Inference and belief

Douglas Kmiec is a law professor at Pepperdine with resume entries in the Bush 41 and Reagan administrations and a spell as dean of the Catholic University Law School. He has just endorsed Obama on Slate. So far so good. But this post is not about the politics of an endorsement that has a lot of benefit for Obama, nor about Kmiec, whom I don’t know and don’t know much about beyond the job history summarized above.

It is about the following paragraph in his post, one that he’s obviously proud of, but that I think appalling on strictly intellectual (not ideological) grounds. I’m going at it because there is a lot of this stuff around (hence Kmiec’s failure to even notice how crazy or irresponsible he sounds), and I would absolutely be just as appalled if the example happened to come from someone saying “As a Liberal Democrat, I believe…” :

As a Republican, I strongly wish to preserve traditional marriage not as a suspicion or denigration of my homosexual friends, but as recognition of the significance of the procreative family as a building block of society. As a Republican, and as a Catholic, I believe life begins at conception, and it is important for every life to be given sustenance and encouragement. As a Republican, I strongly believe that the Supreme Court of the United States must be fully dedicated to the rule of law, and to the employ of a consistent method of interpretation that keeps the Court within its limited judicial role. As a Republican, I believe problems are best resolved closest to their source and that we should never arrogate to a higher level of government that which can be more effectively and efficiently resolved below. As a Republican, and the constitutional lawyer, I believe religious freedom does not mean religious separation or mindless exclusion from the public square.

Why remarkable? Because as far as I can tell, every single inference in it is simply backward. Consider, to illustrate, the third one logically reversed:

[Having studied the law and its institutions carefully] I see the evidence and arguments to favor consistency, a limited role, and adherence to the rule of law for the Supreme Court, therefore I support the party I think will advance this kind of jurisprudence, which is the Republican Party.

Get it? “As an [X, Y, …], I believe [A, B,…]” isn’t just a wrong statement, it’s a wrong way of thinking, perhaps of being a responsible person, assuredly of being a commentator who wishes to be considerable, and especially of being an academic.

Kmiec’s “as they instruct me, so I think” is the considered, edited, and reflective discourse for publication of a law professor and a serious guy, not something he just blurted out at a party. It can be fairly summarized as advertising that he has chosen not to do his own thinking, but to have his beliefs dictated to him by a church and a political party. If he said this in so many words, I think one could reasonably infer that he is unqualified to be a college professor, because the irreducible core of that job is to examine propositions to ascertain their truth no matter who asserts them, not to be a loudspeaker for any group or institution.

When I interrupt students who offer this kind of thing in class discussion, to ask if they aren’t getting it backwards, they almost always agree with me; of course, lots of them seem to have been conditioned to fear that faculty will punish dissent with bad grades, so maybe they’re dissembling out of fear. But I’ve tried the question, “should the arrow of cause point from ideology to positions on issues, or the other way?” on lots of people, and never heard anyone take the former position after thinking about it.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.