The strangeness of George W. Bush

While Iraq unravels before everyone’s eyes, the White House administration devolves into incoherence under the weight of indictments (both actualized and pending) of its senior members, and finger pointing and blame for the debacle starts being spread around, it is time to look more closely at the curious role of George W. Bush in all this.

As I have said before, I do not feel that it is a very useful exercise to try and find out what public figures are ‘really’ like in private. One should simply judge them by their public actions and consequences and their official role in it. And when it comes to Iraq, the picture is clear, even if the image of the person behind the decision is not. The policy was flawed, the attack on Iraq was based on lies and deception, and since he was the President and had to authorize all the decisions, he has to be held responsible for the results and be taken to task. For any substantive purpose, it does not matter what Bush is ‘really’ like.

Having said that, there is always some residual fascination with the ‘real’ character of people who are so public (witness the public’s endless fascination with celebrity news, gossip, and interviews), and George Bush is a particularly enigmatic and intriguing person, since he has been at the center of a turbulent and short period that has seen one debacle after another.

There are several conflicting public images of Bush. It is interesting that in some quarters he is perceived as a somewhat minor player in the whole matter. This plays into the image that he is a stupid man, a buffoon, the butt of jokes by television comedians, made fun of in the White House parody website, easily pushed around by those around him, who has to be told what to do, where to go, what to say. This is the The Pet Goat-reading, Michael Moore Fahrenheit 9/11 image of Bush. In this image, he is just a front man for other interests, a marionette, with the strings being pulled by Cheney, Rove, and Rumsfeld. This image is undoubtedly helped by Bush’s famous verbal slips and gaffes, his seeming inability to think on his feet, and his reluctance to engage in any forum that is not tightly scripted and surrounded by supporters. (See, for example, this Saturday Night Live sketch which pokes fun at the much-ridiculed scripted Q&A that Bush had with troops in Iraq last week. The sketch takes swipes at Brit Hume and Fox News as well.)

But contrasting this is the fact that, during the first presidential campaign and especially during his earlier campaign for governor of Texas, one would have seen an articulate and coherent Bush who rattled off long, complex, grammatically correct sentences and seemed to know what he was talking about.

The second image is the “official” one, that of the affable, simple, straight talker, a regular guy, someone who speaks his mind in plain words, and likes nothing better than to wear blue jeans, drive his pickup around his ranch, and find brush to clear. (Given the amount of brush clearing he has done during his long periods at his ranch, his must be either the most brush-infested ranch in the nation or one that actually cultivates brush as a crop.) But this image is undermined by the fact that he is the son of extreme privilege, born to a very wealthy and well-connected family who has gone to expensive and exclusive private boarding schools and then to Ivy League colleges. He has spent his whole life amongst wealthy people.

Then there is the third image that is whispered about by insiders, that of the autocratic, bullying, vindictive, ruthless, stubborn, petulant, and petty person, a typical spoiled child who wants people to be obsequious towards him, who holds grudges and lets loose profanity-filled tirades against those who cross him. This is the image of a man who, once he decides what he wants to do, does not want to even hear anything that challenges his beliefs, a person who always wants to get his way whatever the cost to others or the nation. This is the man whom the BBC reports as saying that god told him to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. This is the man who enjoys the trappings of power, taking every opportunity to dress up in uniform and surround himself with saluting troops. (See the report of Bush interview with an Irish reporter who was not willing to play the obsequious game that the Washington press corps does. She reports that at one point during the interview she was so irritated at his attitude that she felt like slapping him.)

Then there is the fourth image of a shrewd and cunning leader who knows how to use people to advance his agenda, and who understands politics better than most people and is able to appeal to the visceral response of people to emotional appeals to patriotism, god, and strength, even if the resulting policies make no sense. This is the man who repeatedly in his public utterances tries to link the events of September 11, 2001 and terrorism as the justification for the invasion of Iraq (although knowledgeable observers have long concluded that there are no such links and there never were) because he knows that if you repeat emotional appeals often enough, there are enough people in the media who are cowed by people in high office who will obligingly support you and repeat your claims, thus giving them some credibility. In this image, Bush is the master puppeteer, making other people do what he wants so that he can achieve his goals.

These kinds of multiple images of a US President are nothing new. Having more than one face serves some useful purposes and for this reason one should be wary of taking any one of them seriously. One of the prime goals of those surrounding the President is to maintain deniability for the President so that whatever goes wrong does not reflect badly on him. The out-of-the-loop figure of fun is sometimes useful when things go wrong, because it can be used to point to others as the culprits who did things without the President knowing. This was the strategy employed by former Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush during the Iran-Contra fiasco. Richard M. Nixon purposefully tried to convey an image of irrationality, of being a “madman” during the Vietnam war, hoping that it would cause the North Vietnamese to negotiate terms more palatable to the US because of fears that he would do something stupid and extreme, such as use a nuclear weapon.

