« List of the Day (yesterday, of course) | Main | Somewhat social, not very networky »

Not really about politics at all

So. A couple of weeks ago, I read a piece over at TAPPED in which Patrick Caldwell called for Some Sunshine for Presidential Nominations. In it, he writes that national polls mean nothing at this point in the election cycle—it’s all about how the candidates will perform in the early primary states. This is almost entirely backwards: national polls at this point in the election cycle mean a great deal, and have as large an influence over how the candidates perform in the early primary states as anything else does. If Tim Pawlenty or Hayley Barbour were polling at 25% now, the race would look very different.

But here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure that in, say, 1995, I thought that it was all about how the candidates performed in the early primary states. In 2011, not only think that the national polls have meant a great deal, it seems utterly obvious to me that they have meant a great deal. At some point, I changed my mind. When did that happen? Who persuaded me? Was it logic, or was it authority—Perhaps what seems to me obvious at the moment is not really a result of me observing and analyzing evidence as of me truckling to a new conventional wisdom.

Not, you know, that I think I’m wrong. I have looked at the evidence, or at least at some of the evidence, and it looks persuasive. This is also true about, oh, whether won-loss records or ERA are useful to predict a pitcher’s future. I’m pretty sure I have got hold of the right end of those sticks now, and that I had hold of the wrong end of them when I was younger. This knowledge, however, leads me to think that there may well be other ideas I am currently wrong-sticking, and I don’t know what those are.

These are, by the way, models of the empirical world, and as such are presumably subject to verification—and always were. This is a different sort of thing than my having at one point preferred Bartok to Bach. That is clearly wrong and bad thinking, and I’m over it now, but it’s a different kind of thing altogether. I am willing to defend, say, my preference for baseball and hockey over basketball and football (either football), but those are preferences, and while I have reasons for them that are grounded in models of the empirical world, that’s a different kind of thing than believing that, say, Christopher Columbus had to convince people that the world was round. Or believing in Newtonian physics. Those things are wrong, verifiably wrong.

It seems to YHB, though, that this is the double-think that is required for living in the world of rationality—you have to hold observances and conclusions both fiercely and conditionally. It's a wonderfully difficult human thing, isn't it? You have to fully buy in to the conclusions reached by the evidence, and then, when new evidence comes to light, be willing to fully ditch the now-discredited view. You have to believe in Aristotelian physics until Newton, and then you have to believe in Newton until Einstein, and then you have to believe in Einstein—and keep believing in Einstein, and fighting for it, and acting on it, and all of that, always being prepared to completely abandon it as soon as (and not before!) there is evidence that it is wrong, too.

Which it might be.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


How much to you have to believe in something in order to rely on it? I don't believe in Newtonian physics, but I rely on it all the time to anticipate how large-mass, low-speed objects will behave in the world that I observe around me. If the neutrino measures prove to be accurate, people won't stop relying on Einstein: they'll just believe that his theories are less complete than they were. I'd say I rely on what I know, rather than believing in what I know, and when I find that what I know fails to correspond to revealed reality, I cease relying upon it in those respects in which it has been proved inadequate. I guess what I am saying is that it is possible to develop an attitude toward knowledge that gets less bogged down in emotional commitments to methods for interpreting reality.

Comments are closed for this entry. Usually if I close comments for an entry it's because that entry gets a disproportionate amount of spam. If you want to contact me about this entry, feel free to send me email.