Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Better President

Today the world became a better place. Many anxieties lurking in the back of my brain have vanished as power has now been transferred to somebody who I think has the capacity to look at issues intelligently and come up with evidence-based solutions. The merit that I see in an Obama administration is not that I will agree with all of his policies, but that I trust that decisions will be made by somebody with an open and inquisitive mind who bases his conclusions on the evidence.

As Bush leaves office, I see his one greatest moral failing, and the biggest contributor to the mess we find ourselves in today, was that Bush was sophist. By that I mean that Bush was somebody who decided what to believe first (as a matter of faith or convenience or personal desire), who then looked at the evidence afterward.

Not only was he a sophist himself, he was an advocate of sophistry. He held his sophistry up as a virtue, declaring that gut feelings were better than evidence-based reasoning when it came to making "the tough choices".

We saw this attitude at work in his claim that Saddam Hussein aided Al Quida in attacking the United States, and that it had weapons of mass destruction. He did not base these beliefs on the evidence. He grabbed onto them as useful fictions (refusing to admit even to himself that they were fictions). He then used them as the measure for all evidence that came his way.

If a piece of data suggested that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, he saw this as proof that he was right. If some contrary evidence showed up, he saw this as proof that he was right and that somebody out to sabotage his plans or too incompetent to see the truth was feeding him false information.

In fact, the Bush Administration's attitude towards warrants and trials reflects the same moral failing of sophistry.

The reason to take a case before a judge and obtain a warrant is to make sure that the warrant is based on the available evidence, and not because of some preconceived (but unfounded) whim of the investigators. The reason for a trial is to determine if the evidence supports the belief that the accused is guilty and to avoid the prejudices of the prosecutor.

The idea that we do not need warrants or trials is the idea that the investigators and prosecutors need not base their conclusions on evidence. It is consistent with the idea that evidence-based thinking is to be shunned in favor of sophistry. Investigators and prosecutors are free to determine in advance who is guilty and who is innocent, and then look for the evidence that supports that belief.

A third area in which we saw Bush's sophistry was in the area of climate change (global warming). Instead of basing its policies on the best scientific evidence available, the Bush Administration thought that that they had the power to alter the laws of nature (by rewriting scientific reports) to conform to its policy.

Imagine the leader of a team in charge of inspecting airplanes taking the reports of the people who inspected the plane and rewriting them to give the results that he wanted. It is obviously better if the airplane was sound rather than unsound, so he altered the inspection reports to introduce uncertainties where none existed, and introduce unwarranted assumptions.

He does so in the sincere belief that altering the reports actually makes them more accurate – because he is evaluating the reports based on his (prior) belief that the plane is sound, rather than basing his judgment on the soundness of the plane from his reports.

Ultimately, we cannot ignore the fact that the Bush Administration was fully submerged in a culture that embraced sophistry. They belonged to a religious tradition that told people that virtue consisted in adopting a particular set of religious beliefs "on faith" and looking at that evidence through those beliefs. Observations that supported the Bible are to be considered as proof that everything in the Bible is correct and true. While anything that contradicts the Bible is to be considered weakly understood or dismissed as an aberration.

This is where Bush and millions like him learned to ignore the real world.

The real world insists on having things its way. The only hope we have in order to plan effectively is to recognize the fact that the real world is indifferent to our welfare and will follow its own rules independent of where we put our wants or our faith

If there is one benefit to come out of the last eight years, I hope that Bush provides a lesson throughout the rest of recorded history of the foolishness of having a President who thinks he can decide what reality is first (and reality will conform to his wishes and his faith), and look at the evidence second.

Today, the world took a turn for the better. It gave power to somebody who is curious enough to know that he must understand the world around him if he is going to make wise decisions. That is a major step in the right direction.


Luke said...

I'm surprised you think Obama is interested in evidenced-based solutions.

That would contradict all political history on the planet, and would surprise me greatly.

But of course I hope you are right.

Martin Freedman said...


By comparison to Bush, every other politician is for evidence-based solutions. So, in one sense, Alonzo has not said very much, it is back to business as usual - typical political shenanigans to result. Bush was extreme and atypical. Regardless this has to be an improvement over Bush.

Obama promises more than just being the anti-Bush choice but we shall have to wait and see.

Justus Hommes said...

I agree Bush was a sophist in many regards, including the unjust Iraq war and the shameful system for holding and torturing people his administration was convinced were terrorists without any proof.

I disagree on climate change. Consensus both in and out of the scientific community is shifting its analysis of the anthropogenic causes of global warming. The old models may severely underestimate the dominant role of Solar activity.

That said, we should still seek to protect the environment, and Bush certainly left a lot to be desired in that regard.

Obama should certainly be better on both these two counts, but I am more worried about him than Bush in respect to other issues.