But having so many contrasting images, as George W. Bush does, is unusual. So which image of Bush is ‘real’? As I said before, it really does not matter. But journalist Patrick Cockburn writing in the October 1-15, 2005 issue of the CounterPunch newsletter has a quote that I think is particularly revealing:

One Iraqi leader, who has met frequently with President George W. Bush, attributes many of the bizarre events of the last three years to him. “What a strange man,” he exclaimed. “Not stupid, but very, very strange.”

I could not put it better myself.

POST SCRIPT: Revisiting Katrina and race

Tim Wise provides a long but cogent analysis of the way race framed the Katrina news coverage.

The mess that is Iraq-4: Why things fell apart

One of the peculiar things about history is how the great powers of any given era do not think that the lessons of history apply to them, that somehow the present conditions are so qualitatively different that there is little to be learned from the past, because the old rules are not applicable anymore. And by ignoring the lessons of history, they suffer the consequences.

This particular administration seems to have not avoided this kind of hubris. In fact, it seems to have been even more arrogant than its predecessors, even to the extent that it thinks it could create its own reality.
Patrick Cockburn, longtime observer of Iraq and a correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent writing in the October 1-15, 2005 issue of the CounterPunch newsletter draws upon some of the lessons from history that might have been useful if they had been fully considered.

One of these lessons is that there have always been two countervailing tensions in Iraq. There are the traditional suspicions and tensions that divide the Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish communities. But these divisions have been countered by their greater joint dislike of foreign occupiers. This fact, that uniting to repel an occupying force tends to trump internal divisions, has been an almost constant factor in colonial history in many countries and yet it always seems to come as a surprise to the new occupying forces.

Cockburn points out that when the British captured Baghdad in 1917, they eventually faced an uprising from the Iraqis that left 2,269 dead and wounded occupying British and Indian troops and an estimated 8,450 Iraqi’s dead. Cockburn points out that “highly informed British officials in Baghdad at the time underestimated the fact that, however much Shia and Sunni disliked each other, they hated the British even more.”

But while the first major rebellion against the British in 1920 took nearly three years to come to fruition, it took only three months for a rebellion on a similar scale to occur following the 2003 invasion. Cockburn says that the vast majority of Iraqis did not support Saddam Hussein and did not fight for him, thus leading to the initial ‘cakewalk.’ But he adds “Strangely, the Americans and the British never seem to have understood the extent to which the occupation outraged Iraqi nationalism, though anger might take a different form in the Sunni and Shia communities.”

Support for Cockburn’s position comes from this secret survey recently commissioned by the British Ministry of Defence (and revealed by the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph) which found that the majority of Iraqis support attacks on UK troops. Keep in mind that British troops are supposed to have better relations with the local population than the Americans.

According to the Telegraph report:

The survey was conducted by an Iraqi university research team that, for security reasons, was not told the data it compiled would be used by coalition forces. It reveals:

  • Forty-five per cent of Iraqis believe attacks against British and American troops are justified – rising to 65 per cent in the British-controlled Maysan province;
  • 82 per cent are “strongly opposed” to the presence of coalition troops;
  • less than one per cent of the population believes coalition forces are responsible for any improvement in security; (my emphasis)
  • 67 per cent of Iraqis feel less secure because of the occupation;
  • 43 per cent of Iraqis believe conditions for peace and stability have worsened;
  • 72 per cent do not have confidence in the multi-national forces.
    The opinion poll, carried out in August, also debunks claims by both the US and British governments that the general well-being of the average Iraqi is improving in post-Saddam Iraq.

The opinion poll, carried out in August, also debunks claims by both the US and British governments that the general well-being of the average Iraqi is improving in post-Saddam Iraq.

As Cockburn points out, the extent of the dislike for the occupation forces can be seen by the reaction of bystanders to the killing of American and British personnel. In the well-publicized incident in 2004 when American contractors bodies were mutilated in Fallujah “they were mutilated not by the insurgents who killed them but by townspeople, day laborers waiting by the roadside for a job. The same savage joy was visible on the faces of the Shia crowd setting fire to the British armored vehicle in Basra on September 19 this year.”

Then just last month, on September 10 in an incident which received surprisingly little news coverage and was confirmed by the US military only on October 23 “Four US contractors for the US military were killed in Iraq last month, the military says, confirming an attack that a British newspaper said saw two of the men murdered in front of a jeering crowd.”

The report goes on:

At least two of the men were dragged alive from their vehicle, which had been badly shot up, and forced to kneel in the road before being killed, it said.

“Killing one of the men with a rifle round fired into the back of his head, they doused the other with petrol and set him alight,” the newspaper report said.

There is a very strange coda to this story that cries out for further explication. These contractors were not alone but were actually being escorted by a US military convoy but “US soldiers escorting the convoy were unable to respond quickly because the hatches on their Humvees were closed.”

History tells us that military occupations breed resistance. The longer the occupation, the more determined and widespread the resistance becomes.

You can learn from history or you can ignore it at your peril. People who think that they can control reality are likely to choose the latter option. And the current administration seems to belong in that camp.

POST SCRIPT: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

trail of dead1.jpg I am not sure how many of you have seen Luis Bunuel’s classic 1972 absurdist comedy with the above name. On the surface it deals with the repeated attempts by a group of sophisticates to get together for a meal and having it repeatedly disrupted by a series of increasingly improbable events, while beneath the surface it is a satire on social manners and hypocrisy.

