Archive for December, 2007

Hyperbole and where it gets us

Professor Hanson (December 23, 2007, In War: Resolution. The Claremont Review) starts a lecture on the history of war with the hyperbole of the politicians who demand perfection and condemn in absolute terms a lack of perfection.

what loses wars are not the inevitable mistakes, but the failure to correct them in time and the defeatism and depression (because errors occurred at all) that we allow to paralyze us.

But more likely the American public, not the timeless nature of war, has changed. We no longer easily accept human imperfections. We care less about correcting problems than assessing blame — in postmodern America it is defeat that has a thousand fathers, while the notion of victory is an orphan. We fail to assume that the enemy makes as many mistakes but addresses them less skillfully. We do not acknowledge the role of fate and chance in war, which sometimes upsets our best endeavors. Most importantly we are not fixed on victory as the only acceptable outcome.

What defines victory in the current era is not a common goal. To some, victory is a defeat of the political enemy and the military effort is seen simply as a tool for political and propagandistic manipulation. The binary argument – any flaw destroys an entire viewpoint – is used both to rationalize or defend a state of mind and pretend that the ‘opposition’ is wrong. Reality looses, intellectual integrity suffers.

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Haggling over perfection: the definition of words

The Edge has noted the discussion started by an article by Paul Davies, a cosmologist at Arizona State University and author of popular science books, on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times (Laws of nature, source unknown). The haggling is about what “law” means in science and the nature of belief.

Dr. Davies asserted in the article that science, not unlike religion, rested on faith, not in God but in the idea of an orderly universe. Without that presumption a scientist could not function.

The idea of an orderly universe is not a matter of faith nor a presumption. Rather, it serves in the role of the axioms in a geometric proof, that of “a proposition that is assumed without proof for the sake of studying the consequences that follow from it.” (

Edge notes:

Science is a topic which can cause people to turn off their brains. I contend that science has failed to excite more people for at least two reasons: it is frequently taught poorly, often as rote memorization of complex facts and data, and it is antithetical to our visceral-driven way we live and interact with our world.

Well, that is perhaps a point similar to that of Cromer in his book Uncommon Sense and could apply to mathematics and many other complex constructs humans use to simplify their reality. Religion is also in this class. Science and religion both demonstrate the need humans have to make sense of the world around them. How they do so is what distinguishes them from each other.

Religion puts its focus on preferred behavior and develops a belief system to rationalize the desired behavior. The goal is salvation of the person.

Science and mathematics define certain axioms and extrapolates their influence. The value of an axiom or a method in science is in how well it functions to describe what can be sensed.

In English, words mean things and that meaning has nuance that depends upon context. The needs of science for words is different than that of law or religion or day to day conversation. When terms such as “law” or “theory” or “belief” are misused, the effort represents an intention to confuse and mislead. Haggling about these words means that the ‘debate’ has gone sour and the intent is to find ways to rationalize personal viewpoints rather than to learn and share ideas.

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Confusing defensive with EBM

Medicine, like many other activities involving judgment and expertise has become defensive. If something goes awry or even not completely right, scapegoat hunting is fostered by visions of riches gained at little risk. In defense, the community develops standards and practices to use as a cudgel in defense against these attacks. The individual practitioner who follows these established mechanisms has a strong community behind him to help his defense.

The problem is that the standards and practices then become something to complain about. Like the 2000 Florida elections, there are people who are never satisfied, people who are always looking for some way to scratch their itch, people who just can’t accept reality.

Richard Dolinar MD provides an example of the backlash in Evidence-Based Medicine vs. Patients.

Is there, indeed, a best practice regarding the approach to elevated intraocular pressure? If so, how should the algorithm be constructed? Who should have the ultimate discretion in making that decision? Should it be the treating physician, with the best interest of the individual patient in mind? Or a third party with the best interest of the bottom line in mind?

