15 June 2005

Some things have to be believed to be seen


The autopsy results have been released; the report says that Terri Schiavo "was severely and irreversibly brain-damaged and blind as well". That is, she could not have been responding to stimuli the way her parents, but not the medical personnel who cared for her, claimed she was.

Why, then, did her parents insist that she was conscious of them? It's almost certainly a case of their seizing on every coincidental movement that seemed like a reaction, and just not seeing everything that didn't. The filter of their hopes let through only those things that reinforced those hopes.

It's a common problem, and we're all subject to it. Evangelical missionaries here in Cambodia have to believe they are converting people in order to continue their missions; they are unable to see that most people in their churches are there for the snacks they hand out afterwards. Liberals believed that the Killian memo (about Bush's Nat'l Guard service) was legitimate, despite many discrepancies. Conservatives believe that Bush is an extraordinarily popular president, despite abysmal poll results, and that the war in Iraq is going well, despite the continuing problems there.

One great achievement of science was the development of methods that minimized these problems. Careful experimental design gives generally reliable results. But such methods can only determine fact, and facts are unconvincing to true believers. No amount of measurements and statistics will ever give the Schiavos any peace.