The Age of Non-Reason

Logic has nothing to do with truth. It has to do with relationships. Logic says that if A and B are true, then C is true. If A or B isn't true, you've wasted your and your audience's time and know absolutely nothing about C. At one time, learned people were required to study logic and rhetoric to aid in their thought processes, but we no longer teach logic or rhetoric in our schools and so we no longer have this aid.

With this as preamble, consider the "debate" over the US' involvement in Iraq. On the one side people say, "If we don't fight in Iraq, the Islamic militants will think us weak and will attempt even more 9/11's on US soil." The other side says, "What a stupid war. All we are doing is creating a new generation of Islamic militants who will stop at nothing to try to destroy us." Once they start on these logical paths, they are doomed to disagree violently without being able to understand the other's position at all. From their point of view the other side is idiotic, unreasonable and possibly even evil. However, both are being logical, reasoning from their initial assumptions. Their assumptions are contradictory and no amount of reasoning from contradictory points is going to lead to agreement, or even mutual understanding.

As one side or the other wins elections, policy swings rapidly from one extreme to the other. We have no coherent policy because we have no coherent thought process producing our policy.

Have you heard anyone in the political process say, "While it is true that we are creating militants by prosecuting the war in Iraq, we are killing even more and keeping the casualties off US soil and the net result is a gain," or "Yes, we have killed a lot of militants and have kept the fight off US soil for the time being, but in the long run we have created more problems than we have solved?" I haven't either. But it is this kind of understanding of the underlying assumptions about the effects of the war that is necessary for a cogent discussion of US policy -- because both sides are right if you follow only their assumptions and both are wrong if you use the assumptions of their opponents.

So, while logic has nothing to do with truth, it has everything to do with understanding positions and reasoning the ultimate results of such assumptions. Without an understanding of the limits of logic and reasoning, all we can do is scream louder than our opponents and use more expensive wordsmiths to characterize their positions. It's all an appeal to emotion. Yes, emotion does have a place in the political process. You cannot quantify the horror of the Nazi concentrations camps. We were correct to reject, "I was only doing my duty" as a defense for the atrocities purely on an emotional basis. The "duty" was so abhorrent to human dignity that an emotional judgment was justified. But can you really argue that emotion is the correct tool to judge every situation? That's pretty much where we are today in modern US politics.

Consider the current debate on global warming. One side says that humans are causing additional greenhouse gasses that are raising the average world temperature and that we need to reverse this process immediately, even if it costs a lot of money. The other side says that world temperatures were rising before the industrial revolution, that the increase in temperatures caused by human intervention is minimal and there is no current danger and thus no cause for major expenditures.

Most of the rhetoric on both sides assumes that temperatures over the past few hundred years are "normal" but disagree on whether we are close to the limits of increasing temperatures. Neither side considers that the earth has had a number of periods when most of the earth was covered by ice as well as some when virtually none of it was. There is no such thing as "normal" for the earth.

If the analysis of the Snowball Earth proponents and Siberian Traps as cause of the Permian Extinction Event are accurate, then the range of normal (meaning without human intervention) is somewhere around 10 degrees Celsius from where we are -- in either direction. Is anyone arguing that since we are closer to the temperatures prior to the Permian Extinction we need to reduce our greenhouse gasses immediately? Or that since we are closer to Snowball Earth temperatures we should pump more greenhouse gasses into the system? Complex life forms have existed on earth for about half a billion years. What is the median temperature, percentage of oxygen and carbon dioxide for this period? More importantly, what is the optimal temperature? Until we can answer these questions, it is all an emotional shouting match. For humans and other primates, warmer is generally better than colder. More humans die every year from cold than from heat. Ice ages are more common and deadly for primates. Human population didn't fare too well during the 500 year mini ice age from 1300 to 1800, although the Plague probably had more to do with that than weather. World temperatures are cooler today than before the mini ice age.

But it is clear that until we can reach some kind of agreement of where temperatures "ought" to be, we have no idea what we are doing fiddling with the temperature. Let me make myself clear on this: I do not have any idea where we are or where we ought to be. I tend to think we have enough evidence for scientists to generate a good guess as to where we ought to be, but because of the way the debate is being structured, no one is doing so. Logically, unless we know what temperatures we ought to want, we have no way of knowing if we are headed in the right or wrong direction -- regardless of whether humans are contributing to warming or not. I don't question that humans do cause some warming. I just don't know whether to cheer or jeer. Neither does anyone else in the debate, but it doesn't keep them from doing so -- loudly, boringly and illogically.

We could make the same kind of analysis of nearly any current political issue. Real science and real evidence are irrelevant. Politicians want to get elected far more than they want the truth. And if they can convince the public that they are on the "right" side of an issue, they have won even if science has lost. So, the "science" is all about straw polls, political momentum, optimal phrasemaking and political advantage. The science of poll taking is more advanced than the science of weather in large part because the people voting for funding have a vested interest in making sure the polls are accurate and a vested interest in obscuring the weather issues to make sure that even if their science is wrong, they still get elected.

How much difference is there between a modern politician studying the direction of the straw in the wind and an ancient one studying goat entrails?

July 9, 2009