21 November 2005

The lone gunman litmus test

In these simple times, it comes as no surprise that among members of the government and media, those charged with reviewing the qualifications of candidates for the most powerful court in the land would find it difficult to deal with something as complex as the law.

Which explains why analysis of a Supreme Court nominee's myriad interpretations of the Constitution is often reduced to a binary choice -- yes or no, up or down -- a litmus test, as the pundits say.

Like many of his non-Republican friends, Harold Meyerson at the American Prospect uses the "smoking gun" analogy this week in his analysis of Samuel Alito's position on abortion, but by default he's made it a litmus test. Sen. Joe Biden, meanwhile, appears to prefer reapportionment (one man, one vote). A more appropriate issue, perhaps, but still, a litmus test.

At first glance, the metaphor seems apt. The original litmus test of chemistry involves a strip of paper that changes color when dipped in a solution -- red for acid, blue for base. Given the current predilection for dividing American into red and blue halves (states, voters, issues), what columnist could resist using it? I mean, who would argue that those with the most acid of tongues don't tend toward the Republican end of the spectrum?

But like most political metaphors, this one breaks down on further analysis. Indulge me in a little science, if you will.

The litmus test employs the pH scale, which typically runs from 0 to 14.The lower the number, the stronger the acid. The technical definition of what pH represents is:
pH = -log[H3O+]
which means it denotes the concentration of hydrogen ions. Sounds straightforward, but the chemists who came up with this thing weren't as satisfied with simplicity as today's politicians and pundits.

First, what's really being measured is the molarity of the solution being tested, which translates to: What fraction of a mole (a very large number somewhat abitrarily derived from the number of carbon atoms in 12 grams of carbon-12) is equivalent to the actual count, on an inverse logarithmic scale?

So if there is one-millionth (10-6) of a mole (6.02 x 1023) of hydrogen ions in a liter of the solution, then the solution's pH is 6.

If that sounds way more complicated than it needed to be, it is. Why do scientists do things like this? Because they can. The complexity gulf between the chemical litmus test and the political version should be wide enough to dissuade anyone who understands the former from using it in the latter context.

Not convinced? It gets worse. Although the paper litmus test has now been supplanted, like most everything else, by electronics, the original paper would only turn blue in bases with a pH above 8.3. And it only turned red in acids with a pH below 4.5. That leaves a huge slice of the scale in the indeterminate category.

It is helpful to note that biology is extremely sensitive to pH. Humans will die, for example, if their blood pH, which is usually 7.35, drops much below 7.2.

Since, in a normal political operating environment, one would expect most candidates for the U.S. Supreme Court (we're back in non-scientific territory now), to exhibit ideological and philosophical characteristics somewhere between 4.5 and 8.3 on a 0-to-14 scale, that would make a litmus test useless.

I will concede that we are not now living in historically normal conditions. Judge Alito, for one, appears to reside somewhere south of 4.5, so perhaps a litmus test is appropriate after all. But I maintain that an ideal political litmus test should be a far sight more complex that abortion, which is usually reduced to the simplistic pro-choice or pro-life.

So, considering the date, how about: Do you believe Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone gunman, or was there a conspiracy to assassinate the president?

Think about it. As anyone who has seen Oliver Stone's "JFK" knows, there are any number of theories concerning who killed the guy -- the Cubans, the mob, the CIA, the FBI, the military, LHO and a couple of other kooks, the list goes on. There is so little hard evidence that how one comes down on the issue says a lot about one's faith in, or skepticism of, the establishment. I mean, that's what it's all about, right? (That and the hokey-pokey, of course.)

A few days ago, the usually wise old man of NPR, Daniel Schorr, unwittingly took this test. While revisiting the JFK conspiracy issue he made it quite clear where his sympathies lie. He mentioned the (widely discredited) Warren Commission report that concluded Oswald acted alone, but failed to include any reference to the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which found that a conspiracy was the most probable scenario.

Dead giveaway that.

Try it on your friends and family. It's fun, it's revealing, and it's timely. JFK died 42 years ago this Tuesday.

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