IN THE NEWS
This article in the New York Times about Douglas Feith's tiny but highly influential counterweight to the intelligence agencies, the Counter Terrorism Evaluation Group, got me thinking. Excuse me while I clear my throat for a moment of self-revelation (ahem-ahem).
I'm a great believer in the scientific method. In fact, my fervor for it goes beyond the kind of standard justifications, like, "Science got us to the moon. It has cured uncountable numbers of diseases. It created the Internet, connecting us to people and knowledge in revolutionary ways. It's worth sticking to the principles of science, however uncomfortable the results. What's the alternative?" (Kind of Carl Sagan's position in The Demon-Haunted World.)
I agree with that position, but I'd go a bit further. Back in high school, the landmark PBS series The Ascent of Man made an enormous impression on me. In particular, the host, Jacob Bronowski, devoted an episode to the sin of certainty. At the end of the episode, squatting in the desolation of Auschwitz, he picked up a handful of dirt (how much of it intermingled with the ashes of the dead) and let it run through his fingers. This was the legacy of the Nazis, with their certainties about biology and other matters: dust.
[Why isn't The Ascent of Man available on DVD, by the way?]
Bronowski, himself a polymath, spent his career tracing the connections among disciplines most considered completely separate, like physics and poetry. Bronowski's point in this episode of The Ascent of Man was to trace a connection between science and morality. Science can't tell us what values we should hold, so questions like, "What is the highest good, beauty, truth, or justice?" can't really look to science for answers. However, science does teach us a necessary rigor about what we think we know and don't know, and it keeps us honest by the perpetual skepticism about our own assumptions. At any point, we could be proven wrong, so we should always be ready to admit that possibility. Applying this principle in daily life, or in politics, can be extremely hard, but it's a necessary principle. Without it, people dedicated to proving how right they are can easily wind up in some version of the Taliban, or contribute to disasters like the famine that Lysenkoism created in the USSR.
It's why, by the way, when I talk directly with someone about the Iraq War or counterterrorism, I usually make a point of asking, "What outcome would prove to you that your strategy is wrong? If you're a supporter of Bush, when would he no longer, in your mind, be worthy of re-election?"
Back, then, to Douglas Feith. There are lots of reasons why the Bush Administration didn't believe the intelligence agencies when they told him that there was no connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda, and they couldn't prove the Iraqis still had WMDs. Some believe it was simple impatience with bureaucracy. Others chalk it up to sheer stubbornness, or the influence of can-do American corporate culture. You might even throw in Bush's flinty religiosity as a contributing factor. Whatever the reason, it was clear that the Bush Administration didn't want to believe what it was hearing from the CIA, so it created its own intelligence agency, with its own sources.
Sometimes, the experts are wrong. Sometimes, you are. However, if you set out to find evidence to prove a point, you will. That's the easy part, since you can always bend and twist the facts to fit your position. (Hussein isn't giving a full accounting of the WMDs destroyed, so he must be hiding them somewhere. There's an unconfirmed report of a meeting in Prague between Iraqi and al-Qaeda representatives, so al-Qaeda must be an appendage of Hussein's shadow war on us.) What's hard is living with skepticism of yourself.
When scientists bend and twist the facts, the result can range from professional embarassment (the cold fusion fiasco) to wide-scale disaster (Lysenkoism). When politicians bend and twist the facts...
Bronowski today could be squatting in the ruins of a building in Fallujah, holding a handful of dust.