Obama’s Inner Spock


Is there anywhere else in the world where people worry about whether their president is too intelligent and logical? After eight years of George Bush, and the threat of Sarah Palin being the next Republican candidate, we should not underestimate the importance of intelligence. Instead Obama has been compared possibly negatively to Spock–twice this week alone.

On  November 30, John Harris of Politco had a silly column on 7 stories Obama doesn’t want told. This included:

Too much Leonard Nimoy

People used to make fun of Bill Clinton’s misty-eyed, raspy-voiced claims that, “I feel your pain.”

The reality, however, is that Clinton’s dozen years as governor before becoming president really did leave him with a vivid sense of the concrete human dimensions of policy. He did not view programs as abstractions — he viewed them in terms of actual people he knew by name.

Obama, a legislator and law professor, is fluent in describing the nuances of problems. But his intellectuality has contributed to a growing critique that decisions are detached from rock-bottom principles.

Both Maureen Dowd in The New York Times and Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post have likened him to Star Trek’s Mr. Spock.

The Spock imagery has been especially strong during the extended review Obama has undertaken of Afghanistan policy. He’ll announce the results on Tuesday. The speech’s success will be judged not only on the logic of the presentation but on whether Obama communicates in a more visceral way what progress looks like and why it is worth achieving. No soldier wants to take a bullet in the name of nuance.

The article is a prefect example of how non-serious the work by Harris and many others at Politico often is. Obama staffers responded with a leaked email which sums up many of the problems with Politico. Marc Ambinder posted the list:

7 narratives politico is fighting in their efforts to get an interview with the President

1.       They are more interested in readers than accuracy

2.       Its okay to be wrong everyonce in a while, if your are the first to break the news

3.       More interested in gossip than news

4.       A spouter of the worst sort of insider conventional wisdom

5.       Their analysis about obama has been wrong more than any one

6.       Click … period

7.       More obsessed with personality than policy

This should not be seen as the more outright type of battle going on between the White House and Fox. Ambinder puts this in perspective:

It’s fairly caustic — and, truth be told, the White House maintains good relationships with Politico reporters and has been known to try to agenda-set by dishing out a few tips to the publication. But make no mistake: many on the White House senior staff dislike Politico’s brand of journalism, and they do not like the effect that Politico’s metabolism has on the rest of the press corps, including this (i.e., my own) corner of it. Still, don’t read too much into this. There’s been plenty of back-and-forth between the White and the Politico, and the White House accepts the role — which is often substantial — that Politico plays in the newsgathering process.

Perhaps Politco was leading the news here as yesterday AP again raised the comparison between Obama and Spock:

He shows a fascination with science, an all-too deliberate decision-making demeanor, an adherence to logic and some pretty, ahem, prominent ears.

They all add up to a quite logical conclusion, at least for “Star Trek” fans: Barack Obama is Washington’s Mr. Spock, the chief science officer for the ship of state.

“I guess it’s somewhat unusual for a politician to be so precise, logical, in his thought process,” actor Leonard Nimoy, who has portrayed Spock for more than 40 years, told The Associated Press in an e-mail interview. “The comparison to Spock is, in my opinion, a compliment to him and to the character.”

Until now.

From there the article questioned if this is a negative. Imagine, a president who actually thought about war plans, upsetting Dick Cheney who took the opposite approach. While I have my doubts about the ultimate policy on Afghanistan, I prefer Obama’s Spock-like thoughtfulness to Cheney’s act as a Klingon who lacks honor.

Even the writer and producer of the last Star Trek movie sees Spock in Obama:

Roberto Orci, the screenwriter and producer behind the latest “Star Trek” movie, said Obama “has a Spock-like aura about him: calm in the face of great adversity and looking for a logical middle ground.” Obama, himself a big “Star Trek” fan, screened the movie at the White House during its opening weekend.

“We knew he was a Trekkie,” Orci said in a telephone interview. He said he watches the White House regularly for insight on the Spock character.

“To have a case study like that on the news every night makes my job a lot easier,” he said.

Orci said James T. Kirk, the “Star Trek” captain, was “based on a young new president,, John F. Kennedy, and that the Obama administration is part of a 1960s-type revival. Except this time, Kirk isn’t in charge. Spock is.

Orac Defends Skepticism From Choprawoo

While I’ve often criticized the rejection of science which has become common on the right, I have also pointed out that there is also some pseudo-science on the left. This has included numerous posts on Deepak Chopra. Chopra has recently pointed out how he monitors all the posts which mock him using Google Alerts.  He then replied to criticism of his writings with an attack on skepticism.  Orac, who coined the term Choprawoo, summarized the error in Chopra’s attack on skeptics:

It’s not speculative thinking that skeptics and scientists dislike, nor is it speculative thinking that brings the contempt of skeptics down on Deepak Chopra. Really. We speculate all the time; I speculate about my research, about science in general, and about specific areas of science and skepticism that I’m interested in. What we don’t like is “speculative thinking” that is related to thinking by coincidence only. We can’t stand “speculative” thinking that demonstrates an incredible ignorance about science; for instance, Chopra’s attacks on evolution in which he tries to imbue DNA with intelligence, or at least portray it as an agent of the “consciousness” of the universe, and misrepresents some very basic aspects of genetics and molecular biology as he tries to argue that DNA can’t account for human intelligence. There’s informed speculation, which can be fascinating, educational, and fun, and there’s pulling it out of your ass. Guess which of these is what Chopra favors? It’s also interesting to note that, even now, three years after he attacked Richard Dawkins for The God Delusion, Chopra still seems to have a bug up his butt over atheists as well.

Chopra equated failing to believe his nonsense with lacking a sense of wonder. Orac responded:

No sense of wonder? Come on! Wonder at the marvelous complexity of the human body and biology was part of what led me to become a physician and a scientist. Grudging awe at the seemingly indestructible complexity of cancer is what led me into cancer research. Moreover, skeptics’ don’t think they know what right thought is, at least not in terms of what that thought is. We do, however, recognize errors in how to analyze data and come to conclusions. We recognize where reason goes wrong. Chopra seems to think that anything goes when it comes to thought. Maybe it does, but all thought is not equal. In science, conclusions based on sound evidence and reasoning trump conclusions based on a self-proclaimed sense of wonder that probes no more deeply than what the woo-meister wants to believe. In art and poetry, the fantastic and creative can trump data. Chopra seems to think that it should be the same in all realms, but science is not art or poetry. Science is a means of understanding the principles by which the universe functions.

Chopra also attacked skepticism in a previous post where he falsely claimed, “skeptics take pride in defending the status quo and condemn the kind of open-minded inquiry that peers into the unknown.” Orac responded to this argument:

And there’s Chopra’s problem. He thinks that questioning the status quo is a good thing, and so it often is. However, he does not understand that just questioning is not enough. Anyone can come up with a half-baked “challenge” to the status quo. I could make up a half dozen challenges to various scientific theories in the next couple of minutes without breaking a sweat. Does that mean my speculations should be taken seriously, particularly if I have no evidence to back them up and little understanding of the issues involved? No! But Chopra engages in nothing but special pleading, apparently thinking that his views and those of woo-meisters like him, should be held to a different standard of evidence and taken seriously because they challenge the status quo. He thinks his pseudoscientific or even unscientific views of medicine and science should be considered on par with science-based medicine and existing science because…well…because he does.