You Don't Say!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

There is a small cottage industry of debunkery of arbitrary claims that needn't be debunked since they are, as Wolfgang Pauli so famously put it, "not even wrong." James Randi is perhaps the most famous such gun-and-barrel angler. Why that analogy? Because any attempt to "prove" the arbitrary will involve a vast rip somewhere between the supposed experimental "evidence" and the fabric of reality. All one needs is some knowledge of where to look for the rip.

A news story I encountered yesterday reminds me a little of some of Randi's debunkery, although what is being debunked is something that actually does have a relationship with reality: It is plainly wrong and has already been shown to be wrong with savage and deadly results numerous times. (The similarity with debunkery of arbitrary claims is superficial. You needn't hunt for evidence against the arbitrary -- and won't necessarily find it; with the already-disproven non-arbitrary claim here, the additional evidence is superfluous.) That "something" is the whole idea that the "Palestinians" are genuinely interested in peace with Israel. In fact, the beginning of the article gives us a small taste of the kind of evidence that is swept aside with each fresh attempt at the "peace" process:

In the waning days of his presidency, Bill Clinton believed Yasir Arafat and the Palestinians were prepared to make peace. In September 2000, the Palestinians launched a guerrilla war. Five years later, President George W. Bush believed the secular Fatah faction would win the Palestinian legislative elections of 2006. Instead, the Islamist terror organization Hamas won by a large margin. Drawing from erroneous poll data and misreading the realities on the ground, Washington has too often minimized antipeace sentiment on the Palestinian street. Is President Barack Obama, in his current push for Middle East peace, about to repeat the mistakes of presidents past?
As if Obama needs any further evidence that he is wasting time (at best) -- and as if he will heed their warning -- the Foundation for Defense of Democracies recently commissioned a study of Palestinian sentiment expressed on line. What that study found comes as no surprise:
Although the Palestinian web landscape is not devoid of users with moderate to liberal views, it is dominated by radicalism. There is also little crossover between radical and liberal sites, indicating a lack of important debate.

Among radicalized users, a small but distinct group of Salafists (prevalent on sites like and view conflict with Israel as a religious duty, viewing jihad as the only answer. One alarming trend was the extent to which Hamas supporters engaged Salafists in dialogue to iron out their theological differences. If Hamas and these Taliban-like groups find common cause in Gaza, it would bode very poorly for peace.

To be sure, Hamas's supporters were not monolithic about politics or Islam. But, drawing from Hamas' most popular discussion sites, our research found that a majority of them continue to support violence against Israel. On this score, Hamas showed little disagreement with Salafists.


Finally, our data showed that a majority of Palestinians do not support regional peace efforts. Palestinian internet users often derided diplomatic initiatives; discussion of peace talks was overwhelmingly negative. Thus, despite Washington's efforts to win Palestinian hearts and minds, the social media environment suggests that they have little support for a new peace initiative.
Although the study does uncover new information, it reminds me further of other instances in which conservatives or libertarians have shown that the facts favor some policy position they support, and yet found themselves scratching their heads at the prevailing direction of the political momentum. Privatized education and freedom in medicine are prime examples, and I recall commenting on these some time ago, after reading about some public policy "experiments" proposed by Arnold Kling:
What makes Kling think that the Democrats are going to be persuaded that school choice "works" from any evidence provided by such an experiment when there is already overwhelming evidence that public education is a miserable failure? And then there's the matter of school choice opponents selecting "indicators". I can think of lots of political indoctrination that the private school kids will miss out on and so be found "deficient". Come time to vote on whether to expand or terminate the experiment, the Democrats will have, with a big assist from the media, made it sound like the private schools were Hitler Youth Camps or worse. The experiment would end.
Not to pooh-pooh hard data, but it is worthless as a source of guidance or a means of persuasion without an integrating theoretical framework that relates it to a goal. Where conservatives and libertarians fall short (in slightly different ways) is through neglect of the need for this theoretical foundation.

The goal is for us to survive as men, and any theory uniting facts of reality with such a goal must give us guidance in how to act (i.e., ethics) and organize our society (i.e., politics). Conservatives imagine that the guidance is both arbitrary and often inapplicable to "real life" and libertarians pretend that such guidance is unnecessary. Until that changes -- or a better alternative gains cultural prominence -- we will have our fill of evidence against bad public policy that gets repeatedly ignored anyway.

-- CAV

No comments: