Tuesday, January 27, 2009

If I had world enough and time...

...my impulse to back-blog and catch up on any number of useful blog topics would be divine.

Also, I don't and so it's not.

So rather than weighing in on the weighty hot topics of the moment, let me weigh in on one weighty oft-hot topic that slips in and out of primary focus in the American mind: health care.

In brief, a good article at Slate argues that, gee, this is another case where market competition can drive extremely bad results without careful, careful planning. The point the authors make in this article is that, without restraint and (government) involvement, the health care industry would naturally and has become a competition not for best health outcomes, but for most lucrative patients -- those illnesses with the highest profit margin. So, apparently, cancer is a winner, even though diabetes may kill you just as dead, it's a B-list malady. And commonplace emergency room problems? Hypertension? General medicine? Please -- Kathy Griffin don't have nothing on them.

"The market" as the Fourth member of the Holy Christian Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Ghost, and Invisible Hand) seems to be fading fast... hopefully, it will be weak enough soon that, as an ideology, we can drive a stake through its heart.

As my graduate advisor said a class he teaches each year, (to paraphrase) "Markets exist and are good at certain things. It is pure faith, an ideology, to say that it is good at all things and always yields the correct answers -- treating it as an omniscient and omnipotent force is no different than religion, and is not a scientific approach."


Daktari said...

Ok, this has nothing to do with anything you wrote about, but when I was home over the holidays, my mother mentioned that athetism is a belief system. There was no amount of logic that would dissuade her from this idiocy. I was incensed and finally had to drop it. Oh, she also said something to the effect that science is a religion, although I HIGHLY suspect that she is parroting something she heard someone else say. Because it was obvious that she hadn't given it any thought.

I'm trying to remember why your post struck this train of thought in me. Oh well. It is what it is.

J said...

My comment on ideology, perhaps?

Of course, I think she could make a reasonable point about atheism if she wanted to. It doesn't seem, from your description, that she wanted to =] But non-belief in god, of course, is not a belief system. But people almost always proceed from there into a belief system. For one thing, Dawkins, Hitchens, Maher -- militant atheists, who crusade against the role of all kinds of theism in public life are advancing a belief system -- a belief that religion is a pernicious and ultimately damaging ideology that must be fought, and from their point of view it seems, extinguished. The conclusion that there is not god is not purely an ideology, and science is not a religion because science can be falsifiable. But, of course, the ideals and ways we go about advancing and promoting science all constitute ideologies and belief systems; the idea that we should govern based on scientific and logical understandings is an ideology, though it's one I happen to agree with. It's an ideology because it presumes a quasi-teleology -- it takes a position on the purpose of governance that is not inherent or "scientific." The idea that governing's purpose is to, say, help people and conduct a reasonable, productive society is an ideology, and the idea that science should guide this is, even if it's a reasonable one -- you can't *prove* that that's the purpose of governance (though one could arguably prove that if you agree on the purpose of governance, science is the best way to guide to most things).

I recommend, as I ahve before, David Harvey's 1974 paper -- it's awesome (Population, resources and the ideology of science. Economic Geography 50:256-177.) I'm not quite making myself clear, but I kinda gotta go. But I guess I'll end with the idea that ideology and religion aren't the same, and that science as practice and concept is an ideology, but not a religion.

J said...

Ok, coming back to it -- Harvey maintained that the idea that science is free of ideology is, itself, an ideology. Which is not just cutesy, but true in a non-trivial way. His example uses writing by Malthus, Ricardo, and Marx to see how they dealt with population and resources. (Incidentally, this article provided me with some of my favorite and imho strongest anti-capitalism arguments, especially neoliberal capitalism. Malthus & Ricardo, influential economic thinkers, both explicitly assumed that the "upper class" -- if I recall correctly, industrialists in Malthus' thinking and agricultural land-owners in Ricardo's -- would be wise and prudent enough not to over-reproduce past the limits of the world's resources, distinguishing them from the poor who, as one may recall from Malthus, they predicted would simply absorb any help and spit the resources devoted to it bck out in the form of more babies who would further impoverish them from overpopulation in the long run.)

In a less emphatic example than Harvey's, within much of science, a shift has come from phrasing everything in the 3rd person to phrasing it in the 1st -- to tell you *who* did what, how, and not just what was done. ("This mixture was washed with X solvent before field samples were mounted" vs. "We mounted the collected field samples after the mixture was washed with X solvent.") because it became recognized that people could never fully remove themselves from the picture, and pretending so actually decreased the accuracy of the picture portrayed in methodological descriptions, rather than truly making them "objective" through wishing it were so. This is an ideological change in how "reality" is tested, reported, and determined.

I'd say the difference in the end is, as my advisor has said, is that science is democratic: everyone can (in principle) observe the evidence for themselves, and argue and reason its meaning. The only ultimate authority is "reality" -- if something is observed to happen, our conclusions must conform to such observations. In this way, one never has to accept anything at face value or because "someone said so" in principle, and the idea that our conclusions may be wrong is always a valid and (one hopes) remembered reservation. Thus it is not religion has final dictations, while the ideology of science says we only have "final" dictations -- pending counterevidence, provided by anyone who credibly cares to present it. (And of course, we could dive back into ideology via a discussion of what "credibility" means and how it's constructed, how science prefers easily reproducible questions -- i.e. "hard" sciences versus things that are no less real -- i.e. human interactions -- but harder to generalize into abstract "laws" or hypotheses. Think about it: soft sciences deal with things that are ultimately no less real, they are just immensely more complex and incredibly less repeatable; science has a bias for knowledge that is more easily processed; an understandable bias, but a bias nonetheless.)