I picked up Al Gore’s new book, The Assault on Reason, with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Excitement, because it was a case of a prominent public figure delivering a much-needed defense of reason in the public square. Anxiety, because the figure was, well… a politician.
I think when most people–especially active secularists who’ve read their Sagan and their Dawkins–think of public defenses of reason, they think of scientists and philosophers. Politicians, not so much. Their status in the American mind is only a little better than that of lawyers; stereotypes run from incompetent at best to criminal at worst. Personally, I think there’s a good chance that in the next election we’ll manage to elect someone with both talent and integrity, but I wouldn’t hope for more than that–I wouldn’t hope for a true paragon of reason and critical thinking. That sounds like a pipe dream.
My apprehension increased when I took a close look at the cover. The inside flap declared, “Al Gore has written a farsighted and powerful manifesto for clear thinking,” which is almost a verbatim borrowing from one of the cover blurbs on my copy of Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World: “this book is a manifesto for clear thought.” In Gore’s case, though the praise was just what the publisher was claiming, not what an independent book reviewer had actually said. Surely they’re overselling him, I thought.
A page into the introduction, however, I decided Gore had earned the right to be described in the same terms as Sagan. Gore’s book opens with a quote from Senator Robert Byrd spoken on the even of the Iraq war: “This Chamber is, for the most part, silent–ominously, dreadfully silent. There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war. There is nothing. We stand passively mute in the United States Senate.” Gore uses this as a jumping off point for arguing that there has been a fundamental breakdown in our decision making process. He moves from the Iraq war to the torture of prisoners under the current administration (a point he looks at in detail later), but rather than use those issues simply to attack Bush, Gore poses a challenge: “We have a Congress. We have an independent judiciary. We have checks and balances. We are a nation of laws. We have free speech. We have a free press. Have they all failed us?”
It was at that very line that I decided Al Gore could legitimately be ranked with Sagan. I did, unfortunately, see the writing flay a little later on. A few later parts drag, and the use of quotations especially becomes clumsier as the book progresses. Still, when Gore is discussing the role of reason in his own field, politics, he arguably outshines anything a scientist or philosopher has ever written on that specific subject.
Gore spends a fair amount of time going over misdeeds of the Bush administration, things that will be familiar to those who have followed things closely but which unfortunately haven’t been aired loudly enough. Many of these are a matter of disregarding the experts on key issues, including both the rationale and execution stages of the Iraq war. In the middle of all this, though, the question comes back: why didn’t somebody stop them?
Gore lays much of the blame on the medium in which modern political discussion is conducted: television. He draws examples from both his own failures and his own successes. On the one hand, he complains about how his sighs during the 2000 debates drew attention away from the substance of the debates. On the other, he is disturbed by how, in an earlier campaign, his campaign people were able to precisely manipulate opinion polls with a few TV ads. Television’s influence can be seen in the numbers: the book says that two-thirds of modern campaign budgets go to television ads, and the average American spends four and a half hours per day watching television. When I saw the second number I worried Gore had fallen for an urban legend, since I doubt I have watched four hours of television for a single day, say nothing of every day. With a little searching, though, I discovered that the figure is in fact backed up by the website of Nielsen Media Research, the main company known for getting that kind of information.
I’ll confess to occasionally finding a thirty-second TV spot I like, usually because it managed to be witty and slip in a good, if hypercondensed, idea. That doesn’t change the fact that most ads contain nothing but rapid-fire delivery of dubious assertions that obviously don’t deserve to consume two-thirds of every campaigner’s resources. Actually even the good ones don’t deserve that. The TV news which many Americans rely on for their knowledge of current events isn’t much better. I’m told the average length of a TV news piece is a minute and a half. Even if we make unrealistically generous assumptions about how efficiently this time is used, they still won’t convey any more information than a letter to the editor. I’ve written enough such letters to know that while they can be used to get in a few good thoughts, the amount of condensation required is still painful.
Gore has been criticized for thinking that the internet could come to be an important tool for restoring reasoned discourse. This only proves that he’s much better tuned in to the world than his mainstream media critics. Yes the blogosphere is a forum for mindless partisan rhetoric, but such writers tend to be pariahs outside their narrow circles. The important blogs are ones that specialize in the expert commentary that is in short supply on journalist-dominated opinion pages and talk shows. Just witness the scientist commentators of Seed magazine’s ScienceBlogs, or the legal-scholar-commentators of The Volokh Conspiracy. If anybody stands a chance of raising the level of American political discourse, they do. These examples are important to avoid missing the insightfulness of Gore’s comments on the participatory nature of the internet. Few citizens will be able to master all the major issues of the day, but if you can best the established talking-heads on your pet topic, you have a chance to speak up and gather a following.
Not only does the mainstream media fail to provide that kind of content, it is arguably a far more objectionable vehicle for smear because of its willingness to quote dishonest attacks in a superficially detached way, allowing most of the journalists involved to avoid taking responsibility for doing so. This same problem exists in reporting on scientific pseudocontroversies. The result: distortions of science can get a far better hearing on television than they do in the more reputable corners of the internet.
Unfortunately, Gore falters a little when he moves from mainly discussing politics to mainly discussing science. He tries to cite modern psychological research to show that there is something in the nature of television that causes us to turn off our reasoning skills, but the evidence here isn’t as clear as he wants it to be. I think he has some good basic points and even the more-speculative elements aren’t crazy, but he seems not to realize that he is speculating and any conclusions he draws will be highly tentative. Also, he is forced to admit that the issues aren’t as simple as he wants them to be: print media has been used for smear and yellow journalism, and powerful visuals can be necessary to convey the human impact of a story. This is troublesome, because a public advocate of reason should be beyond all suspicion of misusing science for his agenda.
The other iffy part of the book is the treatment of faith. Proper lip service is given, and Gore even lops off two words from a Thomas Jefferson quote to make Jefferson more religion friendly. Here’s Gore’s presentation of the quote:
Jefferson wrote that throughout history, the state-sanctioned religious authority “has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. It is easier to acquire wealth and power by this combination than by deserving them.
The trouble is that Jefferson didn’t use so convoluted a phrase as “the state-sanctioned religious authority;” he simply said “the priest.” In spite of this, Gore makes clear that whenever faith and reason collide, he’ll side with reason. I think of Andrew Sullivan (another writer whom I normally admire) writing on this issue, and the result is always hopeless muddle. Gore never risks such muddle because he never tries to work out any details. I prefer sincere muddle to its opposite.
I can allow the caveat that paying lip service to religion may be a necessary evil in today’s political climate. However, this doesn’t mean that freethinkers shouldn’t try to change the climate as quickly as possible, speaking out against such verbal weaseling loudly enough to make it ultimately unnecessary.
In spite of its problems, I wish this book a good long run on the New York Times bestseller list. The most ideologically coherent segment of twenty-first-century liberals is found among people who don’t much care about ten-percent differences in the size of government (which is all the old big-government/small-government debates amounted to). Rather, they care about reasoned decision-making and human decency, things they have seen a marked deficiency of in the present administration. Yet, they often find themselves supporting Democrats because and only because they aren’t Republicans.
I’ve seen that a proposal for a Rationalist Party has been floated at least once among these ranks, but it always seemed a fantasy. Though that name may never catch on, Gore’s book just might inspire Democrats to redefine themselves in opposition to the blatant disregard for evidence and expertise that we have seen in recent years. I can always hope, at least.