The main narrative segments of the film are separated by scenes in which the characters are shown walking determinedly down a remote road on a hot sunny day. These walking scenes have no obvious connection with what went on previously or came later. It is not clear where the people are coming from or where they are going, but they walk with a sense of purpose. Each repetition of this sequence makes you laugh more at the sheer pointlessness of it all.

When I saw this photograph over the summer, it felt vaguely familiar but I could not pin it down. Now I realize that it reminded me, both literally and metaphorically, of that film from long ago. A group of determined people resolutely going nowhere…

The mess that is Iraq-3: The reasons for the invasion

The one question that everyone keeps puzzling over in analyzing the Iraq debacle is why? Why did the US attack Iraq? It has become increasingly clear that the Bush administration had long wanted to invade Iraq and was just waiting for an excuse to do so. The events of September 11, 2001 was seized by them as a means to persuade the public to support them in their mission, although we know now that the case making the links between Iraq and September 11 was fraudulent.

The reason most often proposed by the administration, that the invasion was an important part of the war on terror, can be dismissed since we know that despite strenuous efforts by the administration, the purported links have proven to be next to non-existent.We also now know that the other “official” argument, that Iraq had or was on the verge of acquiring WMDs, is also false. So other reasons must be at play and people have been resorting to all kinds of speculations.

The following is a list of the many other reasons that have been speculated about by various people: the control of Iraqi oil; the need to establish a strategic and long-term military base in the Middle East since Saudi Arabia was asking the US to leave its soil; Iraq as the first step in a successive series of invasions of other countries such as Iran and Syria so that eventually the US would control the entire region; to act in Israel’s interests and disarm an enemy of Israel; to bring democracy to Iraq; to project US power and show the world that the US had the power to invade any nation it wanted to, thus cowing any other nation’s ambitions to challenge the US in any way; to prevent Saddam Hussein from switching to the euro as a reserve currency for oil purchases, thus threatening US financial markets; an opportunity to test the new generation of weaponry in the US arsenal; to finish what was seen as unfinished business from the first Gulf war in 1991; to avenge the alleged attempt by Iraq on George H. W. Bush’s life; to enable George W. Bush to show his father that he was tougher than he was; because George W. Bush, despite his efforts to avoid actual military service himself, was enamored of the idea of being Commander in Chief and dearly wanted to be a ‘war president.’

We see that the possible reasons span the range of political, economic, strategic, personal, and psychological. We may not know the actual reasons for some time but my own suspicion is that there may not be a single or even two or three reasons for invading Iraq. It may be that there were many groups with differing agendas jockeying for influence in Washington and the one action they could agree on as to invade Iraq, even though they each had different reasons for doing so. This might explain the incoherence of the administration’s case for war. Policies based on bad reasoning often occur because while everyone can see the flaws in the rationale proposed by others, they do not criticize it too strongly since they want the action to be taken for other reasons. So none of the rationales are really subjected to tight scrutiny. While each argument for the action is weak, the fact that many people can agree on the action itself makes the action seem more reasonable that it really deserves to be.

Another thing that I think they agreed on and sincerely believed was that invading Iraq would be easy. Cheney said he expected it to be a cakewalk and I think that in that one statement at least he was actually telling the truth. After all, the US had easily overthrown the Taliban government in Afghanistan and it was well known to intelligence sources that after almost a decade of war with Iran, followed by a humiliating withdrawal from Kuwait during the first Gulf war, and then another decade of debilitating sanctions, the Iraq military was weak reed, easily crushed by the powerful US army.

So dangling before policy makers was a tempting option: Invade Iraq because that would please all the different pressure groups desiring this action and cause them to support the president, achieve a quick victory, reap all the diverse benefits outlined above, and then bask in the political adulation that victorious military operations always brings to a nation’s leaders. It must have seemed at the time like a no-lose proposition. As an additional bonus, the people of Iraq would be rid of an autocratic leader, thus enabling the US to polish its credentials as opponents of dictatorships.

Thus one can see why the fateful decision was made to attack Iraq even if one cannot isolate a single specific reason. And the actual invasion of March 2003 was a ‘cakewalk’ as predicted, enabling Bush to first pose in a flight suit and then stand proudly beneath the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner on an aircraft carrier on May 1, 2003.

And that’s when things started to fall apart, as we will see tomorrow.

The mess that is Iraq-2: How could it have happened?

There is no question in the minds of any but the most diehard supporters of George Bush that what has happened in Iraq can only be described as a debacle. The only serious debates that are occurring now center around two issues: (1) How could this mess have happened? and (2) What is to be done now.

