Thursday, March 29, 2007

The facts are out there; the truth is in your head

I have been reading Michael Frayn’s The Human Touch, a collection of philosophical meditations about everything. Frayn admits that it is not a philosophical work, but more a commentary on philosophical problems. I have read several short dismissive reviews by philosophers, Colin McGinn in particular. However, Frayn, a novelist and playwright, writes engagingly, and it is worth a glance.

The book questions how the world is both independent of us, and constructed by us. I cannot avoid thinking about the slogan from the X-Files: The Truth Is Out There. Is it? Would it be better to say the facts are out there? Whether we discover them and arrive at true propositions is another story. There is plenty of slip betwixt cup and lip. There cannot be truth without the proposition, the proposition does not exist without language, and language does not exist without people who construct and use it.

I recall the controversy surrounding the Lancet study about the total number of casualties in Iraq. Undertaking a statistical study of this sort is notoriously difficult. The chaotic situation in the country, the challenges of sampling, and poor record keeping conspire to make the confidence interval rather large. I understand the Lancet technique was used in other countries experiencing war and civil unrest, so it is not a priori flawed as some claim.

What I find interesting and disturbing is the claim that the researchers did the study with a political agenda and motive. I could understand these kinds of suspicions if the researchers had merely posted the study on the Internet instead of in a highly respected peer reviewed journal. In addition, the researchers clearly put their work out there for expert scrutiny of methodological concerns.

As far as I can tell, the officially published government statistics underestimate the number of casualties. Those gathering the statistics admit there are casualties that they do not count. The facts are out there, maybe lost in the mist, but all we can do is construct a partial truth from the ones we find.

The carnage has been significant enough to ask certain questions. What if we could ask the dead this question: Would you support the overthrow of Saddam Hussein if you knew it would eventually lead to your death or the death of your family members?

Whose opinions count most when discussing the Iraq Occupation? Some would say the Iraqi people. Surveys continue to indicate that the majority of Iraqi’s feel they are less safe with the US military in Iraq.

We have a situation in two supposedly democratic countries, the US and Iraq, where the majority of the people want US troops to disengage from the conflict. Those who support the war have the very generous situation of heads they win, tails they win too. You can call it what you want, but that is not democracy. The facts do not support calling it democracy and neither does any reasonably constructed meaningful proposition.

Many scoff at evaluating the Iraq Occupation on practical or utilitarian grounds. If you do, many on the Right consider you a radical leftist, and many on the Left consider you a piss poor excuse for a leftist. Be that as it may, the collective rule of the sovereign citizens should be obeyed in a democracy unless it violates agreed upon rights and freedoms of the individual. Those who support the Iraq Occupation have no special right or freedom to keep US troops in country in violation of the wishes of the citizens of both countries.

Of course, we continue hearing President Bush’s bogus claim that the country will become a haven for terrorist attacks against the US. The irony here is that there was no al Qaeda operating in Iraq before the war. Saddam, with his usual ruthless efficiency, made sure of that. Some still deny the fact, and construct castles in the air with their counter claims.

When you go to Iraq, do not forget to pack your rose-colored glasses.


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