Where Dolinar gives away the beans is in his choice of a straw man and in empty assertions such as the “interest of the bottom line.” The straw man is in choosing for his examples statistically based research with no definitive outcome. It is not honest to argue against evidence based decision making using examples without evidence. That straw man is accompanied by the litany of relativistic and soft armor:

Clinicians now fear medical malpractice suits if they do not follow EBM guidelines in treating patients. But as one resident recently asked me, which guidelines do you follow? Even guidelines about the same disease can vary substantially, depending upon which professional organization promulgated them.

EBM, by contrast, relies primarily on epidemiological data, which it uses in a way that preempts all other information collected by the treating physician. In fact, non-quantifiable information such as the patient’s values and the physician’s clinical experience are not even taken into account in EBM.

conflicting guidelines, which wizard to follow, non-quantifiable information, – let’s have a brainstorm session to invent more ways to rationalize our feelings! The falsehood here is that of presuming a binary distribution, a yes or no, EBM or not. The fact is that an MD is trained and licensed because there is judgment involved even with the best evidence to guide him. There is judgment to be made about which professional organization has the most to say in a particular case. There is a judgment to be made about the certainty of the evidence and its application in a particular case. There is a judgment to be made about the patient’s response and needs. The fact about EBM is that a physician should start with known evidence and understand its limits as a part of making diagnosis and deciding therapy.

Dolinar then ends in a basic contradiction:

The decisions whether and how to treat a disease ultimately lie with patients, who makes these decisions with their doctors’ help. It’s a value judgment, and there is no way to measure value. It is not quantifiable in inches, pounds, or miles per hour.

The ultimate discretion regarding how information from multiple sources (including EBM, prior clinical experience, and the patient’s unique circumstances, wishes, and desires) are integrated for treating individuals should be in the physician’s hands. Since he has the ultimate responsibility for the patient’s care, he should have the ultimate discretion.

The decision lies with the patients but is in the physician’s hands? No, the patient does not do his own diagnosis and decide his own treatment. What the patient does is to choose his physician and aid that physician in making decisions that the patient that can then choose whether or not to follow. The physician does not have an ultimate discretion because he is bound by the ethics of his profession and the constraints of his license. His discretion is limited by those constraints.

What Dolinar and others, such as those who advocate alternative medicine, do not do, where their lack of intellectual integrity is demonstrated, is that they do not offer a rational basis for using anything other than evidence as a basis for making decisions. They do not suggest any standard by which decisions can be based nor any standard by which outcomes can be measured. They misuse the precision and accuracy of measures that create evidence in order to misrepresent circumstances. They use the lack of absolute certainty in most aspects of medicine to toss out a proven methodology but do not offer anything to replace it other than whim and whimsy.

This gets into the reasons why certain professions require a license to practice in a jurisdiction. Society has learned that not having some controls in certain professions can be costly in many ways. Licensing may not be a complete solution but it is an effort towards a solution. Lawsuits are not a complete solution either, and there is much discussion about the abuse of the legal system and its impact on health care. Tossing out the baby with the bathwater as Dolinar seems to suggest, is probably not a good way towards finding solutions.

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Ron Paul ad seems to be missing something

A radio ad for Ron Paul takes up the issue of the Nuclear Dump. He says it is a “scheme” and unconstitutional because Nevada should be able to determine what happens in Nevada.

The problem is that the federal government owns most of the land in Nevada. Shouldn’t the owner of the land be the one to determine how to use it?

Generally, Ron Paul takes up the libertarian view. That view would indeed put the owner of the land in control of what he owns above the state. In this particular issue, the advocacy seems pandering towards those who see the federal government as a villain. That tends to discredit the philosophical underpinning of the campaign.

A more credible approach here would be to identify those criteria where the state should to trump the rights of individual property owners. What are the limits to what you can do with your property and when can the state tell you otherwise?

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What you see may lack a proper referent

In some circles, the abuse of power by the US administration and the evils of the US in warmongering and imperialism are considered beyond question. This paradigm is interesting in that contemporary comparisons for these concepts are readily available. There is a scale upon which to measure an administration’s abuse of power and the manners by which a country engages in foreign conflict. Wretchard notes Brand A and Brand B as a case in point.