As is usually the case when a policy starts to go seriously wrong, people involved in it start to divulge previously confidential information in a way that seeks to deflect blame from themselves and put it on others. Current and former administration officials are currently leaking information all over the place, a sure sign that insiders have acknowledged that the policy is a failure and that the only thing remaining is to determine who gets saddled with the blame. It is usually in the swirl of charges and countercharges that ensue from such attempts at blame avoidance that one can try to piece together the truth from the debris. While doing this truth reconstruction, one has to be aware that all the people speaking out now have an element of self-interest in revealing what they want you to know.
[Read more…]

The mess that is Iraq

One of these days, the number of US soldiers killed will reach a milestone of 2,000. The media will take solemn note of this event. Of course, the very fact that the focus is only on US troop deaths is a measure of how insular the media coverage is. The 2,000 mark of non-Iraqi coalition forces (mainly US and UK) deaths passed 2000 sometime ago with no fanfare and is now approaching 2,200. (See here for current totals.) And, of course, the total deaths of the fledgling Iraqi security forces, presumably allies of the coalition forces, are not usually reported (although you can see the current number which is about 3,500 here), nor are the huge number of civilians killed by the ongoing war. Estimates of the last category currently lie between 26,000 and 30,000. And when one adds the injured to all these totals, one gets a sense of the immense cost of this war.

At a meeting last month, part of the Cindy Sheehan Camp Casey cross-country bus tour, at which I spoke, I showed a graph similar to this of the rate of non-Iraqi coalition casualties of the war, on which were marked so-called landmark events, things that were signaled by the US government as significant turning points in the war. The latest political move in this sequence, not shown on the graph, was the referendum on the new constitution in Iraq, another touted ‘landmark on the road to democracy in Iraq’, which occurred just this month. (Graph is from The Intelligence Squad Reports, where you can see the original graph.)

What was significant was that the graph is a straight line, showing that none of these events had caused any significant shift in the intensity of the attacks on the US occupation.

This struck me as significant because as many of you may have noticed, the deaths of US troops in Iraq has ceased to be a national news story in the media. It is now mainly a local story and is reported in the local media when a hometown soldier or marine is killed. Since this is a rare event in any given community, this may have led many to think that the violence in Iraq is abating and that all the political maneuvers that are so exhaustively reported are having a calming effect.

The website that tracks coalition forces deaths shows that far from abating, the rate of deaths goes on, a steady drumbeat of violence. In fact, the present month seems to have the highest rate of coalition forces deaths since January of this year.

Patrick Cockburn, longtime observer of Iraq and a correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent has a long report in the October 1-15, 2005 issue of the CounterPunch newsletter that paints a dismal picture of the state of affairs in Iraq and suggests that despite the determined efforts by the US and UK governments to paint all these political developments as significant improvements, they may only be making things worse. He writes:

A deep crisis is turning into a potential catastrophe because President George W. Bush and Tony Blair pretend that the situation in Iraq is improving. To prove to their own publics that progress is being made they imposed on Iraq a series of artificial milestones, which have been achieved but have done nothing to end the ever-deepening violence. The latest milestone was the referendum on the new constitution – the rules of the game by which Iraq is to be governed – on which Iraq voted on October 15. The document was rushed through with the U.S. and British ambassadors sitting in on the negotiations. The influential Brussels-based think tank, the International Conflict Group, warns in a very sensible report that because the five million Sunni Arabs see the constitution as legitimizing the break up of the country the referendum will insure that “Iraq will slide towards full-scale civil war.”

Cockburn continues with a sobering and devastating assessment:

The need for the White House to produce a fantasy picture of Iraq is because it dare not admit that it has engineered one of the greatest disasters in American history. It is worse than Vietnam because the enemy is punier and the original ambitions greater. At the time of the invasion in 2003 the USA believed it could act alone and win.

It is a defeat more serious than Vietnam because it is self-inflicted like the British invasion of Egypt to overthrow Nasser in 1956…A better analogy is the Boer War, at the height of British imperial power, when the inability of its forces to defeat a few thousand Boer farmers damagingly exposed Britain’s real lack of military strength and diplomatic isolation. (my emphasis)

I will write more about Cockburn’s analysis of Iraq. It is not pleasant reading.

Debating tricks and defenses in the IDC debate

In the postings this week, I have been looking at the way that IDC people have been using language to blur crucial distinctions and to hide their true agenda.

In order to combat this, the scientific people have to be very careful and adopt two strategies. The first is to not let the IDC people control the vocabulary of the debate. The second is to constantly expose the long-term agenda of the IDC people.

In the first case, we should not let the IDC people pretend they are not talking about god when they refer to an ‘intelligent designer.’ If they claim that what they are proposing is science, we should demand that they, like any scientist who invents a new concept, produce an operational definition for their concept of ‘intelligent designer.’ Then we can compare their operational definition with that of an operational definition of god to see if we are talking about two different things or the same thing. For a definition of god we can tentatively propose (following the Oxford English Dictionary definition) “A superhuman person….who is worshipped as having power over nature and the fortunes of mankind.” But is this operational? An operational definition of god might be “an entity who cannot be detected by measuring instruments but is yet capable of influencing events in the natural world.” Of course, this definition does not rule out other entities like the devil and other spirits, so it needs to be fine-tuned. I am open to suggestions for improvement.

