Friday, August 18, 2006

Fact-Based vs Fiction-Based Policy

I will offer a warning that, today, I am simply going to rant a bit. I hope you don't mind.

I wonder if President Bush is the least bit curious about the fact that so few things seem to work out as he had planned. They used to work out almost miraculously. It must seem to him that the way he became President was a miracle -- proof that God had personally selected him to be President. If God wanted him to be President, then it must be for a reason. It must be because he was going to do great things. So, he came up with these plans to do great things . . .

. . . and they don't work.

We were supposed to take out Saddam Hussein. The people of Iraq were supposed to welcome us as liberators. With the yoke of dictatorship removed, they would eagerly and enthusiastically adopt a classic Western democracy, and a wave of freedom would sweep through the Middle East.

Remember the “Mission Accomplished” display? People, I think, fail to fully appreciate one of the implications of this publicity stunt. At the time it happened, President Bush and the bulk of his administration actually believed that it was true. It turned out to be an embarrassment. It is an embarrassment because it demonstrates so clearly the chasm that exists between the Bush Administration perception of reality and the way the world is in fact.

Bush himself did not need to actually know anything about Middle East culture and society. This is the way all people are. Besides, God told him that this was a good idea. Bush often says that he listens to his gut, and his gut tells him what is right and wrong. Ultimately, he must think that God is in control of his gut and that, by listening to his gut, he is actually listening to God. God cannot be wrong.

God can, however, work in mysterious ways. Therefore, even though he expected us to be welcomed as liberators in Iraq, God obviously had other plans. God is beyond error. God must have told Bush to invade Iraq for some reason that Bush, being finite and incapable of understanding God's infinite wisdom, cannot yet understand.

It must be wonderful being perfect all the time -- in believing, "Because I have given myself to God and allow God to speak and act through me, I cannot possibly screw up, because the very idea that I screwed up means that God screwed up in acting through me, and that clearly cannot happen."

Bush screwed up.

He screwed up precisely because there is this vast chasm between what he thinks is real, and what is real in fact. Bush is not even curious about what is real in fact. Bush not only ignores, but is dismissive and condescending towards those who have a genuine interest in those who are interested in what is real in fact. He is so certain that he is right -- that his 'gut' tells him God's truth -- the thinks he has the authority to judge scientific findings according to whether or not they agree with his gut.

Those people who care about what is real in fact keep saying these strange (and obviously foolish) things like, "The earth is over 4.5 billion years old" and "We are the product of a long chain of atoms called 'DNA' that, over time, have grown more complex," and "CO2 is transparent to sunlight but opaque to infrared light so if we put gigatonnes of CO2 in the air the earth will get warmer."

Good plans require true beliefs. They require that one's beliefs be connected to the real world.

A man who is thirsty sees a glass with a clear, colorless liquid on the table. It contains poison. Not knowing this, the agent drinks from the container, and he dies. True belief would have saved his life. It is false belief that killed him.

President Bush comes up to a glass with a clear liquid on a table. Scientists tell him that this is probably poison. This is, for example, CO2 in the atmosphere, which has the potential to cause sea-level rise, which will either destroy trillions of dollars of coastal property over time or cost trillions of dollars to prevent the destruction of coastal party. But Bush listens to his gut. His gut tells him that he is thirsty. So, he drinks.

Only, Bush is forcing the whole world to drink this poison. Bush is standing there making laws that state, in effect, we must all drink from the liquid, because he is thirsty, his gut tells him that the liquid is safe, God speaks to him through his gut, and any scientist who contradicts God's message to him is either a fool or an agent of evil.

Bush's Middle-East policy is another poison. Bush has this overly-simplistic (idiotic, really) idea of how the world works. He gets this idea from his gut. His gut tells him foolish and simplistic things that his limited brain can understand. However, he thinks that his gut is the word of God and that it cannot be wrong. He has no interest in listening to others, because 'others' are mere mortals. God is infinite. We cannot expect mere mortals to understand the word of God, so it is no surprise that these mere mortals are telling him that his gut is mistaken. They are so arrogant -- these mere mortals -- thinking that they are smarter than his gut -- thinking that they are smarter than God.

President Bush has his faults, but the real fault does not rest with Bush.

