On believers and empiricism
by Jonathan Rosenblum
February 22, 2007
Inveterate Bush haters are as derisive of the president's religiosity as they are of his supposed stupidity. Indeed the former is often cited as proof of the latter. A lengthy New York Times Magazine hatchet job prior to the 2004 election portrayed Bush as convinced that he had a direct line from God - a conviction that rendered him oblivious to both reason and all empirical evidence.
The president's refusal to pull out of Iraq, his failure to sign the Kyoto Protocols and his use of religious terminology - e.g. the "axis of evil" - are said to betoken the rigid mind-set of a religious zealot.
That critique of Bush's faith-based anti-empiricism is nonsense. I don't know one religious person who believes that God speaks to her directly, or that one need only open the Bible to determine whether the Iraqi insurgency is primarily led by al-Qaida or by ex-Ba'athists.
If all that is needed in Iraq is greater attention to facts, let the Democrats in Congress - many of whom are stumped about whether Iran is a Sunni or Shi'ite country or whether there is any difference between the two - show the way rather than just pass non-binding resolutions to appease their voters. That many crucial "facts" remain unknown has nothing to do with Bush's lack of interest. The intelligence community itself remains sharply divided about who is leading the insurgency in Iraq.
Democrats charge that the administration cooked prewar intelligence about Saddam's WMDs, even though CIA director George Tenet called the conclusion a "slam dunk" - a view shared by every Western intelligence service and the Clinton administration. And in the same breath, they are scandalized that undersecretary of defense Douglas Feith sought alternative analyses of the data on a possible Saddam-al-Qaida connection, in the face of the CIA's conclusion that secular Ba'athists and Islamists could never join forces. (And Hitler and Stalin could never have agreed to divide Poland.) President Bush, according to his critics, is being anti-empirical whether he accepts the CIA's conclusions or questions them.
Talk of an axis of evil deeply offends those whose default inclination is to assume that all men are basically rational economic actors seeking to increase material goods and pleasures. In describing radical Islam as "evil," however, Bush means that radical Islam constitutes a belief system irreconcilable with that of the West and its adherents seek to destroy the West. That seems like a fair description of reality.
Bush's understanding of the nature of the enemy, rather than any religious certitude, shapes his concern over the consequences of a perceived American defeat in Iraq: We simply cannot afford to feed the Islamist narrative of Islam ascendant. (If America first removed the Iranian nuclear threat, it could perhaps withdraw from Iraq without fueling Islamists' vision of a West on the run, but what anti-war critics would support that.)
THE "FAITH" of secular liberals also causes them to avoid some empirical questions and to give different weight even to agreed upon facts. Critics of the Iraq war, for instance, show little interest in what will happen in Iraq the day after withdrawal - either in terms of fueling jihadist visions of worldwide victory or in terms of the even worse bloodbath likely to follow. Just as proponents of affirmative action are little concerned about how it sets up unqualified minorities for failure, and the consequences on those set up, or the way that qualified minorities are stigmatized as "affirmative action babies."
Yet such evaluation of possible consequences, their likelihood and cost is the essence of rational policymaking.
The New Republic once devoted an entire issue to attacks on Richard Herrnstein's and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve, which argues, inter alia, that IQ varies between races. Yet only one of the chosen respondents had substantial scientific qualifications.
Global warming alarmists (remember the "coming ice age" or the "population bomb" in the '70s) have sought to foreclose scientific debate. The release of a summary of recommendations for policymakers by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change months ahead of the scientific papers to support those recommendations was designed to create the false impression of a broad scientific consensus.
Those who question the causes of the slight rise in temperature over the past century, according to MIT Professor of Atmospheric Science Richard Litzen, find their papers summarily rejected by leading journals and research funding cut off, though there is substantial debate over the mechanism behind that rise and the role of fluorocarbons in the process. Most of all the huge cost of enforcement - estimated by Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg to be $150 billion annually - is never evaluated against the likely minuscule benefit of dramatically cutting fluorocarbon emission.
President Bush is skewered by his critics for not having done more to achieve oil self-sufficiency. Yet those same critics dismiss out of hand the two solutions with the greatest immediate potential: nuclear energy and drilling for oil in Alaska.
Even if there is nothing that obviously distinguishes Bush's sharpest critics in their approach to and weighing of empirical evidence, there is nevertheless one way in which Bush's deep religious belief sets him apart. If he becomes convinced that a nuclear Iran represents an intolerable threat to mankind, and that time has almost run out for stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, he is far more likely to take the necessary action. His sense that God elevates a man to high office for a purpose would drive him to act, regardless of the adverse political consequences.
And for that we all have much to be grateful for.
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics
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