Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Scientific Thinking in Moral Politics


By George Templeton
Gazette Columnist
Journalists should emulate “the patient and fearless men of science who have labored to see what the world really is”.  Newspapers are “… the Bible of democracy”.   Walter Lippmann (1889-1974), the father of modern journalism.
“To read without reflecting is like eating without digesting.”   Edmund Burke (1729-1797), the father of Conservatism
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  James Madison (1751-1836), a Founding Father of our country.
We like to think that changes are gradual, around the periphery, at the exposed surface, like the erosion that comes from wind, flood, freezing, and fire.  But sometimes change begins at the foundation, like an earthquake caused by continental drift.  Such an unexpected thing shakes our ground of being, altering even the small, superficial, visible surface because of a root cause, deep below.
To be for or against something is simpler than the facts.  We cannot understand everything.  Information just confuses us.  Free thought is the State’s enemy, but our democracy relies on it to resolve the conflict of ideas inherit in its division of power.  But people don’t vote with their brains.
Walter Lippmann wanted to replace voters with groups of experts who would have public interest in mind.  Where are the statesmen who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the public good?  We pay money for lawyers and politicians.  We need more scientists in government.  We want the scientific equivalent of political think tanks and an educational system that prepares students for jobs.
An Anti-Science Administration
Silencing Science, in the May 2019 Scientific American documents how the Trump administration suppresses knowledge.  It comes from government censorship, misrepresentation, suppressing and distorting information, budget cuts, removing scientists from agency positions, limiting science teaching in education, and pressuring researchers to alter findings.
True information lives on.  It changes not only what we know, but what will be.  The language of science is math.  The geometry of scientific thinking is applicable to the shape of social discourse.
Our heads are “on straight”, because we live in a linear universe.  Our check book is linear and it is a differential equation.  We put money in and take it out.  We could draw a line, using the monthly balance, to see how things are going.  It points at why.
A Misunderstanding
Recently two new airplanes nosedived into the ground killing everyone aboard.  The CEO of the airline industry quoted its excellent track record.  To fly or not to fly, that is the question.  The answer requires a leap of faith because the evidence is not decisive.
Siméon Poisson (1781-1840) devised the mathematic statistics that predicts quality.  Is a new airplane defective?  Quality is a continuing effort because things inside the factory (and our government) change.  They are never perfect.
Ernst Weibull (1887-1979) created the same for reliability (things wear out).  Quality and reliability are different.  It’s important because it illustrates how life and death can be the consequences of scientific ignorance.
When problems are complicated, authorities turn the difficulty into a convenient ancillary issue, deflecting answers away from the question.  Their pride will not accept guilt.  The root cause identifies a deeper and broader responsibility.  The layman knows about some preexisting imperfection, and so he concludes that this must have been the reason.  Even worse, sometimes an effect has no plausible relationship to its claimed cause. 
Muddled Thinking
At Trump’s recent rally, he claimed, “The baby is born, the mother meets with the doctor, they take care of the baby, they wrap the baby beautifully, and then the doctor and the mother determine whether or not they will execute the baby”.  Coming from our President, lies like this are believable.
Science disciplines thinking.  Functions of a variable are a concept that comes from math.  We are functions of our choices.   They are all about digesting information and relationships.
A talk-show caller explained that guns don’t kill.  It’s people.  Our culture disrespects life.  Democrats allow doctors to rip children from their mother’s womb right up until the moment of birth.   If you outlaw abortions will shootings decline?
This illustrates how human emotions combine with propaganda to create flawed thinking.  A related form of bad thinking picks only one out of many strongly interacting causes.  Bills with last minute earmarks are yet another example of jumbled intention.  But maybe the intent is just to anger Progressives because that earns votes.
The Trump administration abandoned their principles for power and popularity, not for the good of the people as claimed.  As Jeff Flake puts it in his book, Conscience of a Conservative, policies are negotiable but principles are not.  Leadership in the Trump administration means accepting no responsibility for its shortcomings and failures.  It means winning re-election to the detriment of the People.
It’s Called Political Science
Scientists put things into well-defined categories, but they are artifacts of their minds.  A mind has gut feel and is contextual.  Social conflict is blurred.
The Conservative religious family that raised me made a point of never saying anything bad about anybody.  That was gossip.  Most of the people, most of the time, are good.   But if there is a small amount of rat droppings in the coffee, when should we throw it (The Trump administration) out?
Can you obstruct justice by hindering an investigation?  It is uncertain.  You could find guilt where there is innocence or innocence when guilty.   Science relates these errors with a probability curve.  The extremes of the curve reduce the chance for one or the other type of error, but not both.  It is possible to select an unbiased test centering on the curve, but human nature rules against that and there is a loss of discrimination.
Mediating Conflict 
Many nations have tried democracy only to turn away from it and revert to despotism because of internal strife.  It could happen to us.
Deliberate conflict creation, simultaneously intolerant and permissive, is immoral.  It leads to revenge.  The tools of an artistic deal are charm, persuasion, trust, and respect.  Governance is about bringing people together.  Tearing everything apart leaves only destruction.
