Another Assassin, Another Victim

Following up on The Destiny of the Republic, I’ve just read The President and the Assassin by Scott Miller, the story of William McKinley’s assassination by the anarchist Leon Czoglosz.  (Like The Destiny of the Republic, this book’s Kindle price is $14.99, putting it within a couple of dollars of the hardcover’s discounted price.)

Miller decides he needs to use the standard flashback narrative structure for his book: Start with the act of assassination, then back up and use alternating chapters to show how each man ended up in Buffalo for the fateful act.  This works OK, but it turns out that neither McKinley nor Czoglosz is sufficiently interesting to carry each one’s part of the narrative, so we end up with a detailed history of the Spanish-American war and America’s involvement in China and the Boxer Rebellion, contrasting with a detailed history of the Anarchist movement. This was fine with me, since I didn’t know much about any of that stuff.  Here are some other random thoughts:

  • Wars went a lot faster in those days.  The Spanish-American war was over in a matter of months.
  • The criminal justice system was also a lot faster.  McKinley died on September 14, 1901.  Czoglosz’s trial began on September 23 and was over on September 24.  The jury spent 33 minutes to reach a verdict (although it didn’t take them that long–they decided to kill time in case it looked like they weren’t taking the thing seriously).  Czoglosz was executed on October 29.
  • Deaths, on the other hand, were slower.  Like Garfield, McKinley lingered for quite a while: he was shot on September 6 and lingered for more than a week.
  • Czoglosz is more interesting than Charles Guiteau because he was clearly sane.  Still, he was pretty much a cipher–he had almost nothing to do with the actual Anarchist movement, and his motives for killing McKinley were obscure at best.  He seems closer to Lee Harvey Oswald than John Wilkes Booth in the assassins’ hall of shame.
  • McKinley had a 56-inch waist.  Sheesh.
  • Here’s another reason why I don’t really understand conservatism.  Conservatism is about preserving the best of the past, our traditions, the wisdom of our ancestors.  But how do you decide what’s wisdom, what traditions to preserve?  The America described in this book was just awful–who would want to return to a world without child labor laws, where strikes could be destroyed by government violence, where industrialists ruthlessly cut wages to increase their profits….?  Ayn Rand, maybe?  Anarchists had a point–if this was the best that governments could do for the people, maybe we’d be better off without government.

Mistrust of science

Kevin Drum provides us with this chart showing the trust in science by political stance since the 1970s:

I haven’t read the study from which this is derived, but the decline in conservative support for science seems accurate to me.  I would have liked to see data going back to the sixties, because my sense is that the liberal support might have been lower than conservative support back then.  Those were the days of questioning authority, of good intentions mattering more than clear thinking.  But those days are long gone, and liberal support seems pretty stable.

The obvious explanation is that conservatives have gotten stupider over the years (or is appealing to stupider people, but that ain’t it.  Trust in science has dropped more precipitously among educated conservatives than among uneducated ones.  Drum says:

This is presumably part of the wider conservative turn against knowledge-disseminating institutions whose output is perceived as too liberal (academia, the mainstream media, Hollywood) in favor of institutions that produce more reliably conservative narratives (churches, business-oriented think tanks, Fox News). More and more, liberals and conservatives are almost literally living in different worlds with different versions of consensus reality.

This seems plausible. And, as Shermer notes in The Believing Brain, smart people are good at coming up with reasons to support what they already believe.

How do smart people decide not to trust science?  One way is to fasten on perceived scientific misconduct like “Climategate” to prove that science nowadays is just politics and careerism.  Another is to assert that it’s all relative, like Rick Perry’s characterization of evolution as “a theory that’s out there.”

Here is Stanley Fish in the New York Times saying the same thing in a more sophisticated fashion:

People like Dawkins and Pinker do not survey the world in a manner free of assumptions about what it is like and then, from that (impossible) disinterested position, pick out the set of reasons that will be adequate to its description. They begin with the assumption (an act of faith) that the world is an object capable of being described by methods unattached to any imputation of deity, and they then develop procedures (tests, experiments, the compilation of databases, etc.) that yield results, and they call those results reasons for concluding this or that. And they are reasons, but only within the assumptions that both generate them and give them point.

Vary the assumptions (and it is impossible to not have any), begin by assuming a creating and sustaining God, and the force of quite other reasons will seem obvious and inescapable. As John Locke said in his Letter on Toleration, “Every church is orthodox to itself,” and every orthodoxy brings with it reasons, honored authorities, sacred texts and unassailable methods of verification.

It is at bottom a question of original authority: with what conviction — basic orthodoxy — about where truth and illumination are to be found do you begin? Once that question is answered satisfactorily for you (by revelation, education or conversion), you cannot test the answer by bringing it before the bar of some independent arbiter, for your answer now is the arbiter (and measure) of everything that comes before you. Your answer delivers the world to you and delivers with it mechanisms for distinguishing good evidence from bad or beside-the-point evidence and good reasons from reasons that just don’t cut it.

So here is a very smart guy saying that there is no way of choosing among multiple approaches to the truth.  So really Joseph Smith, say,  is as worthy of belief as Einstein and Newton, as Dawkins and Pinker.

The standard answer to this (made repeatedly in the comments to his article) is that science, you know, works.  The earth does in fact move around the sun.  Germs do in fact cause diseases.  If Fish got sick, would he rather be treated by a witch doctor or a medical doctor?

Somehow this gets lost in the Fish’s equivalence argument.  And I suppose conservative elites will use the argument to buttress their suspicions of science.  After all, even the New York Times has its doubts.