More Factual Relativism

As I wrote in this post, as I think of the GOP’s many awful tactics, one common thread concerns the devaluation of facts and/or evidence as the foundations of a coherent argument.

In this vein, two more examples of this phenomenon have occurred recently, and if we unpack and examine the phenomenon in these contexts, we can learn a lot about how Democrats can turn these into winning issues.

We’ve all read about the ex-press aide for NASA who left his job amidst accusations that he had attempted to censor scientists, but the interesting thing about the coverage has been the total lack of either general evidence presentation or specific scientific analysis.

The second case worth taking a look at is the Abramoff-Bush Photo Hunt. In this case the Factual Relativism kicks in when the Bush Defenders try to claim that these pictures were initially withheld because people might try to use them for political purposes. They don’t even slow down to try to explain a) Why Bush and Abramoff had their picture taken together, b) Whether the two men knew each other, c) Whether anything about the relationship that may or may not have existed was improper. In other words, the facts of the case are discounted.

Let’s look first at the case of George C. Deutsch, sometime NASA Press Aide. From the New York Times we get this amazing series of grafs:

George C. Deutsch, the young NASA press aide who resigned on Tuesday amid claims that he had tried to keep the agency’s top climate scientist from speaking publicly about global warming, defended himself publicly yesterday.

Speaking to a Texas radio station and then to The New York Times, Mr. Deutsch said the scientist, James E. Hansen, exaggerated the threat of warming and tried to cast the Bush administration’s response to it as inadequate.

Mr. Deutsch also denied lying about having a college degree.

So, what facts might be relevant to this article? Off the top of my head I can think of: Did the scientist exaggerate the threat of global warming? Did the scientist try to cast the administration’s response as inadequate? And, of course, the real winner, Is the administration’s response adequate or inadequate?

There is evidence that pertains to these questions out there, but the article just continues. Oh, and don’t forget the part about lying about graduating. I’ll close up that loose end at the end of the post.

Meanwhile, from a White House Press Briefing, we get this charming explanation about the Abramoff Photos with Bush Scandalette:

Q What do you hear or your staff hear about releasing of photographs of Jack Abramoff with you, Mr. President? If you say you don’t fear anything, tell us why you won’t release them?

THE PRESIDENT: She’s asking about a person who admitted to wrongdoing and who needs to be prosecuted for that. There is a serious investigation going on, as there should be. The American people have got to have confidence in the — in the ethics of all branches of government. You’re asking about pictures — I had my picture taken with him, evidently. I’ve had my picture taken with a lot of people. Having my picture taken with someone doesn’t mean that I’m a friend with them or know them very well. I’ve had my picture taken with you — (laughter) — at holiday parties.

My point is, I mean, there’s thousands of people that come through and get their pictures taken. I’m also mindful that we live in a world in which those pictures will be used for pure political purposes, and they’re not relevant to the investigation.

Q Do you know how many?

THE PRESIDENT: I don’t have any idea.

Fine, I get all that, but what of the relevant factual questions: How many times did Bush meet Abramoff? What did they discuss? In this case, I actually suspect that the President is sort of telling the truth in that he lets Rove run the whole K-Street deal, but rather than answering the Press’ claims with evidence, he approaches the question from a footing of political tactics.

As Talking Points Memo has brilliantly covered, these photos were being scrubbed for weeks. This makes the question all the more interesting.

I promised above to satisfy your burning curiousity about George C. Deutsch’s college degree, so here you go

The Times reported on Wednesday that contrary to his resume on file with NASA, Mr. Deutsch, who is 24, never graduated from Texas A&M. Yesterday, in an interview with The Times, Mr. Deutsch said he had written the resume in anticipation of graduating.

“When I left college,” he said, “I did not properly update my resume. As a result, it may appear misleading to some. However, I was up front with NASA about my undergraduate status when they hired me.”

I’m pretty sure that my employer would have had a problem with this kind of impropriety on my resume. Oh well. Must be fun being a Republican.

But seriously, this Factual Relativism is a real probelm for Democrats, because our strengths are all in the real, factual world. If facts are inadmissible, we’re in trouble, and the Republicans can get away with reprehensible garbage (like that time they intimated that Max Cleland was a terrorist) unscathed. To counteract this Democrats must push the Common Sense Solution hard: we argue that even though it may be true that the evidence is not 100% pure in a given situation, we ought to roll up our sleeves and do our best nonetheless. The truth is, after all, Democratic.

PS Big shout out to dopper0189 at Daily Kos for pointing out even more ways this problem is hurting us.

