Democratic Underground

George Bush's Gut

October 14, 2004
By Ernest Partridge, The Crisis Papers

Sometime during the 2000 campaign I heard an ordinary citizen say, "I trust George W. Bush - he has good instincts." It's a comment heard frequently in this campaign as well.

Anyone with a modicum of critical sense is then compelled to ask: How do we know that Bush has good instincts?

"I dunno," the citizen might reply, "I just feel that he does. I guess I also have good instincts."

And how do we know that this fellow has "good instincts"?

You can see where this is going: nowhere.

Somewhere along the line, there must be some "reality principle" a grounding in confirmable facts - otherwise the mind is idling, like an engine disconnected from the drive train.

And yet, as Jonathan Alter reports, Malcolm Gladwell writes in defense of snap judgments: "Decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately."

Writes Alter: "Gladwell explains how the instant intuition of art experts that a Greek statue was a fake proved superior to painstaking chemical analysis." Okay, but how was the statue eventually determined to be a fake? You can be sure that it required more than the experts' "instant intuition."

Intuition. Hunches. Gut feeling. None of these have any place in science or in law, right?

Wrong! They are all essential, as the history of both science and law have amply demonstrated. For while scientific laws and theories do not consist of "hunches," creative imagination can play an important role in scientific investigation.

Legend has it that Archimedes came upon the concept of specific gravity while taking a bath. (Did he really? Who knows? Who cares? The story is illustrative, not scientific). James Watson tells us that the idea of the double helix came to him as he recalled his boyhood exploration of the spiral staircase at a lighthouse. And Einstein thought of relativity as he was riding a Zurich trolley and contemplated the "relative motion" of a passenger walking in the trolley.

But here's the crux and remember this, if you forget all else in this essay: to a subjective dogmatist like Bush, inquiry ends with the hunch. To the scientist, inquiry begins with the hunch.

The same rule applies in courts of law. The prosecutor may have a "gut feeling" that the defendant is guilty, but that won't suffice either in his opening statement or his closing argument. He must provide evidence as he presents his case. If the defense comes up with clearly refuting evidence, then the prosecutor's "gut feeling" will be proven wrong.

Once again: to the dogmatist, inquiry ends with the hunch; in the practice of law, and in criminal and civil investigations, inquiry begins with the hunch.

Accordingly, when the hunch is the final word, as it seems to be with George Bush, mere facts cannot touch it. In contrast, when the hunch begins the investigation, all kinds of possibilities open up, some of which might leave the hunch far behind.

Returning to science: Einstein as well as Crick and Watson took their hunches to the library and the laboratory, and when they emerged ready to publish they had a body of evidence and tightly structured formal and inductive arguments to support, respectively, relativity theory and the double-helix structure of DNA. Trolley cars and lighthouses had nothing whatever to do with their supporting arguments. (For more about how science "works" see my "Is Science 'Just Another Dogma'?").

Not all hunches are equal. Their dependability (as determined by subsequent investigation) is enhanced by practical and professional experience, and by study. Thus the "gut feeling" of the experienced physician is to be preferred to that of the medical student. And the "sense" of what ails your car is more dependable when it is experienced by a trained mechanic than by a weekend putterer.

This is what is especially scary about George Bush: he lacks the fund of experience and knowledge that enhances the value of the "gut feeling." Bush doesn't read, he doesn't tolerate dissenting views much less critical analysis of his instincts, he has no curiosity whatever about alternative theories or avenues of investigation. His "wisdom of experience" is meager, having failed in all his business ventures, and having served in the weakest governor's chair in the nation.

Such an individual is capable of blundering into catastrophic errors witness Iraq and the federal deficit. Still worse, such an individual, when caught in a morass of error and ignorance, is incapable of reassessment, redirection or, if necessary, strategic retreat. Instead, he "stays the course," and insists that his stubbornness is a virtue "strength of leadership" and "resolution."

And so George Bush, whose "gut" is his final, infallible oracle, will never admit to a mistake. Instead, anything that goes wrong is the fault of someone else.

He inherited Clinton's recession. His declining approval ratings are the fault of the liberal media. The CIA misled him about Saddam's WMDs. The continuing war in Iraq is the fault of the military. The PDB, "Bin Laden Determined to Attack the United States" was an historical document. Those frozen seven minutes in the schoolroom listening to The Pet Goat were deliberately chosen to "project calm."

Because George Bush believes his "gut instinct" is incorrigible, he is dangerous. Bush can not and will not banish incompetence and inflexibility from the Oval Office.

But on November 2, we can.

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He publishes the website, The Online Gadfly and co-edits the progressive website, The Crisis Papers.

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