If I Taught Science Like The Obama Administration

If I Taught Science Like The Current Administration In response to the Obama Administration's public statement today that while it does not have “irrefutable, beyond a reasonable doubt evidence” that the Assad regime was behind the recent sarin gas attacks, a “quite strong common sense test” suggests conclusion of the same

I teach science.

Whatever you might think about scientific endeavor, you can't deny that science has a certain track-record when it comes to establishing thoughts about the functioning of the Universe that are congruent with the actual functioning of the Universe. I mean, you're reading this on a computer that runs on a stream of electrons, in a structure that shelters you from the uncaring world at large. That's all down to science. And it is from this perspective of being a science teacher that I am most concerned about how the Obama Administration is making its case to take military action (hereinafter referred to as “bombing”) against the Assad regime in Syria.

Before I go any further, I'd like to overtly state that I am not offering a defense of the Assad regime. I have no particular love for any government that oppresses its people in the style that Assad's leadership has during the past 2.5 years. They suck, and they should not be in charge of anything, much less a country with a population of millions of people. At the same time, I have no idea which one of the opposition groups (if any), I should favor. The only thing I know about the Syrian opposition is that many of them are equally not cool, and are probably only not responsible for as much death and destruction as the Assad regime for the simple fact that they have never been in charge of a country. Actually, that's not all I know. I also know that one of the generals of one of the opposition groups is famous for having eaten the heart of one of his recently dispatched foes on YouTube.

All of that established, let's return back to the topic at hand: The Obama Administration's prosecution of its case against the Assad regime/for bombing Syria. Actually, the word “prosecution” is probably too kind for what is currently going on. I'm pretty sure that any prosecutor who made a case similar to the one that the Administration is making would be fired pretty quickly. And the problem with the Administration's case is something that I typically see among my own students when they are learning to frame scientific arguments: There does not seem to be anywhere near enough evidence to substantiate the claim that they are making.

Here, for those who might not be familiar with the situation, is the evidence on offer:

  • Following a bombing attack in a rebel-controlled area, hundreds of people were admitted to local hospitals with symptoms that were indicative of chemical weapon exposure.
  • Tests on materials from the areas that were bombed are positive for residues congruent with the sarin nerve agent.
  • The weapons were most likely launched from an area that is under the control of the Assad regime.

As far as I can tell, that's it. And by “as far as I can tell”, I mean that's as far as the Obama Administration has told me, or any other member of the public. As a science teacher, if the above three bits of evidence were presented to me, to support the conclusion that we should bomb the Assad regime, I would have a conversation with the student about the nature of science, and the need to have considerably more evidence than the above to conclude that the Assad regime is the agency responsible for the use of chemical weapons. There are several competing hypotheses that could be supported by those three items of evidence. I won't get too far in to any of them here (if for no other reason than to deny solace to a growing number of conspiratorial voices on the topic), but I will say that looking at those three items by themselves does not make a conclusive case for assigning bombing-worthy responsibility to one group in this muddled conflict over any other. To do otherwise, to suggest that this is a picture of evidence that supports one hypothesis to the point of refuting all others, would not prepare my students to do very well in their scientific careers.

To make matters worse, the Obama administration seems to be engaged in several different lines of argument that are plainly logical fallacies. The Secretary of State was delivering lines like this last week during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee Testimony:

“I can tell you, beyond a reasonable doubt – and I used to prosecute cases. I ran one of the largest district attorney's offices in America. And I can tell you, beyond a reasonable doubt, the evidence proves that the Assad regime prepared this attack and that they attacked exclusively opposition-controlled or -contested territory”

The major problem here is the classic Argument from Authority. We are supposed to take the Secretaries word on this topic because he is an Authority, regardless of what he actually tells us. In science, we don't care about the authority of the person making a particular claim. We care about the evidence and reasoning that supports the claim.

Similarly, the White House Chief of Staff's comments this morning:

“All of that leads to, as I say, a quite strong common sense test, irrespective of the intelligence, that suggests that the regime carried this out”

Common sense is not a scientific criterion for making an argument. It's not even a logically consistent way to make an argument. One need only look at history to find myriad examples of the failure of common sense.

Inconclusive evidence, Arguments from Authority, and Common Sense. This seems to be the entirety of the case that the Obama Administration has for military intervention in the Syrian Civil War. Imagine for a second if I accepted a similar standard of argument in my teaching. What bizarre and silly notions would my students come away with: “Well kids, today we will learn that mental disease is caused by demons. We know this because when we trepan to allow the demons to leave the skull of the mentally ill, they typically stop carrying on like they were before the trepanning. You should trust me on this, because I'm a science teacher.”

It's a ridiculous way to teach a class. And it should be an even more ridiculous way to make the case for dropping bombs on another country. But it seems to be the way that the Obama Administration is going about it, which makes me very sad. I'm sad, not because I think it makes us look weak-willed (the whole most-advanced military on Earth thing takes care of that one), or because I think we're botching our chance to punish evil-doers, but because I hoped that this Administration would be more respectful of the American people than to trot out such a flimsy case for such a serious undertaking. Frankly, I hoped that this Administration would be better at this than the one that came before it. But until such time as I'm finally shown the type of evidence that I need to see, I'll continue to give them failing marks in this area.