Confusing intellectuals with the facts
by Jonathan Rosenblum
February 14, 2003
Why are smart people so congenitally dumb? Why are those most suited to discussing Shakespeare and Stendahl so hopelessly incompetent to run the affairs of the world? As a former dummy, these questions hold particular fascination for me.
One of the keys to this mystery, it strikes me, is a persistent anti-empirical bias among intellectuals. Theories of how the world works are generated for emotional and esthetic reasons, not on the basis of observed facts. Because the source of these theories is emotional need, they are immune to reality testing; once produced in the ether, these theories cannot be shaken.
After Secretary of State Colin Powell's UN speech, Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory spoke of her distress at being confronted by Powell's powerful evidence. President George Bush and his advisers were not "people whose banner I could follow," and besides, "among the people I know, nobody was for the war," she wrote.
Here is a woman paid handsomely to comment on current events admitting, without embarrassment, that her opinions on the great matters of state are a function of social taste and what is acceptable among the herd of independent thinkers.
The enduring belief of our local "wise men" in the Oslo process is a classic example of a worldview dictated by emotional need. Oslo architect Yossi Beilin simply cannot give up the idea that Yasser Arafat is a peace partner. Nothing - not the Karine A, not orders transferring money to terrorists signed by Arafat, not his calls for jihad, and not the continual incitement in Palestinian schools and media - can convince him that Arafat never accepted the idea of lasting peace with Israel.
As a government minister, Beilin was privy to intelligence reports that the Palestinians were planning a massive return to violence after the breakdown of Camp David, and he has heard subsequent confirmation from Palestinian ministers that the "al-Aksa intifada" was long planned. Yet he continues to assert that if only Ariel Sharon had not walked on the Temple Mount, none of this would have happened.
Oslo fulfilled an emotional need for Beilin - the need to believe in a world in which peace is possible. As long as that emotional need remains, Oslo remains an idee fixe.
Psychiatry, not evidence, is the only cure.
IN A DEBATE a little more than a year ago, a leading American Middle East expert triumphantly demanded of me: "What's the alternative?" as if he had made some kind of argument.
Admittedly it is unpleasant living with the realization that the wolf and lamb will not lie down together any time soon, but trying to avoid that unpleasant recognition by denying reality is downright dangerous.
The best Amram Mitzna's academic supporters could offer prior to the last election was that he at least offers "some hope." Hope is a wonderful thing, and life without it is a dismal affair, but the need for hope cannot be the basis for evaluating the reality around us.
I do not mean to discount the necessity of vision in human affairs. To do so is itself a form of anti-empirical irrationality. Any student of military history knows that many of history's greatest battles were determined, not by the numbers and firepower arrayed on each side, but by the morale and determination of the opposing armies.
One of the great failures of Oslo was the tendency of Israelis to extrapolate from their own mindset in evaluating Palestinian intentions. Religious fervor and attachment to the land were systematically downplayed because in the eyes of Israeli policymakers they are irrational.
No vision is more powerful than that of the messianic age offered by our prophets. Yet had Judaism offered only a messianic vision, without enriching the day-to-day lives of its adherents, it could never have survived. Visions detached from reality cannot sustain themselves over time, though they can wreak tremendous havoc.
I will confess to being stirred by a vision of Iraqis freed from the horror of Saddam Hussein's regime of terror. Like Beilin, I also want to believe the world can be a better place. But hopefully the vision of a Middle East transformed by Saddam's removal is rooted in a realistic analysis of the desires and capabilities of the Iraqi people and of the likely impact of the fall of Saddam on neighboring countries.
In Iran, his fall will make it that much harder for the mullahs to retain control over a restless population. And in Syria, where 1,000 flowers of democracy are not yet ready to bloom, Saddam's removal will convince the regime of the dangers of harboring terrorists and threatening one's neighbors with them.
THE ANTI-EMPIRICISM of the intellectuals renders them oblivious to the real-world consequences of their ideas. At their most extreme, utopian visions hatched in university lecture halls lead to futile attempts to mold human nature to fit the vision.
In Cambodia, that effort resulted in the death of millions.
More mundane examples abound. New York City feminists fiercely opposed a plan to establish a single-sex high school for minority women. Overwhelming social science evidence that such a school would dramatically enhance the academic achievement of the female students failed to move the opponents. The actual lives of poor minority students meant nothing to the feminists - few of whom had ever experienced the terror of inner city education - next to the proscription against any distinctions on the basis of gender.
Anti-war protesters around the world have hardened their hearts to the suffering of 23 million Iraqis. What is their suffering compared to the principle of national sovereignty?
High principles overcome even the elemental human urge for self-preservation. Thus a writer to the Yale Law School Alumni Magazine opines that even if the United States knew that Iraq was about to strike with weapons of mass destruction, it would nevertheless have to await that strike, lest it become "the aggressor."
Even supposedly objective scientists often find it difficult to confront uncomfortable facts. Right-thinking (i.e. left-thinking) people all know that George Bush is a troglodyte for withdrawing from the Kyoto Accords. Yet Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg argues in The Skeptical Environmentalist that even if pursued until 2100, Kyoto would lessen projected global warning by little more than half a degree. Meanwhile the $150 billion annual cost of enforcing the treaty would be sufficient to eliminate forever the unsanitary drinking water that today kills two million people a year.
That was not the kind of talk many in the scientific community wished to hear. Science and Scientific American, two leading science magazines, mounted broadscale attacks on Lomborg's book, and then made every effort to block Lomborg from responding. In his homeland, a governmental body called the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty found Lomborg guilty of scientific dishonesty. Yet the committee conducted no independent evaluation of the scientific disputes. It contented itself with quoting at length from four negative reviews in Scientific American. The committee further noted ominously that America is the largest energy consumer in the world, and that the book sold well there.
The committee barely mentioned that Lomborg had demolished his critics in a paragraph-by-paragraph rebuttal (see www.greenspirit.com/lomborg). Indeed, the force of Lomborg's rebuttal was held against him: his failure to accept the massive, mostly ad hominem, attacks was cited as proof of his lack of scientific temperament.
We should be grateful God did not create more smart people.
Related Topics: Peace Process
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