Bad Science

February 08, 2020

Saturday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Does the truth actually matter?

I remember learning in college that rhetoric, properly understood, originally meant not only speaking skillfully but also speaking what was good and true. I’m afraid that in spite of this era’s preponderance of speeches and proclamations, true rhetoric has mostly degenerated into wordplay and gamesmanship. Communication is too often used to manipulate people and wield power rather than to seek understanding and risk learning.

Today’s cultural and political forces fill inexorably opposed sides with equal measures of self-righteousness and indignation. Free inquiry becomes a liability if it might lead to inconvenient outcomes. Have we stopped thinking altogether or had we never actually started?

I think most of the USA was disgusted with the way that the impeachment inquiry, hearings, and trial unfolded over the last several months. Of course, we are not all disgusted for the same reason. Personally, I was appalled at how few people seemed at all interested in anything that anybody on the other side had to say. This was groupthink at its purest.

From my amateur perspective, both sides made mistakes. I imagine that some people on both sides truly thought they were acting in the public good. That does not mean they possessed moral equivalence however. One side, feeling there was sufficient evidence to pursue an investigation and hearings sought evidence and testimony. The other side consistently attempted to thwart such attempts, presumably believing that any emergent facts would not be in their favor. Although the latter were largely successful, it turns out that the facts did not matter after all. Now witnesses who had given damaging testimony are starting to be punished for not perjuring themselves.

What is behind the personality cult that banishes reasonable thought? Why do the defections of lifelong Republicans seem to provoke more cries of betrayal than they do calls for introspection?

Some are quick to attribute support of the demagogic president to ignorance, cowardice, bigotry, or unconsciousness. To assume that his supporters are cowardly, bigoted, ignorant or unreflective though would be both unjust and counter-productive. People respond to those who talk to them not who heap scorn on them.

It’s unfortunately easy to make logical arguments to support unconscionable political leaders and untenable positions. People do this on both the right and the left, and usually do so by first choosing to adhere to a conclusion before seeking evidence and arguments. We tend to find what we’re looking for and ignore what we don’t wish to see.

In my few years as a vegetarian, I could have given you all the arguments to support my dietary choice, many of which are still worth considering. Still, there is one primary reason that these arguments were convincing to me at the time—it’s because I was already convinced.

Deciding what you want to prove and then setting out to prove is the opposite of science. Hypotheses are meant to be tested without any pre-determined presumption as to their correctness. To do otherwise is to prostitute reason.

There’s a whole lot of that going on these days. Was it ever any different?

It takes courage to be open to being proven wrong. Where are the courageous?


This week’s “ear candy” asks the question “What Is Truth?” It is a question that can connote genuine inquiry or flippant derision—so much depends on one’s tone. The “brain food” ties into the same current events that I referred to throughout this week’s post… although many senators may have acted with integrity during the recent impeachment trial, the only one who proved his integrity by paying great political cost was Senator Mitt Romney, whose convictions led him to stand against his own party in dramatic fashion. His historic words merit a reading.

Ear Candy: “What Is Truth” by Johnny Cash

Brain Food: “Full Text: Romney’s Speech on Why He’ll Vote to Convict Trump of Abuse of Power” by Mitt Romney

Come back next Saturday for a new post!