The Russian campaign in Chechnya is interesting as a control case to Iraq not only because it lets the historian examine a counterinsurgency waged without American political constraints but also provides a real-world benchmark for what constitutes a truly brutal campaign as opposed to one only imagined that way by Hollywood directors like Brian de Palma. The Chechen campaign provides an an actual example of a counterinsurgency waged by an ex-socialist country compared to the actions of what has been described as a bestial colonial power, the United States of America. It’s a contemporaneous side-by-side comparison by two different systems waged against a similar foe. And how have the two fared?

There are other “contemporaneous side-by-side comparison by two different systems” that can be made. The Venezuela situation is an example of an effort to turn a democracy to a dictatorship by the abuse of administrative power. The fact that such ready references are tossed aside does not speak well for the conclusions of those who are very quick to castigate their personal villains.

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Political expediency on parade

Captain Ed and others have taken note of a WaPo story about how the CIA briefed four Congressional leaders back in 2002. It stimulates a comparison and contrast and Captain Ed notes that it

doesn’t settle the question as to whether waterboarding constitutes torture, but it certainly calls into question the notion that politics has nothing to do with the debate. The CIA stopped using waterboarding after 2003, and apparently have only used it on three detainees: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, and an unidentified al-Qaeda prisoner. Only well after the practice had been abandoned did Congress raise objections to its use, and then never acknowledging their own acquiescence to it earlier. That lack of honesty allowed them to paint themselves as shocked, shocked! that waterboarding had been used as an interrogation technique.

or, as Glen Reynolds notes at Instapundit

Lots of people who were talking tough back then subsequently changed their tunes — out of either a sudden flowering of scruples or an unprincipled desire to go after the Bush Administration with any weapon that came to hand. But, you know, if you’re going to say “it was different back then,” it really has to be more than just an all-purpose excuse for politicians. It’s also a reason not to hang people out to dry for doing what politicians, and the public, wanted back then, when things were so “different.” Your call, but Jules Crittenden notes: “Next thing you know, someone’s going to say the Clinton co-presidency thought Saddam had a nuclear program and backed regime change.”

The recent NIE with the flip flop about Iran’s nuclear ambitions raises the same issue. Some point out that it is part of an ongoing bureaucrat’s war against the administration. That is internal politics. What is more ominous is noted by some overseas that this is yet another indication that the US does not have political will to express a coherent and consistent and dependable image. That lack is a tool of the enemies of the country and a plague for US allies.

Political expediency is on parade – the value system that puts the ends over the means and dismisses the past if necessary to promote the exigencies of the present.

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Mitt Romney’s reminder

Mitt Romney found it necessary to address those suspicious of his faith. In a speech at the George Bush presidential library he reminds us all of the nature of religion as a critical part of the foundation of our society and government.

It is an honor to be here today. This is an inspiring place because of you and the First Lady and because of the film exhibited across the way in the Presidential library. For those who have not seen it, it shows the President as a young pilot, shot down during the Second World War, being rescued from his life-raft by the crew of an American submarine. It is a moving reminder that when America has faced challenge and peril, Americans rise to the occasion, willing to risk their very lives to defend freedom and preserve our nation. We are in your debt. Thank you, Mr. President.

Mr. President, your generation rose to the occasion, first to defeat Fascism and then to vanquish the Soviet Union. You left us, your children, a free and strong America. It is why we call yours the greatest generation. It is now my generation’s turn. How we respond to today’s challenges will define our generation. And it will determine what kind of America we will leave our children, and theirs.

America faces a new generation of challenges. Radical violent Islam seeks to destroy us. An emerging China endeavors to surpass our economic leadership. And we are troubled at home by government overspending, overuse of foreign oil, and the breakdown of the family.

Over the last year, we have embarked on a national debate on how best to preserve American leadership. Today, I wish to address a topic which I believe is fundamental to America’s greatness: our religious liberty. I will also offer perspectives on how my own faith would inform my Presidency, if I were elected.

There are some who may feel that religion is not a matter to be seriously considered in the context of the weighty threats that face us. If so, they are at odds with the nation’s founders, for they, when our nation faced its greatest peril, sought the blessings of the Creator. And further, they discovered the essential connection between the survival of a free land and the protection of religious freedom. In John Adams’ words: ‘We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion… Our constitution was made for a moral and religious people.’

Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom. Freedom opens the windows of the soul so that man can discover his most profound beliefs and commune with God. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.

Given our grand tradition of religious tolerance and liberty, some wonder whether there are any questions regarding an aspiring candidate’s religion that are appropriate. I believe there are. And I will answer them today.

Almost 50 years ago another candidate from Massachusetts explained that he was an American running for president, not a Catholic running for president. Like him, I am an American running for president. I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith.

Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin.

As governor, I tried to do the right as best I knew it, serving the law and answering to the Constitution. I did not confuse the particular teachings of my church with the obligations of the office and of the Constitution – and of course, I would not do so as President. I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law.

As a young man, Lincoln described what he called America’s ‘political religion’ – the commitment to defend the rule of law and the Constitution. When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God. If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest. A President must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States.

There are some for whom these commitments are not enough. They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do. I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers – I will be true to them and to my beliefs.

Some believe that such a confession of my faith will sink my candidacy. If they are right, so be it. But I think they underestimate the American people. Americans do not respect believers of convenience. Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs, even to gain the world.

There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church’s beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance. Religious tolerance would be a shallow principle indeed if it were reserved only for faiths with which we agree.

There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church’s distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution. No candidate should become the spokesman for his faith. For if he becomes President he will need the prayers of the people of all faiths.

I believe that every faith I have encountered draws its adherents closer to God. And in every faith I have come to know, there are features I wish were in my own: I love the profound ceremony of the Catholic Mass, the approachability of God in the prayers of the Evangelicals, the tenderness of spirit among the Pentecostals, the confident independence of the Lutherans, the ancient traditions of the Jews, unchanged through the ages, and the commitment to frequent prayer of the Muslims. As I travel across the country and see our towns and cities, I am always moved by the many houses of worship with their steeples, all pointing to heaven, reminding us of the source of life’s blessings.

It is important to recognize that while differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions. And where the affairs of our nation are concerned, it’s usually a sound rule to focus on the latter – on the great moral principles that urge us all on a common course. Whether it was the cause of abolition, or civil rights, or the right to life itself, no movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.

We separate church and state affairs in this country, and for good reason. No religion should dictate to the state nor should the state interfere with the free practice of religion. But in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They are wrong.

The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation ‘Under God’ and in God, we do indeed trust. We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders – in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places. Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our constitution rests. I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from ‘the God who gave us liberty.’

Nor would I separate us from our religious heritage. Perhaps the most important question to ask a person of faith who seeks a political office, is this: does he share these American values: the equality of human kind, the obligation to serve one another, and a steadfast commitment to liberty? They are not unique to any one denomination. They belong to the great moral inheritance we hold in common. They are the firm ground on which Americans of different faiths meet and stand as a nation, united.

We believe that every single human being is a child of God – we are all part of the human family. The conviction of the inherent and inalienable worth of every life is still the most revolutionary political proposition ever advanced. John Adams put it that we are ‘thrown into the world all equal and alike.’

The consequence of our common humanity is our responsibility to one another, to our fellow Americans foremost, but also to every child of God. It is an obligation which is fulfilled by Americans every day, here and across the globe, without regard to creed or race or nationality.

Americans acknowledge that liberty is a gift of God, not an indulgence of government. No people in the history of the world have sacrificed as much for liberty. The lives of hundreds of thousands of America’s sons and daughters were laid down during the last century to preserve freedom, for us and for freedom loving people throughout the world. America took nothing from that Century’s terrible wars – no land from Germany or Japan or Korea; no treasure; no oath of fealty. America’s resolve in the defense of liberty has been tested time and again. It has not been found wanting, nor must it ever be. America must never falter in holding high the banner of freedom.

