“While I respect reality, I don’t believe
in allowing it to control my life.”
New Yorker Cartoon
Sometime during the 2000 campaign, I heard an ordinary citizen say, “I trust
George Bush – he has good instincts.” It’s a comment heard frequently in
this campaign as well.
Anyone with a modicum of critical sense is then compelled to ask: “How do we
know that he has ‘good instincts’?”
“I dunno, I just feel that he does.” (I.e., “instinct”).
“But why should we accept your ‘feeling’?”
Well, you can see where this is going:
Somewhere along the line, there must be some
“reality principle” – a grounding in confirmable facts, otherwise
the mind is idling – like an engine disconnected from the drive
And yet, as
Jonathan Alter reports in Newsweek, Malcolm Gladwell
writes in defense
of snap judgments: “Decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as
decisions made cautiously and deliberately.” [link lost]
Really? And how does Gladwell come to this conclusion? Snap judgment? Not
likely. Writes Alter: “Gladwell explains how the instant intuition of art
experts that a Greek statue was a fake proved superior to painstaking
chemical analysis.” So how was that question eventually settled? You can be
sure that it required more than the experts’ “instant intuition.”
“Intuition,” “hunches,” “gut feeling” – none of these have any place in
science or in law, right?
Wrong! They are all essential, as the history of both science
and law have amply demonstrated.
For while scientific laws and theories do not consist of "hunches," creative
imagination ("hunches") can play an important role in scientific
investigation. Legend has it that Archimedes came upon the concept of
specific gravity while taking a bath. (Did he really? Who knows? Who cares? The story is illustrative, not scientific). James Watson tells us that the
idea of the double helix came to him as he recalled his boyhood exploration
of the spiral staircase at a lighthouse. And Einstein thought of relativity
as he was riding a Zurich trolley and contemplated the "relative motion" of
a passenger walking in the trolley .
But here’s the crux – and remember this, if you forget all else in this
essay: to a subjective dogmatist like Bush, inquiry ends with the hunch. To
the scientist, inquiry begins with the hunch.
The same rule applies in courts of law. The prosecutor may have a “gut
feeling” that the defendant is guilty, but that won’t suffice either in his
opening statement or his closing argument. He must provide evidence as he
presents his case. If the defense comes up with clearly refuting evidence,
then the prosecutor's “gut feeling” will be proven wrong. Once again:
to the dogmatist, inquiry ends with the hunch; in the practice of law, and
in criminal and civil investigations, inquiry begins with the hunch.
Accordingly, when the hunch is the final word, as it seems to be with George
Bush, mere facts cannot touch it. In contrast, when the hunch begins the
investigation, all kinds of possibilities open up, some of which might leave
the hunch far behind.
Returning to science: Einstein, and Crick and Watson took their hunches to
the library and the laboratory, and when they emerged ready to publish, they
had a body of evidence and tightly structured formal and inductive arguments
to support, respectively, relativity theory and the double-helix structure
of DNA. Trolley cars and lighthouses had nothing whatever to do with their
supporting arguments. (For more about how science “works” see my
“Is Science ‘Just
Not all hunches are equal. Their dependability (as determined by subsequent
investigation) is enhanced by practical and professional experience, and by
study (i.e., “book larnin’”). Thus the “gut feeling” of the experienced
physician is to be preferred to that of the medical student. And the “sense”
of what ails your car is more dependable when it is experienced by a trained
mechanic than by a weekend putterer.
This is what is especially scary about George Bush: he lacks that fund of
experience and knowledge that enhances the value of the “gut feeling.” Bush
doesn’t read, he doesn’t tolerate dissenting views much less critical
analysis of his instincts, he has no curiosity whatever about alternative
theories or avenues of investigation. His “wisdom of experience” is
meager, having failed in all his business ventures, and having
served in the weakest Governor’s chair in the nation.
Such an individual is capable of blundering into catastrophic errors –
witness Iraq and the federal deficit. Still worse, such an individual, when
caught in a morass of error and ignorance, is incapable of reassessment,
redirection or, if necessary, strategic retreat. Instead, he “stays the
course,” and insists that his stubbornness is a virtue – “strength of
leadership” and “resolution.”
And so George Bush, whose “gut” is his final, infallible oracle, will never
admit to a mistake. Instead, anything that goes wrong is the fault of
someone else. He “inherited Clinton’s recession.” His declining approval
ratings are the fault of “the librul media.” The CIA misled him about
Saddam’s WMDs. The continuing war in Iraq is the fault of the military. The PDB, “Bin Laden Determined to Attack the United States” was an “historical
document.” Those frozen seven minutes in the schoolroom, listening to “The
Pet Goat,” were deliberately chosen to “project calm.”
George Bush believes his "gut instinct" is incorrigible, he is dangerous. Bush can not and will
not banish incompetence and inflexibility from the Oval Office.
But on November 2, we can.
Copyright 2004, by Ernest Partridge