We should also not let them assert that they are not creationists simply because they do not use that particular word. Again, we need an operational definition of a generic creationist and see if the operational definition of intelligent design does not meet that generic category. I assert that it does because ‘creationism’ can be operationally defined as the belief that certain things come into being that are outside the workings of natural laws, and IDC definitely makes that assertion. I will use Robert Pennock’s label of Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) to make clear that theirs is just a variant of creationism that can be distinguished from young-Earth creationism (YEC), old-Earth creationism (OEC), and extra-terrestrial creationism (ET-IDC) but still falls under the creationist umbrella.

Third, we should reject their attempt to divide science into ‘empirical science’ and ‘origins science’ and to use that spurious division to imply that theories that fall into the latter category are evaluated by different means than those in the former category. This strategy enables them to avoid any empirical evidence for the theory of intelligent design. This division is spurious since all science is empirical and all require evidentiary warrants.

The real, and long-term, goals of the IDC people should also be relentlessly emphasized. The spokesmen for IDC downplay their goals and make minimalist claims when they are speaking to general audiences and trying to influence public policy. Then they claim that all they want is for IDC theory to be accepted as an alternative to evolutionary theory or for the ‘controversy’ about evolution to be taught.

But that is not what they want. As their Wedge Strategy document clearly states, they seek “nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies.” The “Governing Goals” of the movement are to “defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies” and to “replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.”

In short, they want to overthrow the very foundations of modern scientific practice and everything that goes along with them. Basically, they want to turn the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment. In fact, as Marshal Berman (of Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico) points out in the latest issue of the American Physical Society News (vol. 14, no.9, October 2005), the disdain that the IDC people have for the Enlightenment and nostalgia that they have for the Dark Ages (i.e., the name given to the period before the Enlightenment) is palpable and should cause concern for everyone. Here is a quote from Unapologetic Apologetics by William Dembski and J.W. Richards, 2001, p.20. (Dembski is, along with Phillip Johnson, an important theoretician of the IDC movement):

From the sixth century up to the Enlightenment it is safe to say that the West was thoroughly imbued with Christian ideals and that Western intellectual elites were overwhelmingly Christian. False ideas that undermined the very foundations of the Christian faith (e.g., denying the resurrection or the Trinity) were swiftly challenged and uprooted. Since the enlightenment, however, we have not so much the means to combat false ideas as the will and the clarity.

Ah, yes, the good old days when we were not afraid to use the inquisition and torture chambers and the burning of witches and other heretics to “swiftly challenge and uproot” the ideas of those who disagreed with Christian orthodoxy. Now, they lament, while we have much more advanced coercion techniques (Abu Ghraib reveals some), we have, alas, lost the “will” to use them because all this science stuff has caused us to become confused and lose our “clarity.” But with luck and help from their political allies, IDC will enable us to return to those glory days when we could depend on our religious leaders to tell us what was good and bad and right and wrong. And I think that we can guess what “challenge and uproot” might mean for those who advocate any thinking other than that approved by the new defenders of the faith.

This, shorn of all its pretences, is the main goal of IDC, to create nothing less than a theocracy based on a very narrow view of Christianity. And we need to make their ultimate goal the main focus of the debate and get beyond the word games that they have been trying to play.

UPDATE: AFTER IDC COMES ASTROLOGY?

It is rare that I have such good timing in my posts. I had written the above words about IDC advocates’ yearning for the ‘clarity’ of the Dark Ages early in the week. But this very week, in testimony at the Dover, PA trial on including IDC ideas in science classrooms, IDC advocate Michael Behe (author of Darwin’s Black Box) seemed to lend further credibility to my thesis. Under cross-examination by attorney for the parents Eric Rothschild, Behe “acknowledged that under his definition of a scientific theory, astrology would fit as neatly as intelligent design.”

Behe’s testimony also showed how IDC does not have the ability to make any predictions:

In an attempt to pin Professor Behe down, Mr. Rothschild asked, “What is the mechanism that intelligent design is proposing?”

Mr. Behe said: “It does not propose a mechanism in the sense of a step-by-step description of how these structures arose.” He added that “the word ‘mechanism’ can be used broadly” and said the mechanism was “intelligent activity.”

In other words, “Stuff happens, we haven’t a clue why or how or how to even investigate it, but figure it must be god.” And that is basically the IDC case.

POST SCRIPT

Here’s the story of evolution (going backwards) told in 50 seconds flat to the pounding beat of Sammy Davis Jr. singing The Rhythm of Life– and it’s in a beer commercial! (Thanks to Cathie)

Blurring distinctions as part of the ‘Wedge Strategy’

As I said in a previous posting, there is nothing mysterious about the practice of methodological naturalism. It is what we expect people to use in everyday life and anyone who did not do so and saw god’s hand behind commonplace daily events would be viewed as some kind of religious nut, even by otherwise religious people.

So given the fact that methodological naturalism is just a fancy name for something that people use in their everyday lives without even thinking about it, how do you set about discrediting it? How do you make it appear to be some weird and esoteric principle that is used by a scientific cabal to keep contrary ideas out?

