Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Thoughts on Rep. Akin's "Foot in Mouth Disease" Problem

I'm usually smart enough to stay away from really nasty political issues. I guess today isn't one of my smarter days.

Actually, in thinking about Rep. Akin and the flap-du-jour stemming from his comments on abortion, I'm not really interested in the debate about abortion policy. Akin and his supporters may want to eliminate access to abortion in cases of rape, but they are in the minority in this country and will always continue to be. That's not a fight they're ever going to win. Beyond that, I'll let others carry on the fight.

What I found most disturbing (this will really label me as a pointy-headed intellectual) is not the policy debate, but the epistemology underlying what he said. For those who have been hiding in a cave, here's the core of his remarks that have drawn the most fire:
"It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare,” Akin said, referring to conception following a rape. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." (from the LA Times)
Efforts to identify the "doctors" Akin refers to have apparently come to naught. Yesterday another news outlet ran a piece on the history of this line - that there's some kind of biological defense that keeps rape victims from getting pregnant. This is a claim that's been made before, repeatedly - always (no coincidence here) by politicians with a particular stance on the abortion policy debate.

The epistemological problem, of course, is that this is crap. There's not a shred of evidence - not statistical, not biological, not medical, nothing - to support this contention. It is, quite simply, made up. It is sustained and passed from person to person within parts of the anti-abortion community via the mechanism of Wishful Thinking. It's a "fact" that certain people want to believe, and so they believe it, completely sans evidence.

As various folks, including Bernard Baruch and James Schlesinger, have pointed out - everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts. Richard Feynman famously noted after the Challenger disaster that "for a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled." It is reality, not the "spin" we put on it, that determines life and death.

People are welcome to make whatever moral arguments they like about abortion - which is a morally challenging arena, open to legitimate debate over hard issues. What nobody is allowed to do - at least, not in a society based on reason, discourse, and laws - is make up "facts" to try to bolster their moral position.

Anybody who does so is not merely guilty of being "wrong" on an issue. Akin, and those who have come before him, is either a charlatan (a fancy term for "liar") or a fool. He is either willing to invent things to suit his own purposes, or he is willing to believe things other people say without regard for whether they might be true or not. Either condition should exclude him from public office.

There are folks who will disagree, of course, and if he stays in the race some people in Missouri will vote for him. These are folks who think he's right on the moral issue, or on something else, and don't care about Akin's grasp of facts. And that is one of the real divides in American politics.

There are plenty of people in both political parties who think this way - who are so Tribal in their identities that (as Fritz Heider pointed out) they will bend reality around them to fit their feelings. There are also plenty of people in both parties who really do care about reality and facts, and who try hard to seek evidence, think rationally, and change their minds when the facts demand it.

To my mind, that's a far more important distinction than party ID. Two people from opposite parties who agree on epistemology and process can come to agreement, or at least narrow the scope of disagreement, by pursuing the facts together. But two people who have completely different, unverifiable sets of facts will never agree on anything. They can live separately, or agree to an uneasy coexistence, or they can try to eliminate each other. But living in community together is probably not going to be possible.

I'll be interested to see whether Akin drops out or not - as of this writing, he has not. The battle among Republicans over his candidacy is, at least partly, over this very issue. It will be interesting to see who wins.

1 comment:

  1. Akin is a total caveman. There is a cause to remove him spreading across the Web - http://www.youstand.com/cause/82112/remove-todd-akin-from-the-house-science-committee