Sunday, November 20, 2005

On Ideologues and Truth Seeking: Part Two

I hinted earlier in the week that I had something about this recent FDA decision in the pipeline. I did. Then, I started thinking more seriously about what GAO's report about the FDA and Plan B really meant: Ideologues at work.

It is tempting to not really say much more about this topic of how ideology is so dangerous to truth seeking, and particularly how it can undermine the very government institutions (the courts, the FDA, etc.) because David Rosenbaum from the NYT did a nice job in his piece in the Week in Review today. Consider this passage:

Donald F. Kettl, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, offered an explanation for the Bush approach: "The facts are rarely 100 percent clear. There is almost always uncertainty and a need for interpretation. As long as that's the case, ideology is awfully handy because it provides a way to interpret the fuzzy area between what we know and what we don't know."

With the politicization overload of last week, there was one reminder that at least a few islands of impartiality lie in the sea of partisan polarization.

There a great deal of questions for which the answers are not wholly clear. My contention has always been that the best we can do with the unknown is to try and create a process for making good decisions, with accountability built in, that also allows for a range of views and novel approaches. Now, before you launch into a criticism that either what I said is vague or that it is mere relativism, give me a further read.

During his mock-Rhodes interview, GburgKid emphasized the importance of pluralism for a healthy democracy as well as building institutions that empower many voices and ensure fair and inclusive process for decision-making. That sounds great, doesn't it, but what does it mean?

As things stand now, we know that those well educated (which is often correlated with economic and social class), and who know how to debate well, are better poised to persuade and get elected. We also know that the more money you have, the more likely you are to be better represented in a trial. We could spend a lot of time enumerating conditions which diminish the likelihood of new voices, or silenced voices, from influencing how we ask questions, answer them, and which questions we ask in the first place.

I think that GburgKid was emphasizing that we need to empower the voices that are often not heard. The only problem with this view is that we can find ourselves in a dilemma, wherein we will have to empower voices that intend to quash, silent, and dismiss all the others. This is the classic problem of: should we be tolerant to those who are intolerant.

The other problem with the model of pluralism is it can collapse into relativism, wherein we want to be so inclusive of other viewpoints that we no longer have standards.

We risk relativism--"the might makes right"--when we are looking at fuzzy, complicated and grey area questions. A strong, consistent, ideology that seems to fit with the "common sense" views of most Americans becomes a really handy way of solving tough questions afterall. Few people relish thinking through ambigious situations and coming up with solutions or punishments. We all like the easier path: follow recipes or directions.

But, I would hope that many questions, especially policy questions, are less like following recipes and more like creating something new. We need new energy, we need to listen to folks that are often cut out of the process. But, we need to be able to have a fair process by which to do so.

This is leads me back to Rosenbaum's image of "a few islands of impartiality in the sea of partisan politics." How can we set up process by which we minimize the danger of ideology and we maximize transparency, accountablity, and internal criticism?

This is what you hope that the Courts do as well as the FDA. We want to believe that money and power cannot corrupt these processes. And, I tend to believe, more and more, that democratic institutions can take a page from the scientific method (now, I am astutely avoiding saying that scientists are free from bias, partiality, or corruption). But, I do think that what the scientific method does build into the process is (a) evidence and (b) the principle of falsifiability. That is, scientists should actively seek to disprove their hypotheses and, if they do, then the community is bound to move forward.

We aren't seeing a lot of this kind of critical thinking lately.

The real interesting question to work out is what counts as evidence. What counts as evidence in one context (e.g. how to determine causality in the framework of molecular biology vs. how to intentional wrongdoing in the moral/legal context) will not carry over into another context. But, at least we can have these sorts of conversations and we could probably come up with transparent processes that we must be beholden to if we want there to be fairness, truthseeking and accountability in government.

I am going to end my post here, since I have now opened up a whole other complicated question, one that I imagine many of my readers could say far more intelligent things about.