Phillip Johnson, an emeritus professor of Law and one of the main strategists of IDC and the author of books such as Darwin on Trial and Reason in the Balance, tries to do so by failing to distinguish between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. The latter term asserts that the natural world and natural causes are all that exist and is thus pretty much equivalent with atheism. As I have argued before, there is nothing about science that forces anyone to adopt philosophical naturalism though some people choose to do so. It is only methodological naturalism that is a bedrock principle of science.

Phillip Johnson tries to create a new category called ‘scientific materialism’ that conflates methodological and philosophical naturalism, and tries to imply that this is something that is only used in science. He often truncates even ‘scientific materialism’ to simply ‘naturalism’, so that he can then blur even further the important distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism.

But by referring to both as naturalism, and then decreeing that this is tantamount to atheism, IDC advocates try to drive a wedge between science and religion by arguing that scientists’ insistence on methodological naturalism is not a barrier to just IDC ideas, it is also a bar to belief in god. By this verbal sleight of hand, they hope to categorize the opposition to IDC ideas as opposition to god, and thus gain the allegiance of religious people to their cause.

For example, in his Darwin on Trial he says:

Naturalism assumes the entire realm of nature to be a closed system of material causes and effects, which cannot be influenced by anything from “outside.” Naturalism does not explicitly deny the mere existence of God, but it does deny that a supernatural being could in any way influence natural events, such as evolution, or communicate with natural creatures like ourselves. (Robert T. Pennock, Tower of Babel, p. 191)

His first sentence describes ‘naturalism’ the way I would describe ‘philosophical naturalism.’ The second sentence is a mish mash of both kinds of naturalism, confusing the issue. Methodological naturalism simply says scientists always look for material causes for natural events, just like plumbers and mechanics and doctors do, not that this is all there is.

When I talk to groups of lay people (both religious and non-religious) and describe methodological naturalism, most of them think that it is a perfectly rational way to operate. It seems like common sense, which it is. They can easily understand why abandoning it would be a bad idea in any field, not just science. This is why the IDC people are so desperate to blur its meaning and confuse it with philosophical naturalism.

And this is why we have to pay close attention to language in this discussion.

POST SCRIPT: Sand sculptures

Take a look at these sand sculptures. (Click on the thumbnail photos to see the full sculptures.) I am always amazed at the patience and painstaking care that people take over this kind of art, which is later destroyed in a matter of moments.

The Buddhist mandala sand paintings are another example. These paintings are painstakingly created by hand using grains of colored sand, just to be swept after the display is over.

In Buddhism, the impermanence of all things, the constancy of change, and the need to avoid getting attached to people and things are important philosophical underpinnings. So putting a vast amount of work into a work of art and then destroying it may be just a way of teaching these ideas.

Personally, I don’t know if I could ever put so much effort into something, knowing that it would not last.

Methodological naturalism

If our car developed a strange and disturbing noise, we would take it to a mechanic to diagnose the problem. If, after trying out just one or two ideas and failing, the mechanic threw up her hands and said that she gave up because the cause must be something mysterious and inexplicable, we would very likely switch to another mechanic.

We would do the same thing with a plumber who gave up on trying to find the source of a leak or a doctor who gave up trying to find the cause of an acute pain after merely ruling out gas and muscle pulls.

We want each of these people to keep investigating, to try and find the reason for the problem and not give up until they have solved it. If any one of them told us that the cause was some supernatural power, we would quickly dump that person and find a new one, even if we were ourselves were religious and we preferred to have religious people as our doctors and plumbers and mechanics.

In other words, we want all these people when carrying out their professions, whatever their religious beliefs, to practice methodological naturalism, which is the practice of postulating and testing one natural cause after another as the source of the problem until the problem has been diagnosed correctly. It would be strange for someone to insist on people using methodological naturalism in all these everyday areas of life, while demanding that they give it up in the one area that underlies all of them, and that is science.

And yet, this is exactly what so called intelligent design creationists want scientists to do. IDC people want scientists to not use methodological naturalism but instead concede that some systems have “irreducible complexity”, by which they mean that god must have made it. They do not explicitly say god as part of their public strategy. Instead, they adopt a complicated circumlocution that goes as follows: “irreducible complexity implies it must have been intelligently designed which implies the existence of an intelligent designer whose identity and properties we refuse to speculate about.” Instead of going through all that, it seems much easier to say “god” since that is what everyone knows we are talking about anyway.

It is clear that the IDC advocates know that they are essentially asking for the overthrow of the foundation of science when they urge the overthrow of methodological naturalism. In the Dover, PA case on the inclusion of IDC ideas in the science curriculum, expert witness Robert T. Pennock made this point explicitly where he highlighted the words of leading IDC advocate William Dembski:

As examples of the movement’s intentions, Pennock showed the court a number of articles written by the movement’s leaders, including two by William Dembski, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute.

Discovery has been part of efforts to change wording of Kansas state education standards to be more open to the supernatural in the definition of science. “The scientific picture of the world championed since the Enlightenment is not wrong, but massively wrong,” Dembski wrote in an article titled “Building bridges between science and theology.”

