Thursday, July 27, 2017

Breaking the Goldwater Rule: A Betrayal of Methodological Rationalism


A useful example of an academic field creating a wall between the field itself and the politics of its members is the Goldwater Rule that psychiatrists are not supposed to publically comment on the mental stability of politicians. It is named after Senator Barry Goldwater, who objected to psychiatrists calling him mentally unfit to be president during the 1964 campaign. Goldwater made the very reasonable argument that those psychiatrists had violated their own professional standards by claiming to reach some kind of professional opinion about him despite the fact that none of them had ever met him in person let alone actually been his therapist. The Goldwater Rule protects psychiatrists by keeping them out of politics. Psychiatry may be very valuable in helping people but there is nothing in psychiatry that can tell you who you should vote for. Even if it turned out that psychiatrists were the most liberal people in the world, conservatives could still accept the legitimacy of their field as it has no direct bearing on politics.

This is why I find it amazing that anyone would want to eliminate the Goldwater Rule to better allow psychiatrists to attack Trump in their capacity as psychiatrists. To be clear, I oppose Trump, believe that he is a major threat to this country, and accept that he is most probably mentally unstable. That being said, I fail to understand how allowing psychiatrists to use their professional stations against Trump will actually benefit the opposition. How many people who currently believe that Trump is sane and support him will be convinced by psychiatrists otherwise? What is more likely is that Trump supporters will become more convinced than ever that psychiatry is a conspiracy designed to advance a liberal agenda. This is much the same as how many secularists are convinced that organized religion is simply a conspiracy designed to uphold conservatism. (Both of these groups may very well be correct.)

Critical to Trump's success has been a form of relativism. Beyond the specifics of any particular policy such as environmental control, Trump's supporters do not believe that there really is such a thing as an expert. This creates a world in which there are simply contending teams (warring religions if you will) with their contending sets of values. If this is the case then I want my side to win and can safely ignore any argument from the opposition. They are not arguing in good faith and any factual arguments they raise can be dismissed as distortions. Furthermore, there is no reason to ever question my own tendency to argue from values instead of facts. The other side is clearly worse so anyone trying to judge me must be trying to cover for their team. 

The best refutation for this line of thinking is the mere existence methodological rationalism such as the scientific or historical method. There exist systems of thought that transcend personal values. Professionals trained in these methods, despite their prejudices, can be trusted to follow them even to conclusions that are inconvenient. This allows academic fields to function with people of greatly differing belief systems. If I believe that there are such things as standards and experts then Trump's main appeal falls away. Whatever flaws the establishment has and whatever need for reform, Trump does not make himself subservient to any rationalist methodology. Thus, anyone who supports methodological rationalism has some hard questions to answer if they wish to support Trump. (Not that this implies that the alternative is better.) 

To the extent that Trump gives the impression that he rejects methodological rationalism, those in his camp have to consider whether their continued support implies that they are willing to reject methodology for short term partisan gain. This decision will be made in the knowledge that they will be judged by their ideological opponents, who will have to decide whether they are willing to accept them. Ideological opponents of Trump, whether liberals or libertarians, have the ability to judge which Trump supporters can still be considered methodological rationalists but open themselves, in turn, to the counter judgment that they are the ones betraying methodological rationalism for partisan gain.   

From this perspective, there is no need to consider any particular policy of Trump's (or even try to figure out what Trump holds from one minute to the next). Methodological rationalism requires the humility to recognize how little any individual really knows. It may be that Trump's policies are all going to be terrific; I lack that expertise to say otherwise. All this may be true but if they are not framed in terms recognizable to methodological rationalism, his claims must be ignored. 

I lack the psychiatric training to say that Trump is mentally unstable. As far as I can tell, any person in the position to rule on this issue is likely going to be barred from commenting by doctor/patient confidentiality. That being said, I believe in the legitimacy of a psychiatric method of thinking. To the extent that Trump demonstrates his own rejection of those standards, I am justified in not taking him seriously. I do not need to directly attack Trump and doing so will likely prove a distraction as it will open me up to the charge that I am more interested in attacking Trump than in defending methodological rationalism. The more we work on strengthening belief in methodological rationalism and do so for its own sake and not partisan gain, the more people, even conservatives, will reject Trump on their own.  

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