Following the Science in Leaps and Bounds

When people don’t fully understand a particular branch of science or scientific inquiry (which we imagine must be most non-scientists), “following the science” comes down to making an informed leap of faith. There is nothing wrong with that. Leaps of faith are necessary on a daily basis in every part of life. Without them, we would be unable to function as individuals or as a society. However, we want our leaps to be as short, unstressful, and error-free as possible. We might speak about life as a series of cautious assumptions and educated guesses because it is impossible to know very much with absolute certainty.

For example, I will take NASA at its word when it tells me something about Mars. And I will believe my lawyer when he tells me my best chance is to settle out of court. This is because I have more confidence in NASA when it comes to space and in my lawyer when it comes to lawsuits than I do in myself (or in other non-experts) regarding those areas. The leap of faith I have to make seems small and therefore less subject to error because I know NASA is an expert space organization and my lawyer has a professional license to practice law. I could persuasively cite NASA in a paper on space and my lawyer in a paper on litigation.

Conversely, I will not reference NASA on settling a lawsuit or my lawyer on exploring Mars. They might have opinions about those things, but because they have no authority to speak professionally about them, my leap of faith in the credibility of their claims would be too great, stressful, and subject to error. I might enjoy their opinions, but I wouldn’t cite them as documentation or support in a paper.

Opinions outside one’s field of expertise carry far less weight. When I taught college-level rhetoric, I’d talk to students about the true purposes of legitimate sourcing and documentation in their essays—not primarily to provide additional reading or resources, but to establish credibility and authority on the part of the writer and, by extension, within his or her claim structure.

You can claim anything in a paper, but you will only be persuasive if you can support those claims with authoritative references (where the leap of faith you’re asking the reader to make is small and easy). If I want to say something about Mars, I will show you how NASA agrees with me. If I want to make a point about an aspect of law, I will show you how my lawyer wrote an article on it in The American Lawyer. Their expertise, authority, and credibility will give my argument an aura of expertise, authority, and credibility. This is a powerful aspect of persuasive rhetoric. We encounter it all the time, formally and informally.

Unfortunately, when it comes to “following the science” about Covid, the authority of scientists and national health experts has been eroded by a range of political and social counter-arguments, usually employing what we call the fallacy of “Faulty Comparison.” Faulty Comparison is bad logic that draws an equals sign between things that should not be presented as equal.

Using the above example, if I wrote, “NASA says that Mars rocks are highly radioactive, but my lawyer says they aren’t. Now it is unclear who to believe,” it wouldn’t be hard to see the bad logic. I’m making a Faulty Comparison between what NASA thinks about space and what my lawyer thinks about space. Then on the basis of that faulty comparison, I’m claiming it is impossible to tell who is more credible. One opinion is clearly credible (that of NASA) and has persuasive weight. The other (that of my lawyer) does not. They should not be presented as persuasively equal. And there should be no confusion about where the shorter, less stressful, and less error-prone leap of faith can be made.

But if I use a politician or faith leader to attack the expertise of NASA, it’s a bit harder to spot the fallacy: “NASA says Mars rocks are highly radioactive, but the President and Reverend Osteen both disagree. What, then, can we safely believe?” That’s still bad rhetoric, but it widens the necessary leap of faith and generates stress in the audience, especially if the audience strongly supports the President and Reverend Osteen. The politician’s and minister’s expertise are being presented as carrying equal weight about Mars as that of NASA on the subject. It’s an example of Faulty Comparison, but it’s slightly hidden.

Trump and his staff made a lot of Faulty Comparisons during his Administration, claiming “fake news” and “alternate facts” as a way of neutralizing negative press and keeping their political base activated and incensed. They tried to make necessary and appropriate leaps of faith as difficult and stressful as possible by politicizing Covid data and playing on the already existing suspicions that academics and experts are inherent leftists or even crypto-Marxists (which isn’t always false but isn’t as uniformly true as many on the right seem to believe) acting in bad faith.

Asking Trump or Kellyanne Conway or Biden or Pelosi about the nature or behavior of Covid is like asking your lawyer about Mars. Their political and bureaucratic authority does not translate into scientific authority. Putting faith in their pronouncements about the virus is not the same as putting your faith in the Center for Disease Control on the subject. This also includes questions of mask protocol and vaccines.

Rhetorically, the leap of faith is much smaller when you do “follow the science,” even if it’s still an act of faith, an assumption that someone knows more or is better than you when it comes to a subject in which you are ignorant. By sourcing the most credible authorities, you are, in effect, asking NASA about Mars and your lawyer about law. You are making the most reasonable assumption, the most educated guess about a subject you do not understand.