In another article, titled “What every theologian should know about creation, evolution and design,” Dembski wrote, “In the words of Vladimir Lenin, What is to be done?

Design theorists aren’t at all bashful about answering this question: The ground rules of science have to be changed.”

And finally we get this quote from Dembski where he says: “So long as methodological naturalism sets the ground rules for how the game of science is to be played, (intelligent design) has no chance (in) Hades.”

Clearly, overthrowing methodological naturalism is a key part of their strategy. And they don’t care that they are overthrowing something that has been the foundation of the Enlightenment, something that has been the foundation for scientific and technological and medical breakthroughs, and took us out of the dark ages. In their attempt to include their religious views within science, they are willing to gamble with the very essence of science and they are playing for very high stakes.

The name game

When I first started getting interested in the so-called ‘intelligent design creationist’ (IDC) movement, I noticed that they were very careful about terminology and insisted on using specific terms.

For example, IDC people would divide science up into two categories that they called ‘empirical science’ and ‘origins science.’ Empirical science was defined by them as the kind of science where you could do experiments in laboratories or in the field. Origins science dealt with subjects that dealt with the origins of things and which had happened long ago. So theories of cosmology, astronomy and, most importantly (for them), evolution of life came under the heading of ‘origins’ science.

They were also very insistent on avoiding the use of the terms ‘creationist’ and ‘God’ and pushed for the use of the term ‘design’ which they used to mean things that were not randomly created. ‘Intelligent design’ was used by them to denote design by a human-like intelligence and not by (say) a computer program.

Since I came from the scientific world where what something is called is not what is important and it is the operational definition that matters, I was initially willing to go along with their terminology. The problem was that I discovered that rather than the names being used just as a harmless label for the underlying operational definition, as is the case in science, in the case of intelligent design, no operational definition was forthcoming. Instead, the names themselves became used as arguments, so that conceding to them the choice of names meant conceding a substantial portion of the argument.

Let me illustrate with some examples. Since they did not use the name God in their literature, they could proffer the claim that theirs was not a religious theory (“See, nowhere do we use ‘God’ in our work”). Also, since they did not use the name ‘creationist,’ they could dissociate themselves from the young-Earth creationist (YEC) movement and the old-earth creationist (OEC) movement, both of which explicitly mentioned god in their literature and had already been struck down by the courts as being religious in nature and thus inappropriate for inclusion in science classes. Also, the YEC and OEC were embarrassing to the IDC people in that they interpreted the Bible literally (to differing degrees) and thus alienated a lot of potential allies.

This attention to words and language has been part of a careful thought-out strategy. In testimony in the Dover, PA case, it was shown that in the book Of Pandas and People which the students were explicitly told to read as an ‘antidote’ to evolution, early drafts of the book used the words creationism but later replaced it with intelligent design. This enables the intelligent design people to claim that their theory does not involve god because they avoided providing an operational definition for intelligent design or an intelligent designer. If they did so, it would be hard to see how that operational definition was not functionally equivalent to an operational definition of god.

Robert T. Pennock in his book Tower of Babel points out that all these theories are variations of creationism, and he creates a classification scheme that lists them as YEC, OEC, and IDC (for intelligent design creationism). This is the terminology that I have adopted and will use henceforth so that the relationship of intelligent design to creationism is kept explicit, and IDC people cannot hide their creationist links.

The use of the empirical/origins science distinction is another example of this verbal sleight of hand. By dividing science in this way, and by putting evolution into the origins science category, they then try to imply that evolution is not an empirical theory! Since the word ‘empirical’ implies data-driven and subject to the normal rules of scientific investigation, casting evolution as ‘origins science’ is part of an attempt by IDC people drive a wedge between evolution and other theories of science and make it seem less ‘scientific.’.

The IDC people also assert that the way we evaluate theories is different for the two categories. They assert that ‘empirical science’ can be tested experimentally but that ‘origins science’ cannot.’ This assertion allows them to claim that how competing theories of ‘origins science’ should be evaluated is by seeing which theory ‘explains’ things better.

I have already shown that using ‘better’ explanations as a yardstick for measuring the quality of theories leads one down a bizarre path where the ‘best’ explanation could well be the Raelian theory (or ET-IDC using Pennock’s classification scheme). But it is important to see that the reason that the IDC people can even make such a claim is because of their artful attempt to divide science into ‘empirical’ and ‘origins.’

The fact is that all science is empirical. All scientific theories ultimately relate to data and predictions. If one wants to make distinctions, one can say that there are historical sciences (evolution, cosmology, astronomy) that deal with one-time events, and non-historical sciences where controlled experiments can be done in laboratories. But both are empirical. It is just that in the historical sciences, the data already exists and we have to look for it rather than create it.

But IDC people don’t like to concede that all science as empirical since that would mean that they would have to provide data and make predictions for their own theory just like any other empirical theory, and they have been unable to do so. This is why it is important that the scientific community not concede them the right to categorize the different kinds of science in the way they wish, because it enables them to use words to avoid the hard questions.

