Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Bush’s Lysenkoism and the Distortion of Intelligence
Science and the Postmodern Presidency

[This post by CalPundit prompted me to post this, a shorter version of a longer piece I've been fiddling around with.]

[This post is also at Blogcritics, so you can comment on it there...comments coming soon!]

'Lysenkoism' is a vague term for a complex and fuzzy phenomenon. Roughly and for my purposes here, to engage in Lysekoism is to distort science in order to bring it into line with political orthodoxy.

(A) It is well-known (though not well enough known) that the Bush administration is Lysenkoist, though it isn’t often put in those terms. This administration has suppressed or distorted scientific conclusions about—among many other topics—global warming, the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education, drilling in the ANWR, and air quality in Manhattan after 9/11 in order to force science to conform (or appear to conform) to the administration’s antecedently-accepted political beliefs. Henry Waxman’s Politics and Science website is an invaluable resource for information on the political distortion of science in the Bush administration.

(B) It is also reasonably clear that the Bush administration distorted evidence about Iraq’s WMDs and its links to al Qaeda in the run up to the Iraq war. This case is made persuasively in several places, most recently in a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications.”

What is usually overlooked, however, is that A and B are merely two instances of the same general phenomenon. Intelligence gathering and analysis is a kind of science. It is in particular a kind of social science, aiming, like so many other kinds of social science, to discern the beliefs, intentions and actions of certain groups of people. Of course intelligence agencies often study groups that prefer to conceal their beliefs and intentions from us and that want to hurt us; but, although this adds a certain practical element of urgency to the equation, it doesn’t change anything fundamental: intelligence gathering and analysis, when done correctly, is in large part a kind of science, even if a more practical and less theoretical kind of science, more like the science of nutrition than astrophysics. And, of course, Lysenkoism itself is simply a particular instance of an even more general phenomenon we could call logical preposterism--starting with your conclusion and evaluating evidence as good or bad depending on whether it supports this antecedently-accepted conclusion. Reasoning this way is preposterous in the literal sense of putting what is supposed to come last (the conclusion) first; in fact, it isn't really reasoning at all, but, rather, rationalization.

In seeking to manipulate and distort the findings of our intelligence agencies about Iraq, the Bush Administration was merely doing what it has done since it took office—dogmatically distorting and suppressing evidence in the service of advancing conclusions arrived at for political reasons, and putting political pressure on experts to go along with the deception. What happened in the build-up to the Iraq war should have come as no surprise to those who had been observing the Administration’s general attitude to science and rational inquiry. In this, the postmodern presidency, belief need no longer conform to fact; on the contrary, facts are flexible things which must be made to conform to inflexible opinion. T. D. Lysenko has risen from the grave.


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