Belaboring the Obvious

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Perfectly Reasonable Deviations...

... from the beaten path are, you know, okay, according to Richard Feynman. The reading assignment for the last couple of days has been the selected letters of Feynman, brought together by Feynman's daughter, Michelle, under the title: Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track.

For no particular reason, something in one of Feynman's letters caused me to think about the last few years of American government in relation to scientific method. Now, for those not familiar with Feynman, he did work as a theoretical physicist at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project (largely running a team of technicians whose job it was to verify very long theoretical calculations).

But, he loved direct observation and experimentation. He loved devising ways to test his hypotheses and those of others. As the time approached to assemble the "Little Boy" enriched-uranium bomb, he felt that calculations weren't enough, that experimentation was required to determine if the neutron flux was sufficient to continue the fission as the calculated critical mass was reached. He devised an experiment in which a sub-critical series of rings of enriched uranium, one above another, were mounted near the floor of one of the more remote sheds on the mesa, and another sub-critical plug of uranium that just barely fit through the rings was dropped from the roof of the shed. Neutron counters would measure the neutron flux as the plug passed through each ring. Feynman felt sure from preliminary calculations that when dropped from about forty feet up, the plug would have enough velocity to briefly reach criticality as it passed each ring, but would not have enough residence time for fission to proceed to a fully-fledged chain reaction. This experiment he called, "tickling the tail of the dragon."

It worked, and Feynman and others knew from the empirical evidence that the gun-type uranium bomb would work.

We've had over five years of the Bushies telling us to trust them, and we (read, our supposedly independent and adversarial press) haven't looked very critically at the evidence and tried to devise ways in which to logically test the evidence against the claimed performance of the Bush administration.

We're being told that the economy is great, and as proof of that, the Bushies offer up the unemployment rate. That single datum, though, ignores much other evidence that the effective rate is considerably higher than the nominal rate. It also ignores that the Bushies have jiggered the experimental data by changing the way unemployment is calculated, a couple of times, since taking office. In that way, comparing apples and oranges is a scientific no-no.

We were told a great many things about Iraq that turned out to be more jiggering of the evidence, and that only the evidence that fit the hypothesis was presented in the proof of the war theorem. Any good scientist would say that if there is evidence which does not fit the hypothesis, it can't be ignored, and the hypothesis must either be modified or discarded if there are empirical data which do not confirm the hypothesis.

Then, all the data suggested that if we proceeded to war against Iraq, there would be predictable results which were not the results predicted by the Bushies. Now that the empirical evidence shows that a civil war with inherently complicated sectarian/tribal/political divisions has resulted, as opposed to the rose petals, candy and liberator greetings hypothesis offered by the Bushies, we're told, just ignore that evidence--everything is actually going very well, and the independent and foreign media (perhaps we can call them the neutron counters) are not collecting the data properly.

When Bush began his steadily entropic campaign to "reform" Social Security, independent calculations (as with his tax cuts for the wealthy) showed the opposite of what Bush claimed. Not content with revising the hypothesis to fit the theoretical calculations, the Bushies have sneaked the same faulty plan into their 2007 budget.

Of course, none of this is of much surprise for an administration so accustomed to placing faith and gut hunches above science and rational thought on a plethora of science-driven debates such as the environment, weather and economics.

So, isn't it time for a rational, scientific examination of the evidence to date?


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