I’ve long been fascinated by the way people apply ideology to decide simple issues of fact. This phenomenon occurs, for example, in disputes about whether public figures engaged in misconduct. Thus, it is my understanding that most people made up their minds about whether Alger Hiss once belonged to a communist cell along ideological lines. And this certainly was true with respect to public sentiment about whether Clarence Thomas made certain statements to Anita Hill. As I discussed here, however, ideology had nothing useful to tell us about what Hiss and Thomas actually did. Nor, under any rational account, did the validity of anti-communist or feminist ideology depend on the conduct of these particular protagonists.
To some extent, we see ideology driving opinions about factual matters in the Terri Schiavo matter too. Take, for example, the question of what (if anything) Terri told her husband about the circumstances under which she would not want to be cared for. Some people seem to be answering this question with great conviction based on little more than their ideology.
Fortunately, the more careful supporters of keeping Terri alive avoid this trap. They do so by making presumptions, and in particular the presumption in favor of life that President Bush mentioned. Thus, without claiming to know what Terri told her husband, one can argue that, absent written evidence, she should be presumed not to have said she would want to die.
There are also important scientific questions of fact that many are answering through ideology. These include whether or to what extent Terri feels pain and, more generally, what her state of consciousness is. As John Podhoretz notes, when scientific rationalists look at Terri, they tend to see a vegetable in a horrible state from which death would be a welcome relief. When those on the other side look at her, they see something more substantial. However, as neurologist Kenneth Gross argues in today’s Washington Times questions about what Terri feels and about her state of consciousness are essentially unanswerable on the basis of today’s science. Thus, it is understandable that people resolve them based on their world view.
Less understandable, except as a matter of pathology, is the way some on the ideological left are viewing the matter. I’m referring to what Peggy Noonan calls “the bizarre passion of the pull-the-tube people.” As Noonan notes, the likes of the Democratic Underground and James Carville can scarcely contain their glee that attempts to prevent Terri from death through de-hydration have failed. Why? Maybe they have “fallen half in love with death,” as Noonan suggests? Or maybe they are just frustrated by losing elections, seeing the tide turn in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East (must Terri die for Bush’s “sins”?), etc. Whatever the case, it makes for a sad and sorry spectacle.
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