These American values, this great moral heritage, is shared and lived in my religion as it is in yours. I was taught in my home to honor God and love my neighbor. I saw my father march with Martin Luther King. I saw my parents provide compassionate care to others, in personal ways to people nearby, and in just as consequential ways in leading national volunteer movements. I am moved by the Lord’s words: ‘For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me…’

My faith is grounded on these truths. You can witness them in Ann and my marriage and in our family. We are a long way from perfect and we have surely stumbled along the way, but our aspirations, our values, are the self-same as those from the other faiths that stand upon this common foundation. And these convictions will indeed inform my presidency.

Today’s generations of Americans have always known religious liberty. Perhaps we forget the long and arduous path our nation’s forbearers took to achieve it. They came here from England to seek freedom of religion. But upon finding it for themselves, they at first denied it to others. Because of their diverse beliefs, Ann Hutchinson was exiled from Massachusetts Bay, a banished Roger Williams founded Rhode Island, and two centuries later, Brigham Young set out for the West. Americans were unable to accommodate their commitment to their own faith with an appreciation for the convictions of others to different faiths. In this, they were very much like those of the European nations they had left.

It was in Philadelphia that our founding fathers defined a revolutionary vision of liberty, grounded on self evident truths about the equality of all, and the inalienable rights with which each is endowed by his Creator. We cherish these sacred rights, and secure them in our Constitutional order. Foremost do we protect religious liberty, not as a matter of policy but as a matter of right. There will be no established church, and we are guaranteed the free exercise of our religion.

I’m not sure that we fully appreciate the profound implications of our tradition of religious liberty. I have visited many of the magnificent cathedrals in Europe. They are so inspired … so grand … so empty. Raised up over generations, long ago, so many of the cathedrals now stand as the postcard backdrop to societies just too busy or too ‘enlightened’ to venture inside and kneel in prayer. The establishment of state religions in Europe did no favor to Europe’s churches. And though you will find many people of strong faith there, the churches themselves seem to be withering away.

Infinitely worse is the other extreme, the creed of conversion by conquest: violent Jihad, murder as martyrdom… killing Christians, Jews, and Muslims with equal indifference. These radical Islamists do their preaching not by reason or example, but in the coercion of minds and the shedding of blood. We face no greater danger today than theocratic tyranny, and the boundless suffering these states and groups could inflict if given the chance.

The diversity of our cultural expression, and the vibrancy of our religious dialogue, has kept America in the forefront of civilized nations even as others regard religious freedom as something to be destroyed. In such a world, we can be deeply thankful that we live in a land where reason and religion are friends and allies in the cause of liberty, joined against the evils and dangers of the day. And you can be certain of this: Any believer in religious freedom, any person who has knelt in prayer to the Almighty, has a friend and ally in me. And so it is for hundreds of millions of our countrymen: we do not insist on a single strain of religion – rather, we welcome our nation’s symphony of faith.

Recall the early days of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, during the fall of 1774. With Boston occupied by British troops, there were rumors of imminent hostilities and fears of an impending war. In this time of peril, someone suggested that they pray. But there were objections. ‘They were too divided in religious sentiments’, what with Episcopalians and Quakers, Anabaptists and Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Catholics. Then Sam Adams rose, and said he would hear a prayer from anyone of piety and good character, as long as they were a patriot.

And so together they prayed, and together they fought, and together, by the grace of God … they founded this great nation.

In that spirit, let us give thanks to the divine ‘author of liberty.’ And together, let us pray that this land may always be blessed, ‘with freedom’s holy light.’

God bless the United States of America.

Paul at Powerline presented this with cynicism and the win/lose mantra of the political pundit. If, instead, Romney’s speech is taken not as an argument in a debate but rather as a lesson, a reminder, – then perhaps we might gain something more than just political blab from it.

In this season where municipalities suffer those who just can’t stand any expression of Christmas, especially on anything that might be construed as government, Romney’s reminder is one for all of us. From the attacks on the Boy Scouts to the attempts to remove “under God” from currency, there are those among us who give the appearance of trying to tweak us via intolerance. It seems there game has nothing to do with ideology but rather with what they can get away with – much like the schoolyard bully.

There are limits to tolerance. These limits are always tested. Who we are depends upon being strong in the right standards and meeting those tests with integrity.

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