self deception to think you may be right.

Sheldon said...

"My alternative explanation suggests a different attitude. “We know that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction and was tied to the 9/11 attacks. We know this from a higher and more reliable source (sometimes described as ‘Bush’s Gut’ though often given additional weight by calling it the voice of God or Jesus)."

I think you give the administration (not Bush the individual) to much credit. What I mean by that is your alternative theory proposes that they were indeed self-decieved. Perhaps Bush himself was.

But I think that the "brains" behind the administration policy is not really that naive. I think the real policy makers in the administration like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice, and others accepted the intelligence and knew the facts in question about 9-11 and WMDs. These were useful propaganda events to prepare the American public for a policy of war they would reject under other circumstances.

There are other events in U.S. history that support this interpretation. The Gulf of Tonkin, the sinking of the Maine, and the myth constructed to justify the dropping of two atomic bombs on populated centers in Japan.

Ruling elites have policy goals that go against the moral intuitions or even selfish interest of average folk if their consent is not manufactured. Gore probably knows this too, because he is of another faction (the more rational one) in that broader class of ruling elites.

marty said...

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.