Friday, September 05, 2003

Putting Lessons

Will Rogers famously admitted that all he knew was what he read in the papers; but in his era the print and broadcast press wasn’t controlled by seven or eight corporations; and the nation wasn’t perpetually marinated in a party line electronically amplified by computer effects. And that creates a problem even for those of us who are fortunate enough to have the time and resources to investigate just how much or how little gold backs up the immense credit operation of public propaganda. To an extent that is probably impossible to judge right now, even the most strident critics of the current system underestimate how far things have gone. Outrage by outrage we’re perfectly aware that media isn’t denouncing, Congress isn’t investigating, the government’s prosecutors aren’t prosecuting, and republican judges aren’t punishing the administration and its friends despite their obvious, massive corruption. It is nevertheless considered shrill to add up the bill and assert that the Crony-Industrial Complex is systematically looting the nation. Somewhat like a traditional cuckold, we know and we don’t know the true facts. For example I have yet to hear anybody on television wonder aloud why Mr. Bush, whose economic record is last only to Hoover’s, is still favored to win in 2004. The Press, at least, knows the fix is in, though it stands ready to jump ship quickly enough if the fix unravels.

Educated people may deride the crude techniques the administration uses to impress the natives, but then everybody’s a native. We’re all stuck with what we read in the papers. Anyhow, the right has learned how to buy elite as well as public opinion. Anybody who follows environmental, foreign affairs, and economic policy debates knows that hired guns, backed with serious money and unhindered by academic scruples, dominate debates that used to be the domain of objective scientists and scholars. Pay for conferences on C-SPAN and you set the agenda. Moderate, liberal, and even radical “personalities” will effectively endorse your program by willingly participating as hapless opponents in these professional wrestling matches. After all, a eunuch also has to eat.

Under the circumstances, we should recognize that the whole field of public discourse is strongly tilted to one side and allow for the break. Even if, like me, you are far more a Madisonian than a Marxist, you have to be willing to aim quite a way to the left if you want to hit the ball straight.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

They Moot Horses, Don’t They?

Handicappers evaluate the outcomes of horse races. In a similar sense and probably with results of comparable reliability, I’m a science handicapper. That is, although I’m not a scientist, I bet on various scientific disputes on the basis of the form of the competitors and whatever savvy I’ve picked up hanging around the track. Just as it doesn’t matter that the handicappers of thoroughbreds aren’t jockeys, trainers, or, for that matter, horses, I and my ilk are not necessarily disqualified because of our pig ignorance of div, curl, and grad and the Sonic Hedgehog gene. In any case, because the sciences really are empirical, which is to say they are games of chance, even the qualified participants need to understand them as sporting propositions as well as airless exercises of technical ingenuity. And just as in the handicapping of horse races, the great object is not to determine the most probable winner of the race—that’s often enough pretty obvious—but to identify those entries that are better than their reputations and will pay a good price if they win, place, or show. The ambitious scientist is on the lookout for surprising hypotheses that nevertheless have a worthwhile chance of panning out.

The pari-mutual system partly explains why famous scientists are often colorful characters even though scientists in general are not. The public only takes notice of the high rollers, but betting on the long shots is not normal behavior for cautious, methodical people whose most salient virtue is as an almost supernatural tolerance for boredom. Indeed, granted the intense competition that defines the scientific enterprise and the huge premium for coming in first, the winners in the contest are increasingly likely to be, if not simply unsound by the lights of traditional scientific ethics, truly dodgy types who are willing to cut corners, jump the gun, make exaggerated claims, cook results in order to “frame the guilty,” and, above all, play to the cameras, all of which will be taken for signs of genius in the winners. You don’t hear much about the much more numerous losers, but I’ve met hundreds of them, mostly teaching in state colleges. At least they don’t make glue out of ‘em.

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Meanwhile the Will of Zeus was Being Accomplished

No religion won the European Wars of Religion. Some countries remained loyal to the Pope while others had become Lutheran or Calvinist. But there was one universal winner, the State. The kings and the politicians figured out how to aggrandize themselves either by promoting reform or adhering to tradition—Henry VIII, famously, first became more powerful by supporting the Pope and then became yet more powerful by breaking with him. Heads I win. Tails you lose. The great and passionate theological debates, for all their bitterness and homicidal pedantry, proved comically irrelevant in the long run as History, the true god of men, made dupes of the believers.

I think something similar is going on right now in the United States, with the additional irony that the party most vocal in promoting local rights and denouncing big government is busy increasing the power of the federal government. The Neoconservative and Nixonian segments of the Republican party preach free market ideology or religious revival but only as long as they promote a unitary, authoritarian American empire. If Yahweh or Adam Smith proves an obstacle to the growth of power, they will be dispensed with in short order.