The different use of terminology in scientific and political debates

I would like to revisit the question addressed earlier of why scientists are at a disadvantage when they try to debate in political forums, like those involving so-called intelligent design creationism. This time it deals with how terminology is introduced and used.

Scientists often need to introduce new terms into the vocabulary to accommodate a new concept, or seek to use a familiar everyday term or phrase with a more precise technical meaning.

The scientists who introduces the new concept usually has the freedom to name it and most of the time the community of scientists will go along with the name. The reasons for the name vary and can sometimes have whimsical origins. The physics term ‘quark’ for subnuclear particles for instance was named from the line “three quarks for Muster Mark” from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, and was invoked because it was thought at the time that there were only three subnuclear particles that made up the proton and the neutron. The proton consisted of two ‘up’ quarks and one ‘down’ quark, while the neutron consisted of one ‘up’ quark and two ‘down’ quarks. But then other particles were discovered which had unusual properties and these were dubbed to be ‘strange’ particles and so a third type of quark, the ‘strange’ quark, was postulated to explain their properties.

Later a fourth type of quark was required and this was called the ‘charm’ quark. Not all terminology sticks, however. When a fifth and a sixth type of quark came into being, initial attempts to name them ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’ seemed to most physicists to have crossed the line of acceptable whimsicality, and the names of those two quarks settled to the more mundane ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ quarks.

Although there are a variety of reasons for the names scientists select for new concepts, the success or failure of the ideas that are associated with the concept does not hinge on the choice of the name. This is because science concepts are more than names, they also have ‘operational definitions,’ and it is these definitions that are important. Many non-scientists do not understand the importance that scientists attach to operational definitions.

For example, if you ask a non-physicist to define ‘mass’, you will usually get some variation of ‘it is the amount of matter present in an object.’ This intuitive definition of mass may give a serviceable understanding of the concept that is adequate for general use but it is too vague for scientific purposes. It could, after all, just as well serve as a definition of volume. A definition that is so flexible that it can apply to two distinct concepts has no scientific value.

But an operational definition of mass is much more precise and usually involves describing a series of operations that enable one to measure the quantity. For mass, it might be involve something like: “Take an equal arm balance and balance the arms with nothing on the pans. Then place the object on one pan and place standardized units of mass on the other pan until balance is achieved again. The number of standardized units required for this purpose is the mass of the object on the other pan.”

For volume, the operational definition might be: “Take a calibrated measuring cylinder with water up to a certain level and note the level. Then immerse the object in the water and measure the new level of the water. The difference in the two level readings is the volume of the object.” We thus see that, unlike the case with intuitive definitions, there is a clear difference between the operational definitions of mass and volume.

It is possible for a concept to have more than one operational definition. For example, the mass of an object could also be defined operationally as placing something on a triple beam balance, moving the weights around until balance is achieved, and then taking the reading.

It does not matter if a concept has more than one operational definition. In fact that is usually the case. The point is that consistent operational definitions of mass would enable one to show that the different definitions are functionally equivalent, so that you can use any one of these mutually consistent operational definitions. If you actually want the mass of an object, all the various operational definitions would result in the same numerical value, so that mass is an unambiguous physical concept.

Such operational definitions enable scientists to avoid confusion and quickly agree on what names like mass and volume mean. The names themselves tend to be value neutral and by themselves do not advance an argument. Scientists tend to not challenge the ways things get named because it is the underlying operational definition that is crucial to scientific arguments. Scientists are quite content to go along with whatever names others give to concepts, because they rightly see the name as irrelevant to the merits of the debate.

This is quite different from what goes on in the political arena. There what you call something can be a crucial factor in whether the argument is won or lost. Take for example, what was known as the ‘estate tax.’ This is a tax on the estates of very wealthy people who become deceased. It affects only a tiny minority of people and was very uncontroversial for a long time. The term ‘estate tax’ is fairly descriptive because we associate the word ‘estate’ with the wealth passed on by rich people.

But there were interest groups who wanted to repeal this tax and one of the ways they achieved this goal was by renaming the tax as a ‘death tax,’ which seemed to imply that you were being taxed for dying. By getting this new terminology accepted in the debate to replace the old term, they have succeeded in getting quite considerable popular support for the removal of a very egalitarian tax, even though few of the people supporting the repeal would have estates large enough to worry about paying the tax.

Similarly the Bush administration at one time tried to get the media to use the term ‘homicide bombers’ instead of ‘suicide bombers,’ Perhaps they were thinking that ‘suicide bomber’ would remind people that the people doing this were making a great personal sacrifice and that raised awkward questions about their level of determination to remove US troops from their country and the reasons behind the determination. But that effort at renaming went nowhere because the old name was an accurate description of the person, while the new name was seen as being redundant and conveying less information.

In political battles, winning the name game is half the battle because accepting the name preferred by your opponent often means tacitly conceding the high ground of the argument and playing defense. So the habit of scientists to concede the name and to work with whatever name others come up with is not a good strategy when they enter the political arena. But it is not clear that all scientists have realized this and know when to shift gears.

In the next posting, I will examine how IDC advocates have used this casual approach to names to get an edge in the public relations wars, and how scientists should fight back.