I have a fear that the true power brokers are going to adopt a new strategy. They are going to make Bush a sacrificial lamb. They will say that he is the source of all of our problems. Bush alone betrayed the Conservative cause. Bush was not able to understand God's commands correctly. It is all Bush's fault. Once Bush is sacrificed on the altar of public opinion, the political and social culture that put him in office will be cleansed of this corruption, and free to try again.

They will find somebody else who believes that God speaks to him through his gut. They will find somebody else who will profess how he gets his answers through prayer, rather than through research and consultation with experts who, in turn, have examined real-world events, come up with real-world theories to explain and predict those and similar events.

We will be just as blind. We will enter into policies that are just as catastrophic. Unfortunately, the list of those who will suffer for this mistake is not limited to those who are responsible for it. These mistaken policies will have global consequences. Their effects will fall heaviest on the poor in other countries who have no ability to avoid the harms that will result from the policies America adopts.

The real culprits here are the People of the United States -- the voters. If they were sensible and rational people, they would know better than to trust the fate of the world to blind leaders who think that their gut is smarter than those who actually study and pay attention to the real world.

If not for those voters, Bush would have remained a failed manager in Texas wondering why he cannot convince anybody that his grand and delusional plans actually make sense. The answer being because others are smart enough to recognize that his grand and delusional plans have no connection to reality.

And we would not have to worry about selecting a new leader whose grand and delusional plans also have no connection to reality -- because he, too, has no respect for the findings of those who actually study the real world.

I have heard a slogan mentioned from time to time that I think sums up the current situation quite well, and identifies most accurately what we need to fix it. I am curious about the fact that it has not caught on.

This slogan calls for devotion to "fact-based government programs" (as opposed to faith-based programs). I suspect that its unpopularity may rest in the fear that it will turn off or alienate faith-based voters. Yet, its purpose is to ward off the ill effects of policies that gain the unwavering support of advocates of fiction-based programs.

The instant that somebody seeking public office demonstrates a fundamental unwillingness to look at the facts and expresses the belief that he can better trust 'his gut' instead, at that moment the individual should be considered incompetent to stand for public office -- incompetent at telling the difference between a glass of water and a glass of poison.

It should not be sufficient that the person claims to have an interest in looking at the facts. He should have a demonstrated ability to sort fact from fiction. He must have a demonstrated ability to sort sound arguments from fallacious reasoning, to value the former and to view the latter with contempt.

Ultimately, the consequence of passively accepting the dominance of those who advocate fiction-based programs, and refusing to confront and challenge them, is that we can expect the world to continue to be force-fed a lot of fiction-based poison.


vjack said...

Great post. Ranting about this issue is very understandable to me as I also do it quite often.

As tax payers, we deserve policy based on facts. When I visit my doctor, I expect treatment based on medical science rather than faith. I would be horrified to learn that I was paying for faith-based opinion instead of reality-based care.

When are poeple going to realize that belief is no substitute for reality?

Anonymous said...

I'm sure you've seen it. It's the video of Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. The first few minutes hit the nail on the head. It's a humourous illumination of a backward situation. Hope it makes you feel a little better.

Anonymous said...

Hm. Pardon the tangent.

If you filled a transparent container with CO2, and aimed a remote control through the container at, say, a TV, would the CO2 block the infrared signal from the remote?

If the signal would be blocked, this might be a simple, but easy to understand way to demonstrate the action of CO2 in the greenhouse effect.

Additionally, it could be demonstrated by pointing the remote at a digital video camera that is sensitive to infrared. With air in the container, the IR led would flash. With CO2 air in the container, the IR led would be obscured.

The problem would be if a small container could not contain enough CO2 to adequately block the IR.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Jon J

I do not know the answer. My guess is that it depends on the frequency of the remote control.

Infrared, like visible light, is a range of frequencies, some of which are blocked by CO2. I do not suspect that remote control users would use a frequency that is "opaque" in normal atmosphere -- that would defeat the purpose.

However, it would be possible to create something like what you suggest -- a transmitter that will operate a machine in normal air (with 350 ppmv CO2) but where the power going through a box will be seen to decrease as CO2 concentrations increase.

Add this to the fact that radiation leaving the earth has to travel through 100 km of air (thinner towards the top, of course, but a lot of air) to get out into space.
It is possible to create an infrared transmitter (like a control)