Worshiping the Dead, Part 2

I look back at the stressed-out writing I did four years ago after Trump was elected and recall what my European friends were saying at the time.  They were a bit blasé about the new administration, a bit cynical about whether anything had changed or would change in U.S. geopolitics. 

They wanted to know why I was so upset.  They saw Trump as a slightly more pungent embodiment of the same old repellent post-WWII American hubris.  Yes, he lacked Obama’s varnish and capacity.  But, in that sense, they seemed to think Trump was a little better—take the makeup off the beast and you can see it more clearly.  Take off its camoflauge and you can more easily track its movements.  America, they felt, is evil, uneducated, childish, and wrong.  Let’s be honest.  Let’s reveal its true nature.  Why not accomplish this by letting Trump flail about and demonstrate American dysfunction on the international stage?

But the imperial, crass, clumsy, adventurist America that colored the perceptions of my friends abroad wasn’t what I was mourning.  Countries, like the people that create and sustain them, are not simple.  Reducing them to an exploitative foreign policy (which their people may not even fully understand or approve of) and the philistine values of their nastiest and most brutish citizens is disingenuous at best. 

The America in which I grew up was liberally and tolerantly Democrat and Republican.  People voted locally, believed in civil rights, valued humanistic education, and, incidentally, were not part of anything that could be considered “systemically racist.”  Higher education and health care were expensive but were seen as inherently good and worth working for.  My southern Californian neighborhood was diverse.  My childhood friends were Hmong, Vietnamese, Italian, African-American, Polish, Mexican-American, and every other ethnicity you can imagine. 

This is not to say that the country (including my small part of it) didn’t have serious problems or that there was no racism or crime.  It’s to say that America was seen as a decent place in which to live, in spite of those things.  And I grew up in a fairly poor neighborhood in a house with the roof always falling in.  I wasn’t dirt poor, but I wasn’t “rolling like a hog in the fat house,” either.  So, with deep reservations, I voted for Hilary in 2016.  I was well aware of the evils in my country.  But it was the good that I cared about and wanted to protect by voting Democrat.  I suspect most who voted Republican felt the same way.

The reason I was upset four years ago, and why I disagreed with the pessimistic view of my European friends, was that Trump brought a vision of “American carnage”—a distorted view of failure and fallout that didn’t square with what I knew from firsthand experience as a citizen.  He encouraged us to envision ourselves as a nigh-failed state.  And I knew that what you envision eventually becomes real.

But none of us could foresee the damage that this would do to the political continuum in the United States and, by extension, to American society.  The last four years have been tragic, convoluted, and intense to an almost unbelievable degree, such that the best analysts and political commentators now seem occupied with catching up or doomsaying instead of predicting what’s to come or offering solutions; though, one can admit that foreseeability is always an issue.

The complexity of this moment in American history is as broad and deep as it is disturbing.  And we might forgive the pundits for having a hard time with it.  It’s hard to think of any moment in American history simple and clear enough that we can say it’s open and shut, that we can easily understand it without much discussion.

For example, it’s not enough to argue that Truman dropped the bomb in 1945 to curtail protracted war in the Pacific and ultimately save lives.  It’s not enough to say that he was spineless and unduly influenced by hawkish generals and politicians looking for payback and glory.  It’s not enough to say that the American public had grown hardened by the war to the extent that the mass-murder of Japanese civilians seemed like an acceptable trade-off for victory.  If we’re in search of the broadest, clearest, most unvarnished view, we have to say all these things and more. 

Such considerations and a hundred others like them, existing side by side, are what make American history so confounding and fascinating (and are what make the New York Times’ dubious “1619 Project” more race-oriented speculative fiction than history, on par with creationist textbooks and What If the Nazis Won the War fan fic).  History is not simple because we are not simple.  The breadth of a cultural, historical moment is always hard to grasp, even in retrospect.  And, at the time, suffused as it is with emotion and rhetoric, it’s nearly impossible to fully and clearly understand what’s going on, even if we have a great deal of information. 

Nevertheless, we all agree that it’s the job of journalists, philosophers, artists, historians (even politicians) to set aside the fear and make sense of things.  When they succeed, we can arrive at maybe a partial understanding of what’s happening, maybe to the extent that we can act in accordance with best possible premises and mitigate the damage.  But after four years of American carnage, we seem to have unambiguously failed in that respect.  And we can’t pin it all on Trump.  We’re the ones who fed him tequila and acid and took him off the leash.  We’re the ones who burned our own neighborhoods.  Political writers, in particular, share the blame.

What we unfortunately have now is vicious black-and-white thinking across the political spectrum, the sort of irrationality that greenlights violence, tribalism, feuding, and revenge and thinks it’s all for the best, the sort of illiberal extremism that forgets how to come together and resolve differences.  And foreseeability remains a key problem—even the partial sort that sets aside the Huxlean herd poison in favor of the common good. 