All measurements in science have a tolerance expressing their uncertainty.  It’s that way for moral decisions.  There are no universal absolutes.  The situation matters but morality is never unbounded.  Every decision has a confidence interval.  It provides the necessary flexibility for relative moral decisions that are bounded by an absolute principal.  Moral issues are personal, political-social, and scientific-factual.  Religion mediates between the first two.
Lawrence Kohlberg (American Psychologist, 1927-1987) published a hierarchy of moral development.  It goes as follows:
  1. Obedience and punishment
  2. Individualism
  3. Good or bad people.
  4. Law and Order
  5. Social Contract.
  6. Principled Conscience
Where do you fit on his scale?  Studies show that most people believe they are more moral than others.  It is a self-serving bias.
Consider the three pillars of the Trump administration:
  1. National security and sovereignty
  2. Economic nationalism
  3. Deconstruction of the administrative state
Joe Biden’s platform is:
  1. Rebuilding the middle class
  2. Reclaiming American leadership on the world stage
  3. Fostering an inclusive democracy
  4. A return to normal
Thinking Scientifically
Aaron T. Beck, in the 1960’s, thought that to understand ourselves we must inventory our behaviors and contemplate their reasons.    Alternatively we can start with our thoughts, our values, and then try to explain the behaviors caused by them.  Sometimes we make a mountain out of a molehill.  We worry about the “slippery slope”.  Sometimes we ignore fundamental truth.  We have selective indignation.  We remember only the good things or perhaps only the bad things that have happened to us in the past and we revise them to eliminate any inconsistency with our present feelings.  We see “links” that don’t exist.  We personalize things.  We engage in all or none thinking.
Things are not always completely good or bad.  There are some things that are necessary, but few that are sufficient.  But the behavior of our President and his administration are something else.  The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout, describes the cause of the unprincipled chaos we see.
A children’s show empathized sharing and the social benefits that come from it.  It morphs into the idea that business transactions require mutual winners and that transactions are intrinsically ethical for that reason.  But the playing ground is not always flat.  There is the requirement that I will not scratch your back unless you scratch mine.  That becomes the childish idea that if you don’t scratch my back, I will get even with you.
The American way has become the American lie.  Liars are emboldened because they get away with it.  As the pool of available lies grows, it becomes more likely that we will select and believe things that are not true.  How do lawyers understand this?  Sworn court testimony is the only way to discover lies.  Omission and exaggeration are O.K., but liars deliberately mislead.  The public will decide who is lying, but they are not experts and they don’t have the facts.  It’s only actions that matter.  If it isn’t against the law, it’s moral. 
Norms, not laws are the glue of society.  Broadly speaking, they are society’s expectations for our conduct in social situations.  Without norms, our world becomes more unstable and dangerous.
Mueller’s Report
Aren’t you suspicious when an administration that is hostile to our old alliances suddenly wants to be friends with our long standing enemies?  Should we admire strong-man dictators?  There was no big collusion conspiracy, but there could be conflict of interest.
Mueller documented his successful witch hunt, but now the investigators investigate the investigation.  
Who is on first base, the Trump administration or Congress?  Does the President have unfettered power to direct investigations to persecute his enemies and “lock them up”?  Perhaps a President cannot obstruct justice, no matter what his actions and intentions are.  The Constitution does not make it clear.
A “different kind of president”, who is neither guilty nor innocent, attacks our norms.  His behavior is not surprising.  He has made extremism acceptable.  The pendulum swings left and right in destructive instability.  Is its motivating energy self-defense, self-interest, or governance?
What makes things the same kind?  To see more clearly, we must pigeonhole even though behavior’s variety calls the simple notion of good or bad into question.
Classifications are not as stable as we wish they were.  The cable news poll measured Republicans, Conservatives, and Democrats.  We have drifted since the time of Edmund Burke.  He railed against abstract idealism.  He was all about tradition, convention, prudential management, and practical statesmanship.  Today conservatives behave like they are at a drunken super bowl party.
The philosopher Wittgenstein made a 19th century illusion, the duck-rabbit, popular.   It is on the web.  There are two different ways of thinking:  “seeing that” or “seeing as”. 
Suppose your boss pressures you to lie and you do.  You should repeat it each time the problem reoccurs.  A lie can be a stabilizing influence, a demonstration of loyalty.  You might get a raise or promotion, but this will not fix the problem.
You ask yourself the question, if my knowledge and experience does not matter, why am I here?  Is it just to be a team player?   You can win your leader’s favor or make him angry, but you will have to live with the lie, knowing that you were not true to yourself.  You realize that it won’t work out.  Ask yourself the question, when it fails will your leader accept responsibility, or will he blame it on you?
None of the above counts as obstruction, because Trump’s professionals did not take the bait.  The Mueller report documents numerous breaches of ethics.  Behavioral norms convict Trump, the man who loves to denigrate and humiliate others.  Is it any wonder that there is so much turn-over in his administration?
A Great America
I traveled the world in the eighties, nineties, and past the millennium, as a technologist on assignment.  We were the best.  I knew it and so did the world.  We were not selfish or afraid.  We could part with yesterday because we believed in tomorrow.  It meant working ourselves out of our job while simultaneously preparing for the next one.   That is the lesson I learned.

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