Sunday, December 26, 2010

Do-over on Lavelle promotion

Last summer I got involved in the controversy over the proposed posthumous promotion for Air Force general John D. Lavelle, who was removed from command for disobeying bombing restrictions for operations against North Vietnam. Last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee sent the nomination back to the Pentagon and demanded further study to resolve contradictions between the Air Force case for promotion and the fuller historical record on Vietnam bombing. While I think no further study is necessary, and the full record is clearly against this promotion, I understand the value of  this face-saving gesture.

Monday, December 13, 2010

squishy science

Although I am a longtime member of the American Political Science Association, I'm not really one of the white-coated number crunchers who seem to be a majority in the discipline. But I am interested in methodology, and was profoundly influenced by reading Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I even assigned it to students, so that they would better understand the social basis of much learning and how paradigm shifts come about.

Recently some general interest magazines have told those of us on the outside of "hard" science that something's rotten in those fields. The Atlantic had a piece highlighting the work of  Dr. John Ioannidis who says that much medical research reports are false. And now the New Yorker tells us that scientists trying to replicate earlier studies often find declining significance in their results. The author offers a few theories -- that there is a publication bias, or selective reporting, or just the end of an illusion.

We who believe in the scientific method, or who take pills or adjust their diets on the basis of scientific studies, should start sprinkling our certitude with a little caution.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

law-making and sausages

There is one good reason to quote the Kaiser's Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, on the legislative process. Research has shown that a powerful reason for public disgust of Congress is that people don't like to see lawmaking up close, especially since there are so often compromises and side deals. I think that's normal, necessary, and mostly good, but ordinary citizens don't like it.

But there are two reasons not to cite Bismarck's line that "those who love the law and those who love sausages should never see how either is made."  One was spelled out by Robert Pear in the New York Times last week: sausage-making is much better, because it's done by professionals to exacting standards. 

The second reason is historical: Bismarck is not one to judge the legislative process because he started and prosecuted three wars without ever asking the German parliament for authority and funds. He dishonored his own constitution.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Told you so

Congressional and media criticism of President Obama misses the point. As I wrote before the election, the only thing that matters to the White House now is the 2012 presidential election. That explains the logic behind the tax cut deal -- which was achieved largely by negotiations with Senate Republicans. No surprises here.