The vision of American carnage is coming to pass when we could have imagined and brought forth something far better.  Such is the root of my discontent—what I felt in 2016 and what I feel now.  It’s why I regard political conventions as rituals of death worship, paying homage to dead systems and broken ideologies, rigidly entrenched in old enmities and feuds, and enslaved to a partisanship so obsolete and toxic that it has become clownish and absurd.

Cynicism and black-and-white thinking are too easy in times like this.  My deepest wish for the United States is that it will let go of those things and embrace classical liberalism—the radical notion that the left and the right can come together in the middle, take the best of what they are, and form a more perfect union.  We’ve done it before.  I don’t see why we can’t do it again. 

The Library Might Burn

There are libraries in this world so beautiful that the visitor can almost believe humanity has a chance.  One thinks of sweeping architecture, polished stone, cool quiet atriums, deep stacks, the smell of old paper.  One imagines a certain reverence for knowledge, for words and learning, in a place dedicated to the best of what we are. 

Even the dingiest, poorest library can convey that sacredness, which is nondenominational and therefore inherently optimistic.  In that sense, a library can be an island of decency, democracy, and culture in an unkind world.  Unfortunately, decency, democracy, and culture seem to be on the wane.  I believe I’ve already written enough about that.

The libraries, which is to say structures committed to the veneration of knowledge, can burn if that’s what the people want.  And I’m no longer interested in arguing that they must be preserved, that humanistic inquiry lies at the heart of the democratic ideal.  I’m no longer interested in trying to develop some taxonomy of toxic political subdivisions or in outlining the internecine schisms that have come into being across the current spectrum. Nor am I interested in the pushback, the spite, the purity spirals that must lead to deeper ignorance and iconoclasm.  Those things will be obvious to the reader already or they won’t.  And if they aren’t obvious, no one will enjoy reading about them for the first time here.

Instead, my goal is to mention a non-obvious, highly personal belief: the idea of knowledge as not just a product that can be bought, sold, or otherwise transferred in the marketplace, but as a metaphysical verity that seeks expression in the world generation after generation, cycle after cycle—the concept of knowledge as something that transcends its material media and therefore cannot be burned.

I’ll admit to being influenced by Neo-Platonism, but this idea is not, strictly speaking, Neo-Platonic.  As I mentioned above, I’m not interested in formal taxonomies and categorizations.  An uncharitable critic might say that I’m simply forming an ungrounded new-age assumption about what knowledge is and how it functions.  That might be true, but I’m not here to convince anyone that my beliefs are authoritative or even slightly true.  This is personal writing that I’m making public—a journal entry reframed as a blog post—because I think it’s interesting.

In my opinion, the non-materialistic concept is interesting because it does not view knowledge as residing in a book or a library or a university or a city or a culture.  Rather, it sees knowledge as an essence always seeking entry into the world, a creative, constructive potential in all human contexts.  So an ancient architect creates an aqueduct.  Three hundred years later, a playwright completes a satire.  On a different continent, writing in a different language, a historian completes an essay.  And so it goes.  The ways of knowing may all be unique and priceless, specific to their time and place.  But the impulse to know will be constant and knowledge of all kinds will emerge.  Therefore, one upholds the arts and humanities because it is very important to be able to curate and study each particular “emergence,” each way of knowing bound in human space and time. But one also keeps the faith: there will be new drawings and operas and comedies.

For example, there was only one van Gogh, even if painting as a way of knowing emerges again and again in culture after culture.  Consequently, we admire van Gogh’s work as an impressive part of human history and a unique window on the human condition.  At the same time, if all the van Gogh paintings in the world caught fire, we know that someone, somewhere is expressing himself or herself through paint.  It won’t be van Gogh, but it might be just as significant.  If we think this way, we might say that we have the optimism of a librarian.

In other words, you can’t kill knowledge.  You can’t kill art.  You can’t kill philosophy or history or literature.  And you can’t eradicate the deep-seated human impulses that lead to the production of these things—idealism, joy, the love of freedom, inquisitiveness, the constructive power of language, the alchemy of color and perspective.

All you can do is attempt to outlaw certain ways of knowing, repress their expressions, lock them away in favor of whatever less enlightened ideology happens to be in vogue for those with power.  You can burn the library, yes.  And you can execute the librarians.  And try to erase the histories.  And exile the philosophers.  And make the novelists eat their novels, chapter by chapter.  And in such a generation of fools, the arts and humanities may become meaningless—for a time. 

But it’s precisely when no one is looking, when the library has been reduced to ashes and the inquisitors have moved on, in the pre-dawn hours, while the town’s political officer still sleeps in his villa on the hill, that someone will light a candle, sit by the window, and, on a blank sheet of paper, write, It’s curious what I felt . . .