Why Science Marches Forward, and Why Politics Doesn’t

Over the past few weeks, a few million of my closest friends and I have been enjoying Neil deGrasse Tyson’s update of the show Cosmos. Today’s version is styled A Spacetime Odyssey, while the version that ran in 1980, hosted by the incomparable Carl Sagan, was entitled A Personal Voyage. Either way, the premise of the show is the same: to introduce the general public to some of the most important questions and answers that today’s scientific understanding can provide. If you’re into that kind of thing.

When you look out into the cosmos, the Eye of Sauron apparently looks back.

When you look out into the cosmos, the Eye of Sauron apparently looks back.

Looking for something to fill a few hours before Cosmos came on in the evening, I stumbled on Errol Morris’ documentary on the life and legacy of Donald Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known. In 2003, Morris won an Oscar for his documentary on the career of Robert McNamara, entitled The Fog Of War – an obvious inspiration for the name I gave to this project. The Fog of War is a disarmingly intimate portrait of a man making decisions, many of them deeply flawed, in the midst of chaos and uncertainty.

So I was interested to see what a similar portrait of Rumsfeld might reveal. Alas, it was not to be. The truth is that while many of the architects of the Vietnam War eventually came to realize that they had committed enormous blunders, the primary actors of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy have stood by their choices. Even after the primary motivation for invading was demonstrated to be a fiction, and even after more than 4,000 dead Americans, at least 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians, and even after 10 years and at least $2 trillion spent without achieving any of our major geopolitical goals in the region – even after all that, the people who chose war insist that they did the right thing.

The founder and editor of The Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol, is famously wrong about everything and refuses to admit it. (c) Gage Skidmore

The founder and editor of The Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol, is famously wrong about everything and refuses to admit it. (c) Gage Skidmore

Why? Here’s where the contrast between The Unknown Known and Cosmos is worth thinking about. Today, it’s easy to take scientific progress for granted, but just a few hundred years ago we barely knew that electricity existed. It’s easy for a few hundred years to feel like a long time, but modern man has been around for about 200,000 years. It took us 199,900 years to get from throwing stones to lighting homes with light bulbs, but less than 300 years to get from the invention of the steam engine to putting a man on the moon. On. The. Moon.

Why? Well, as Cosmos works hard to convey, it’s because science works on the principle that our intuitions should be subjected to critical analysis. No idea – no matter how elegant, how appealing, or how intuitive – is immune to the relentless onslaught of scientists trying their best to disprove it. Only after those efforts have failed might an idea receive what Stephen Jay Gould referred to as “provisional assent.” In other words, science works because scientists are willing to question their assumptions and admit when they’re wrong. That’s why, as Carl Sagan put it, “Science delivers the goods.”

Oh that it were so in politics. In the lead up to the Iraq war, Rumsfeld was unequivocal: “We know they have weapons of mass destruction.” The country has been scoured, no weapons have come up, and Rumsfeld still won’t admit that he was wrong. In fact, after the invasion, he wasn’t even willing to admit to what he had said prior to the invasion.

And he’s hardly alone. Prominent Republicans like Sarah Palin warned the country against death panels. Charitably, we can now say she was wrong. (Less charitably, we might say she was lying.) Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president, assured us that a second-term President Obama would come for our guns. I’m still waiting. When Social Security was proposed in the 1930s, one Republican legislator said we would feel “the lash of a dictator as a result,” while another cautioned that the policy would “enslave workers.” Yet, somehow, the Republic has endured the insidious plot that providing a basic safety net for the most vulnerable represents. I could go on.

In 1961, Ronald Reagan warned that if Medicare was allowed to pass, "We are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children, what it once was like in America when men were free.

In 1961, Ronald Reagan warned that if Medicare was allowed to pass, “We are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.

But the Grand Old Party can’t claim this mantle solely for itself. Democrats have also gotten in on the action. On a number of issues – ranging from the underlying economic fundamentals of green tech to the dangers of free trade to the effectiveness of local gun regulation – Democrats have continued to insist on policies despite mounting evidence that those policies might be wrong. (Not to mention that the Democratic Party hardly kept its hands clean as the nation went to war in Iraq.)

And on Obamacare, the chief of staff at the time, Rahm Emanuel, warned the President that his focus on health care reform that early in his administration could cost him dearly. It has, but the White House hasn’t been willing to admit that they might have made a political miscalculation. In fact, the only one who has publicly changed his mind has been Rahm Emanuel. How the pummeling that the White House has received over the past few years, coupled with their loss of a Congressional majority and the complete stagnation of their policy agenda somehow convinced Emanuel that he was wrong is a mystery to me. If the way healthcare reform has played out has turned out to be a pleasant surprise for Rahm Emanuel, then you have to wonder at just how pessimistic his forecast most have been.

In science, our major breakthroughs came after dogma was forced to make way for facts – when persisting in error became a greater stigma than committing an error. The hopeful among us await the day when that might also be said of our politics. For the rest of us, we have Donald Rumsfeld.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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