GOP’s Factual Relativism

Time was, Republicans worried that liberals wanted to infect the United States with cultural relativism, a school of thought whose predilection for understanding other cultures and respecting their varied traditions, as opposed to blowing them up, would cause Americans to lose touch with their moral center.

Yet a different kind of relativism has been sneaking up on the American people. This time, however, it is factual relativism, and it is the GOP that is employing it in the hopes of eliminating the relevance of evidence, which inconveniently tends to favor Democratic positions, in our national dialogue.

We’ve all noticed it on the TV news, or in the statements of politicians. Instances where we shout at the television, “Is that true or not? Do the research!” They never seem to get around to it. Evidence, it turns out, is becoming irrelevant. More examples, and my suggested solution, below.

The success of Factual Relativism depends in part on the growing complexity of scientific research. For example, in a recent NY Times article:

E. Calvin Beisner, associate professor of historical theology at Knox Theological Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., helped organize the opposition into a group called the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance. He said Tuesday that “the science is not settled” on whether global warming was actually a problem or even that human beings were causing it.

Well, there you have it. An expert in historical theology tells us that the science is not settled. Except, wait. What expertise does this guy have in the area of climate science? What about this assertion, anyway? The paper, it seems, could not be troubled with such questions. And why not? Because the answers would be boring.

That’s the problem with science, and facts in general: they are often boring and complicated. They don’t get readers, ratings, or, unfortunately, voters. Republicans, knowing this, have adopted a strategy which bypasses facts and evidence and heads straight for emotional response.

Like in this CNN story on Bush’s Remarks to the House Republican Caucus:

The eavesdropping program has come under fire from Republicans as well as Democrats. They argue that Bush already has the authority to monitor such communications through existing law that requires a warrant from a secret court set up to act quickly, or even after the fact. Bush has argued that the system isn’t nimble enough.

Is it legal? Does he already have the authority? Who cares? The system wasn’t nimble enough. 9-11. Vote for us or you die. Any questions? Apparently, CNN didn’t have any.

Indeed, once facts are unimportant, balance becomes the standard for which the media aims. We are all familiar with the the crucify-Reid-for-balance’s-sake bandwagon:

Reid, D-Nevada, has led the Democratic Party’s attacks portraying Abramoff’s lobbying and fundraising as a Republican scandal.

But Abramoff’s records show his lobbying partners billed for nearly two dozen phone contacts or meetings with Reid’s office in 2001 alone.

The “But” says it all. There’s probably some kind of evidence in there somewhere, but no one wants to read that, so why check. Why ask, for example, if Reid changed his position after receiving contributions (No), or if this situation is qualitatively similar to the rampant corruption of the K-Street Project (you know the answer)?

It is frightening to think that evidence is becoming irrelevant. This new factual relativism weakens the ability of Democrats to make their points effectively. It weakens education and national unity. I mean, when I read that

President Bush waded into the debate over evolution and “intelligent design” Monday, saying schools should teach both theories on the creation and complexity of life.

it tells me that he’s ignoring the evidence, but it tells American children that there’s no point in studying the facts. After all, if the president doesn’t know which is true, who can?

Here I want to mention this section of Bush’s remarks at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast:

This morning we also reaffirm that freedom rests on the self-evident truths about human dignity. Pope Benedict XVI recently warned that when we forget these truths, we risk sliding into a dictatorship of relativism where we can no longer defend our values. Catholics and non-Catholics alike can take heart in the man who sits on the chair of St. Peter, because he speaks with affection about the American model of liberty rooted in moral conviction.

A dictatorship of relativism, hmm? That would be pretty bad. It would be awfully sad if Democrats could no longer defend our values by citing studies and other evidence to support our claims. After all, that’s really all an atheist like me has to go on. By encouraging people to give up on figuring out the tough questions, the president is irresponsibly imposing factual relativism on all of us.

So what to do about it? I’ve implied above that this tactic is successful because raw facts are boring and complicated, whereas catchy, upbeat slogans are fun and simple. Yet Americans are practical and savvy as well. After all, there’s usually some hack with a Ph.D. willing to peddle the GOP talking points involved somewhere, and there’s usually some bought and paid for “scientific” study that shows whatever the GOP is selling. These are clues that expertise and authority are still relevant, and this creates an avenue of successful attack.

A common sense argument works well. When someone says that global warming science is not settled, I say “you might be right. But I figure, if 95% of the doctors I talk to advise me not to mix certain medications, I probably wouldn’t do it.” And so on. In other words, stop debating the purity of the facts, and start debating the practical course of action given what we know right now. That’s an avenue that Democrats can follow brilliantly.