The Politics of Measurement: Drugs and Fences

To continue a conversation with Haim about politics and physics: Faux pas, shmaux pas. In physics, action and reaction refer to motion. In Israeli-Palestinian relations, actions and reactions raise the temperature but, to our sorrow, usually produce absolutely no political movement. Hence the rule that for every action there is an opposite and unequal reaction is indeed the First Law of Political Thermodynamics.

Then again, maybe I should have avoided using a scientific metaphor for politics. Scientists can be touchy about metaphor. They prefer metaphors with a strict one-to-one relation between the symbol and the reality. Political metaphors are more likely to be suggestive than precise.

On the other hand, I do suggest applying some political analysis to science. For instance, random controlled testing of new drugs as a way of determining the best way to do medicine. On the surface, nothing could appear more objective.

But ever since Thomas Kuhn‘s 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, it’s been clear that science involves more than objective gathering information. There are subjective choices about the nature of the problem to be solved, and what constitutes evidence in solving it. The debate about Kuhn is vast. But I don’t think his genie can be forced back in the bottle.

If science includes subjectivity, it is also influenced by society, politics and economics. The model that designates illnesses, looks for chemicals to cure them, and performs random tests to check the efficacy of those chemicals makes a host of assumptions about health. The assumptions favor the solutions offered by large pharmaceutical companies. Of course, when the drug companies pay for the tests themselves, and occasionally hide results that conflict with profits, there’s deeper damage to objectivity.  All the more so when tobacco companies pay for research on lung cancer.

But even if tests are publicly funded, the paradigm on which they are built is restrictive. Randomized tests favor treatment that can be standardized,  subjects who can be treated as interchangeable, and providers of treatment who are similarly interchangeable.

Don’t misunderstand: I’m not against pharmaceuticals as such, or against research. Asthma medicines have saved my life more than once. I wouldn’t want to have lived before antibiotics, because I would have died quicker.

But the drug paradigm is limiting – except when it comes to Big Pharma’s profits. One example: The random testing model works poorly for showing the benefits of “talk therapy,” because the value of therapy is highly dependent on the skills and instincts – the art – of the therapist and the reaction with the individual being treated. The random testing  model favors defining difficulties in daily life as chemical conditions and finding drugs to solve them. It leaves out the social processes by which something is defined as a medical problem – say, a child’s dislike for paying attention in a boring classroom. Just pass the ritalin.

Trying to apply the model of scientific measurement to social and political issues is even riskier. There are no control groups. The number of variables is immense, and the risk is high of attributing results to known but flawed hypotheses.

When I was a grad student in education, a prof told us of a study in Israel on a new method for teaching reading. The researchers found that it worked in well-off areas (where Israelis of European ancestry live) but not in poor areas (where Israelis from Mideast countries live), and went looking for how to overcome the bias. Ethnic and economic biases were popular theories for everything and were applied to this case. The real problem, my prof argued, was that the method didn’t work anywhere. In well-off areas, the parents had more education and more confidence in educating their own children, and they taught their kids to read.

I’d therefore suggest skepticism toward the figures that Haim cites

According to figures provided by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, between 2000 and 2003, Palestinian terrorists carried out 73 attacks, killing 293 Israelis and wounding 1,950. From 2003 to 2006, the period in which the fence was gradually erected, there were 12 attacks, killing 64 Israelis and wounding 445.

– or rather toward the explanation for the drop in terrorism: The fence.

I don’t doubt that as the fence has gone up, it has made it more difficult for suicide bombers to enter Israel. But there’s much more to the story.

During the period in question, the fence was indeed being built gradually. Along with West Bank roadblocks, the partial fence was an impediment to movement – but huge gaps in the fence remained.

On the other hand, political changes in that period included Yasser Arafat’s death and Mahmud Abbas – an opponent of armed intifada – becoming president of the PA; and the announcement of Israel’s pullout from Gaza, which Palestinian groups wanted to see happen; and (false) hopes for renewed diplomacy after the pullout. I’d guess that security factors included steady renewal of Israeli intelligence sources in the Palestinian areas.

To attribute the drop in attacks to the fence, therefore, is to look at the factor that is big, physical and popular among Israelis, and to slight factors that are either secret (intelligence work) or that don’t fit Israeli conceptions (Palestinian decisions).

As for the political impact of the fence: It did make Israelis feel safer, but it also promoted the mistaken belief that unilateral Israeli steps were a long-term solution to the crisis – thereby delaying, not encouraging negotiations. On the Palestinian side, the immense looming presence of the fence promoted the sense that the occupation was here to stay, and deligitimized negotiation.

None of this can be proved scientifically. The experiment can’t be run the other way – which only makes it more important to apply large doses of skepticism to the malady of accepted explanations.

3 thoughts on “The Politics of Measurement: Drugs and Fences”

  1. Gershom, your analysis isn’t unscientific to Haim’s scientific analysis; it is just deeper (though Maim may disagree). The skill in science is to isolate the causal factors and then make predictions to confirm your hypothesis. You are predicting that there are other causal factors that could have contributed to the tail off in attacks (and I agree). Should the political factors change and the attacks resume then you will be vindicated and Haim’s hypothesis weakened substantially. (We have seen a great deal of nonsense surrounding the ‘surge’ in Iraq with many people fearing an unravelling which may now be starting.)

    Let us hope that Haim’s hypothesis is never disproved, that the changes in the political situation don’t lead to any systematic resumption of the fruitless attacks, or attempts thereof.

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