Empiricism isn’t supposed to be politicized

EMPIRICISM ISN’T SUPPOSED TO BE POLITICIZED…. Back during the presidential campaign, Barack Obama offered a spirited defense of empiricism. “The thing I think people should feel confident in is that I’m going to make these judgments not based on some fierce ideological pre-disposition but based on what makes sense,” the candidate said. “I’m a big believer in evidence. I’m a big believer in fact.”

After years of an administration that boasted of its ability to create its “own reality,” Obama’s approach — then and now — comes as something of a relief.

It’s why I was struck by this Victor Davis Hanson column for National Review, which argues that the president has gone to “war against reason.” Given that reality suggests the opposite is true, this seemed like an odd argument for a conservative to make.

But to bolster his case, Hanson notes that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has determined the unemployment rate for decades. The problem, as he sees it, is that the White House is now also releasing information on jobs “created or saved” since economic recovery efforts got underway. And that’s bad, apparently, because while the job landscape has worsened as a result of the recession Obama inherited, the administration is now also reporting data on jobs that would have been cut were it not for the stimulus.

And how is this evidence of undermining empiricism? I haven’t the foggiest idea. Jon Chait tries to make sense of the argument.

Ok. Hanson doesn’t say that the Obama administration has suppressed or altered the BLS’s calculation of unemployment. He charges it with creating another website that attempts to calculate how many jobs were saved by the stimulus — a premise that is shared by the major macroeconomic forecasting firms. Hanson seems to further believe that this figure is intended as a substitute for the unemployment level, betraying an inability to grasp the distinction between the current unemployment rate and how many jobs were saved as a result of the stimulus.

How can anybody not understand the difference between these two things? His chain of reasoning is just so wildly illogical you can’t even refute it.

If I had a nickel for every time I had that thought after reading something at National Review, I could retire.

On a related note, Jon didn’t mention it, but whenever I think of politics and empiricism, I’m reminded of a terrific piece he wrote nearly five years ago on this very subject.

We’re accustomed to thinking of liberalism and conservatism as parallel ideologies, with conservatives preferring less government and liberals preferring more. The equivalency breaks down, though, when you consider that liberals never claim that increasing the size of government is an end in itself. Liberals only support larger government if they have some reason to believe that it will lead to material improvement in people’s lives. Conservatives also want material improvement in people’s lives, of course, but proving that their policies can produce such an outcome is a luxury, not a necessity.

The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism, then, ultimately lies not only in different values or preferences but in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy — more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition — than conservatism.

Now, liberalism’s pragmatic superiority wouldn’t matter to a true ideological conservative any more than news about the medical benefits of pork (to pick an imaginary example) would cause a strictly observant Jew to begin eating ham sandwiches. But, if you have no particular a priori preference about the size of government and care only about tangible outcomes, then liberalism’s aversion to dogma makes it superior as a practical governing philosophy.

If there’s a “war against reason” underway, Victor Davis Hanson is looking at the wrong culprits.

Stepping back, however, it’s more than a little distressing that we’ve reached the point at which the left and right now have competing understandings of the basic meaning of empiricism. It’s not a healthy development.