Monday, September 12, 2005

Breasts, Breasts, Breasts!

OK. There’s nothing in here about breasts, really. I was just teasing. But keep reading anyway. It’ll help you sleep if nothing else.

I suppose I don’t do very well with conflict. I can’t imagine wanting to be a politician, since the waters in which one must swim are continuously fraught with conflict and strain. What kind of person moves in that sphere? I’d hate to live with that all the time.

I’ve read a fair bit of science, which, I must hasten to add, is not the same thing as saying that I’m capital-E educated in any of the sciences. Indeed, I’m practically inumerate, being unable to even balance my checkbook without Quicken; and without math a fella’s gonna miss a lot, at least of certain sciences. Like physics & astronomy. I love to read about these subjects, but always there is a sense that I’m only getting the USA-Today version, the terrifically-dumbed-down-to-the-point-of-being-simply-wrong version, because I can’t decipher the simple truths which a few wonderfully-wrought equations would illuminate for me.

This all ties in somehow. Alluding to a previous post, I think often about truth as a concept, and about how we bandy this word about in an argument as a kind of trump card. We confuse desire with fact. We claim knowledge we haven’t, celebrate conclusions we have not reached. We all do it. Science and politics and religion are different-colored glasses for looking at our world. But they’re all three trying at times to occupy the same space. I think what is so frustrating about politics to me is that it is purely the realm of opinion. And a person’s opinions, far from being some kind of verified truth, are the products of feelings and impressions and desires. A person’s opinions are no better than their intellect--my blathering idiocy is made clear in these posts, which are, after all, just that: my opinions. But more importantly, an opinion is no better than a person’s information, and than the logic and order employed in the processes used to reach the opinions. To me, all political coverage, and especially the blogospheric coverage, is depressingly noisy and messy and imprecise. It’s hard for the dialog to rise above its weakest contributor (which is often depressingly weak).

Science, by contrast, deals with probability, with test and verification, with frank admission of what is known and unknown. The scientist observes reality as it is, manipulates variables and records results. Implications from these tests are theoretical until more data--supporting or refuting evidence--are amassed. Thus do theories gain or lose support, and hard knowledge of our universe moves forward with small, hard-won steps; certainty is reserved only for ideas graced with iron-clad verification. A black and white, I-know-and-you-don’t, view of the world has no place in science.

It is the supreme democratic right in science--an obligation, really--for scientists to attempt to topple current theories. If a theory can be shown to be wrong, we are at least not moving down the wrong path. And every attempt to topple a theory which fails to hit its mark gives that surviving theory a stronger claim to correctness.

What is particularly interesting, and different from the non-scientific world, is the tenet that theories stand or fall having nothing whatsoever to do with the eminence of the theorist: it’s all about the strength of the supporting evidence. The facts are king. There is no argument from authority. History is reverent about Isaac Newton, in part for the comprehensive mind he brought to the tasks of figuring out fundamental things about our physical world. But along comes Einstein, and Newton--however much loved and respected--is toppled. That’s the way it is. We still teach Newtonian physics, because it’s a great method both for learning the scientific interface with the world and it gives a good fundamental understanding of the forces of nature. But thanks to Einstein we now know that Newton was not correct. The boundary moves out another step.

This method of learning factual things about our world is a fundamentally different sphere from the realms of politics and religion. These are apples to science’s oranges, though political and religious claims often purport to be factual.

I’m again led to ponder these things as I have been innundated this past week with frantic opinions about the hurricane and our government’s response. Our politics and opinions shape our perception of these events and our reactions to them. I’m trying to refrain from reaching conclusions prior to really knowing what the facts are; I’m trying not to let my preconceptions and desires--and I certainly have my share of these--corral me into making claims I cannot verify about things I don’t really understand.

But I think it is time for asking questions--there are so many questions--and for seeking the verified answers which will enable us to know what is true. That's the whole name of the game.


Thomas said...

You had me at "breasts."

wunelle said...

The candy coating lures you to the rich chocolate center!

Joshua said...

I like the post, and I was thinking about something very similar in the shower this morning (along with breasts, that is). I have to say, though, politics needs NOT be about ones opinions. It seems to me there are some capitol T truths out there politics can lend itself to. Ethics, for one, seems to fit right in with that. Though it is a sticky subect, at best, we can say that, for example, stealing and murder is wrong. Further, we can go down the line and assess smaller injustices to another person. In this way, we can do some good. Even though some of us might take this too far, the capacity is out there to do the right thing. Certainly people have opinions as to what that is, but I also think there is a set of facts out there that lend themselves to KNOWING what that is. Politics can, and often does, aim at finding that.

Katrina, I think, is a good example of that. Both good and bad. People know we needed to send aid. Shit, that's an easy one. They disagreed as to what that aid should be, and the timeline for it. There's both sides of the coin. The moral, ethical thing to do, and the uncertainty of doing it. Politics on both sides, that.

I guess I just think we sell ourselves short a lot of the time by demanding less of ourselves and the people we have chosen to lead us. Instead of saying they should not or could not, we might be better served finding out how they can.


wunelle said...

Well said. I think any controversial subject like this that brings politics into the fray brings out, in me, all these impediments to linear reasoning. And I know perfectly well the same thing is often at work when I hear an opinion that differs from mine.

I have found my fur rubbed the wrong way so often by W, and I think it takes an effort on my part to keep me from starting with my condemnation and working the information from there. (If that's not something that stands in the way of discerning truth, I don't know what would be!) Perhaps my post should just be about my own reasoning flaws, except that I saw this phenomenon all the time with Clinton, and I see the converse--people willing to forgive virtually anything the President does because they like him for whatever reason--that it seems a tendency that warrants mulling over.

Joshua said...

Right you are! It really does seem like people start from their love or hate and work backwards until they have enough "reason" to conclude what they will. One of my worthless degrees (I have two) is philosophy, and nowhere did I see it worse than there. I think everyone could use a lesson in Logic, without which we are sort of floundering.

The simple answer to these people, though, is to point out that, often times, the machine is responsible for the product, and the person less responsible for the outcome. In the case of politics, we can easily see there is more than one man, or group of men, involved in ANY decision. It is hard to pin the tail on the donkey (or the elephant) when we can't tell the ass from the trunk.

If they cannot grasp that, just ask them if it would be wrong for Mother Theresa to murder someone.

My boss just gave me a pin, and though it has little to do with this topic, it is close enough to what I feel that I thought I would share it. It just says "Sure, he's an idiot, but he's OUR idiot." with, of course, the picture of Bush in the middle.

That's pretty much how I feel about that.

wunelle said...

That's a cute pin!