And now, to bring this back to the significance of science in public life: Science matters not just for its particular results, but for the habits of mind it trains. There are lots of differences in the detailed methods of the various scientific disciplines — but one common thread is what is often called materialism, but is really as much empiricism as anything else. That is: the ultimate value of an idea is determined by the outcome of its test against observable reality. Facts matter, in other words, and a claim of principle, even a beautiful and long-held one, cannot survive material contradiction.
Compare that with the utter contempt for reality that drips from any semi-candid exchange with a Bush official.
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
The problem permeates decision-making process from top to bottom. Magical thinking, the idea that nothing could be wrong as long as it is ideologically pure, helped Jim O’Beirne wreck the reconstruction of Iraq. George Deutsch, a young college “grad” (oops – he lied on his resume) with partisan credentials but no scientific background, did a respectable job of getting in the way of space science before his own nincompoopery brought him down.
Legal experience won’t help getting a job at Justice unless you have the right Party credentials, and even then the scale tips steeply towards ideological purity (see Rachel Paulouse, Monica Goodling). It isn’t hard to draw a line between the hemorrhage of career talent under Gonzales and the odd phenomenon the DoJ keeps losing terrorism cases. The government can’t get its security practices ratified by a federal court, it can’t put away terrorists and the “briefs” that leading thinkers like Addison and Yoo use to found government policy would lose a middle school debate match.
I could go on. FEMA. But you’ve put up with enough, and by now the point ought to be abundantly clear. If you won’t trust your roof to a repair service that leaves a crappy job half done then you shouldn’t trust Republicans to run the country.
I’d like to say that a candidate exists who can break the pattern, but the base doesn’t seem ready for that yet. Instead we have tired hacks competing to sell us four more years of Cheney/Bush, and a fundie whose magical thinking problems might be the worst of the lot (see Levenson’s posts above). The only candidate who legitimately promises a new approach, Ron Paul, has money but no detectable support among actual primary voters. If magical thinking is a disease then the GOP plainly needs a long recovery in clean wilderness air. If even that doesn’t help, well, not all patients can be saved.