Tuesday, July 15, 2008

What the hell, John McCain?

(cross-posted from my Nature Network blog)

I never thought I’d end up covering John McCain like this. I expected, after eight years of Bush, to be able to argue about genuine philosophical and policy differences, rather than going on about the most basic matters of competence. - Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings

Look, I’m not shy about talking politics, and even less shy about my support of Senator Barack Obama for the U.S. Presidency. However, I am stunned by the lack of honesty from the McCain campaign about the critical policy issues that are facing our country. The reason I’m posting election related material on this blog is that my strong criticism of the McCain campaign is based on a political identity that developed through my immersion in the practice and culture of the sciences. Being a scientist doesn’t make me support any particular political candidate or party, but it does make me demand that political claims be subjected to empirical analysis when appropriate, and not be demonstrably false on their face.

The McCain campaign recently claimed that they would balance the United States budget by 2013, the end of the next President’s first term. That is significant because, for many voters but particularly Conservatives and Independents, the fiscal state of the U.S. government is deeply worrying. It’s an important issue, and whichever candidate can successfully appeal to Independent voters will probably win the presidency. However, the McCain campaign went beyond mere political speechifying by providing the Washington Post with the specific details of their policy plan for doing so. The Post then fact-checked the plan and its numbers. The accompanying editorial flatly states their conclusions:

SEN. JOHN McCain says that President McCain would balance the federal budget by 2013. The plan is not credible.

Why is this a relevant issue for a blog ostensibly about science outside the specific professional context of the laboratory? Because what the McCain campaign is doing, in my opinion, is deepening an increasingly worrying trend in American public affairs: a complete disregard for objective analysis of political statements, in effect the process of political ”peer review.” I strongly suspect that the McCain campaign is perfectly aware that they have not provided a credible plan for balancing the U.S. budget. However, the point is not to propose defensible policy, it’s to give the appearance of proposing defensible policy, and grab a few headlines about budget balancing.

Not all political questions and not all issues are amenable to objective analysis, many of them come down to value judgments that depend on a myriad of ideological, cultural, and personal influences. However, part of the sorry state of U.S. politics right now is the (predominately Republican, it must be said, and they deserve to be held accountable) tactic of refusing to recognize the legitimacy of objective analysis for those issues that do involve specific claims whose veracity can be determined. This is why it has taken the United States until 2008 to effectively shift the debate over climate change from “is climate change real?” to “what are we prepared to do about climate change and how should we go about doing it?” Regardless of how we feel about the answer to the latter question, it’s an appropriate subject for political debate. The former question is not.

The McCain campaign is attempting to use this same cynical view of the political process, that there are no “facts” only public relations campaigns that win or lose independently of the veracity of their claims, to propose nonsensical solutions to our country’s problems and claim that they have credible plans.

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