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Friday, August 21, 2009

Of Shoes and Ships, and Sealing Wax...

"By doubting we all come to truth." - Cicero

Lately, I have been experiencing nearly constant reminders of a phenomenon that has bothered me from as early as I can remember. When I was younger, probably around the age of 8, I asked my mother why we went to church, worshiped Jesus, and so on (I come from a Catholic family), and my mother told me that it was what we believed. When I asked her why we believed it, she told me, "Well, you have to believe in something." Of course, years later, I now know that she was absolutely right. Regardless of our view of the world, we all have a set of fundamental assumptions and beliefs about the world - that the sun will rise tomorrow, that the laws of physics apply equally at my desk and at yours, or that humanity was born out of cornmeal and the blood of a god.

The phenomenon I'm referring to is the oft repeated claim that Americans, by and large, are afraid of complexity, bored by nuance, and only receptive to new information that fits neatly into their existing model of the world - call it 'passive ignorance,' if you like. Naturally, this is not true of all Americans, nor is it true only of Americans; and yet the claim gets made. I like to think of myself as practicing that form of 'healthy skepticism' that tries to ask questions about important issues, but that doesn't really mind taking unfounded assertions as long as the source has a reputation for reliability - and yet I know that I often fail to live up to this ideal.

Take your pick of any of the major news stories, and you'll see this: the current 'health care reform' maelstrom, the global recession, or my personal favorite, the swine flu pandemic. From the Synthesis blog, 'Apparently Swine Flu is Back' discusses a Fox News piece which, among other things, worries that the federal government might use swine flu as a way to impose martial law, and continue the transformation of the US into a totalitarian police state. To be fair, the Fox piece sticks to the facts of the case, describing the actions various national governments have taken, and leaves the discussion of various doomsday scenarios to quotes by various outside sources.

The coverage of this issue, and the popular reaction to it - at least from what I've seen - is basically what you'd expect: 'far-right' conservatives/republicans/libertarians see swine flu as an excuse for the federal government, using what may or may not actually be a legitimate issue, to further the implementation an ideologically-motivated welfare state; 'far-left' liberals/democrats/progressives see this response as the racially-motivated paranoid fantasies of a group so detached from reality that they would oppose any ideas coming out of this government, even at the expense of the safety and securing of the populace.

I don't think that either of the above descriptions is really appropriate, but I do think that most of of us, seeing this coverage, would pretty quickly dismiss at least one side's concerns as being somewhat nonsensical - and here is where 'passive ignorance' rears its ugly head. In truth, both sides do have legitimate concerns, and there are issues here upon which reasonable people might disagree. In dismissing either side, we deprive ourselves of the chance to study an interesting problem, engage in healthy debate, and be a little better for it.

First at issue is whether the fundamental problem - swine flu - is in fact a problem. If, as the Fox article mentions, the current swine flu strain results in a pandemic like the 1918 'Spanish flu' epidemic, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 50 to 100 million people (see this article, references 1-5, specifically), including my own great-grandmother, then there is almost certainly a legitimate cause for concern, even taking into account the enormous strides medicine has made since then. Furthermore, even if swine flu doesn't cause such a pandemic (or epidemic), building the capability to defend against such an event is probably worth considering.

Next is the very real question of whether measures such as quarantine and forced vaccination ethical and/or legal. One argument for such measures is that by not being vaccinated during an epidemic, a person risks becoming infected and thus constitutes a direct danger to the safety and health - and thus the fundamental liberties - of those around him. On the other hand, as with all medical care, vaccination does carry risks, and the government's decision that such risks are outweighed by the interests of the state must have a defensible basis. Of course, we could avoid this by the use of quarantines, although this simply shifts the burden on individual liberties from those of life and health to those of the freedom of movement and due process.

Finally, the claim most likely to be dismissed by the 'liberals' among us is that of whether such practices constitute the advancement of ideology in the guise of public necessity; but the concern here is, at least in my (admittedly non-professional) opinion, a valid one. The Fox article mentions the Posse Comitatus Act, which, in general terms, prohibits the military from engaging in civilian law enforcement. The law was originally passed to end the use of the military as a quasi-police force, upholding and enforcing unpopular laws in the post-Civil War era South. In its current state, prohibits the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines as well as the National Guard when acting under the command of the president from being used to enforce civilian law, except in certain specific situations; this prohibition does not extend to the Coast Guard, nor to the National Guard of a state when acting under the direction of the state's governor. According to the Fox piece, the Department of Defense is considering a proposal which would allow the creation of military units permanently stationed in the US to assist local civilian authorities in dealing with an epidemic incident. (Note: the Fox article implies that the proposal describes setting up units specifically to deal with the potential swine flu epidemic, as seems to be confirmed by
this CNN article, rather than as a permanent force. Note also that this particular CNN article does not mention the potential legal issues, and searches for 'military swine flu posse comitatus' and 'swine flu posse comitatus' on return no results.)

Is the potentiality of military police prohibiting suspected carriers of swine flu from leaving their houses looming on the horizon? Probably not. But still, there are legal limitations on what the military can and cannot do in such a situation, and these limitations must be respected; or, if the limitations aren't a good idea, then perhaps Congress should repeal them.

Personally, I like thinking about complex issues. I enjoy nuance, and, in most situations, I find ideas that don't easily fit into my current world-view more interesting than those that do. Which is why I have so much trouble understanding things such as this article,
'What Media Bias? Part 152.' The author quotes an article (I believe it's this Reuters article, but I can't be sure) saying that "U.S. consumer confidence took an unexpectedly steep slide in June," and accusing the media of presenting a biased view of the economy, asking, and I quote:

By whom? How much of a liberal pinhead do you have to be to not expect a massive slide in consumer confidence when unemployment is going heck for leather towards 10%?" (emphasis in the original)

Of course, the article (at least, the Reuters article that I believe he's discussing) goes on to say that the consumer confidence index dropped from 54.8 in May to 49.3 in June, as compared to the 55.0 expectation of 'economists polled by Reuters.' Other indices and figures come from Standard & Poor's/Case Shiller, the National Association of Purchasing Management-New York, and others. Now, I know the article doesn't give the names and employers of the 'polled economists,' but I generally tend to trust Reuters, and most of the economists I know would certainly not qualify as 'liberal pinheads.' Of course, I'm in training to be one myself (not a macroeconomist, but still...), so I'm certainly biased, but I still think its good to know that they were talking to economists as opposed to random people of the street.

I'll conclude, before I start ranting about the misunderstood 'dismal science.' In the words of Aaron Sorkin, et al. (via C.J. Cregg of The West Wing), "complexity isn't a vice."

- Tiro


Maxwell Evans said...

"In dismissing either side, we deprive ourselves of the chance to study an interesting problem, engage in healthy debate, and be a little better for it."

I've come around to the way of thinking that discussion and debate have two different purposes. In a 'debate' you have two parties rigorously arguing for one side or the other, but what matters is the opinions of the eighty million 'third party' observers watching the debate.

In a discussion you have two people attempting to derive truth from information.

In a way, the scientific method is a tool used to prevent 'discussions' from turning into 'debates' with no observers and thus, no purpose.

A pointless debate is, of course, what is known as an 'argument.'

Maxwell Evans said...

two or more people, I should have said.

Paul Zirvan said...

In an all out appocolyptic fall out, ye who has the big guns makes the big rules. Despite what ever laws thoes parties may be breaking at that time. In times of ¨war¨ no sins are commited only acts of God.

Maxwell Evans said...

I would find that declaration much less disquieting if I could find two anthropologists, historians or random street bums who agreed on a definition of "war."

But I never have.