Posted by Ginny on March 25th, 2005 (All posts by Ginny)
Thanks to Heiko’s and Jonathan’s comments; they have a sense of proportionality. Also Heiko shows us what a good study can do: narrow, real, thorough; then it points to modifications that will (clearly their motive) save lives.
I delete most of my friend’s e-mails on Schiavo or skim them to be polite. To him, as a Catholic, this case has attained great significance. Quality of life, what is life – these are important questions and of course he believes quite strongly in what Pinker dismisses as the “ghost in the machine.” I’m closer to my friend in that, but not all the way. The tensions involve the big issues – what is life and what is death, the relationship between the family and state. This then moves to the ancient tensions: between the “new” family of the Schiavo’s marriage and the “blood” family of the Schindlers; between the state and the federal government, between the courts and Congress. So, now, not only have people of strong religious commitment weighed in, but so have doctors. Then, politicians entered: not always grandstanding, they are often legitimately moved by these two issues. The big hitters on constitutional law on the blogs then enlisted in the battle. Yes, I’ll admit its importance not only to my friend but to others, on both sides of most of these issues. I can only feel sorrow at her death and sympathy with her parents, her husband, and even those involved in what has become a pathetic circus in front of her hospice. But I still delete. I know my sympathies will be pulled & cloud my mind; I won’t be able to deal with the big questions. Others argue that the cliche is wrong; that, indeed, hard cases can make good law. I have my doubts. Certainly, my husband’s argument that dysfunctional families make bad law seems true. I suspect both sides have enlisted troops to satisfy gnawing uncertainties. Applications in family matters to such external authority comes from a “nuclear option” mentality and a lack of confidence. I sympathize but suspect it arises from an unwillingness to face truths at which most of us would blink.
These further complications – attempts to bring in authority (of medicine, of family, of courts) – are also ways that others push delete. They don’t want to deal with the big question – what is life and where does it end – and so they return to the technical ones. They want to use their heads, but heads, overwhelmed, are not all that trustworthy in this dialogue.
This blog, too, has been immersed in an argument. Since I’ve joined, I have never seen so many comments. I want to thank Shannon for raising the questions and bringing readers to our blog. But, those arguing against Shannon seem to ignore the basic questions we ask in freshman rhetoric: Who did the survey and who was surveyed? Why did they do it? What did they bring with them? A published study by Phillip Morris on tobacco’s effects should not be weighted as heavily as one done by a university researcher paid by the NSF. The fact that dsquared finds it libelous to point to the researcher’s motives ignores the first task of an analytic reader. Shannon’s conclusions are not libelous, they are central to any critique. While we need not throw out the conclusions of those with clear bias, we look at them warily. So, we were not surprised by the internal problems Shannon has found; these were likely to arise with any article pushed fast to a deadline and especially when that deadline was the American elections.
We are also curious about the nature of information gathering: In the midst of a war, are those responses reliable? When American researchers are behind a study aimed at a British journal, does anyone think (in the middle of the war and probably for long after) the death of a beloved family member is going to be described as a combatant death? When we teach freshman induction, we point out that samples need to be sufficiently large, sufficiently varied, suffciciently representative. It takes fewer examples to accurately describe deaths at barricades. A repeated response, that the Lancet researchers risked their lives in acquiring data, is an ad misiercordium fallacy my students would recognize immediately, as they would the bullying approach of begging the question when a note of the obvious bias of the researchers is declared libelous.
The arguments here ignore human nature. And, in fact, argue that it shouldn’t be considered.
They also want to take us back to October. Shannon’s opponents seem much more willing to immerse themselves in arguing points with his interpretation of the article and less willing to deal with the elections in January. We want to know how interviewees answer in a country more and more patrolled by Iraqi police. And, we consider, at least in the back of our minds, the unrest in Lebanon, the hesitant first steps toward municipal elections in Saudi Arabia.
So the pragmatist would want another study: one less hurried, larger, broader and more representative. And we would want researchers that began with less political bias and with whom we (all of us) feel a level of honesty and trust.
We need to recognize big issues but we are distracted as we talk of internal inconsistencies. Those issues consider that basic scientific “replicability”; we ask how much research is driven by ideology. Because I’m not a scientist, I don’t feel the white heat of anger Shannon displays in his last post. But, that anger is rational and earned. And I sympathize.
He would argue that the really big question that remains is the validity of modern science–what he sees as desecration of something in which he believes As in the earlier post on biology, he defends science against those who would use it as a pawn without respecting it.
And for all of us, scientists and not, the really big questions remain. Are deaths from combat worse than deaths from democide? We know the twentieth century saw many times as many from the latter as from the former. Unfortunately, because democide is a symptom of a dysfunctional state, such democide often led to combat in which we did become involved. So, we ask, was the potential problem Saddam Hussein posed to us large enough to warrant our own losses of life? Theirs? Are the deaths different when caused by us, by insurgents arriving from Syria, by Saddam’s thugs? How do we untangle these deaths and compare their numbers. Ah, that seems easy to answer, deaths are deaths. But the truth is that if we value statehood we must admit Saddam Hussein was the Iraqi’s problem as Kim Jong Il is the Korean’s. How much authority do we want to give to the police in domestic disputes? Do we really want to take that position world wide?
On the other hand, we do feel a responsibility and believe that a “connected” world is better for us and them.. Such chaos and, indeed, evil, is likely to in the end harm us as well as them. And, even if that were not true, our sense that the community held together by the “ligaments of love” has expanded from 1630 is, I believe, progress. But we must question our own motives – are we so driven by fear of future 9/11s, do we lust after their oil, and does our own emphasis, as Himmelfarb would put it, on the “politics of liberty” assume a universality of values that are peculiar to us.
In the end, of course, even those questions are governed by bigger ones. Are some things more important than life? How do the Iraqis feel about the place they are in now as opposed to where they were before America invaded?
Balancing those questions requires pragmatism & facts as well as theory. We really need science. We might well think differently of this balance if two people were on one side or half a million. I suspect we’d see the First Amendment trumped by the death of many hundred thousand Tutsis; that our representatives did not, not realizing, perhaps, the power of those virulent radio voices, is something we all view with shame. Our decisions are tempered by the non-theoretical, the real. But what is real must be real. The problem is that, at this point, we are not comfortable with the work that put that 100,000 onto the scale (and that now, I see in other blogs, has put a 125,000 weight). Indeed, I’ll admit, I don’t want it to be true; I believed it was a good thing to go into Iraq and I still do. But the problem with those scales is not just our lack of comfort with the science that produces such weights (legitimate uneasiness I would argue) but the refusal to note that elections, polls, etc. are beginning to weight the other side as well. I am willing to face a fact face to face, as Thoreau would observe. But the Lancet’s acquiescence in blackmail leads me to doubt 100,000 is such a fact. I am quite willing to believe that man is a fallen creature and more Abu Ghraib’s may well exist; I am quite willing to believe that man makes mistakes and that people have died needlessly at checkpoints. And I’m willing to believe that the U.S. bombs were was not so perfect collateral damage did not happen and perhaps happen often. We understand human nature – and that understanding makes us doubt any studies that don’t take that into consideration.