The Validity Of Asking Empirical Questions

Andrew Sullivan —  Apr 25 2011 @ 3:35pm

The New Yorker's Amy Davidson weighs in:

Andrew Sullivan, as usual, is on the case, and I don’t at all think he’s wrong to be, even though I do think that Trig is Palin’s son.

My feeling is that a lot of Palin’s baffling behavior—getting on a plane without telling flight attendants she might be in labor, for example—can be explained, simply, by a matchless level of reckless narcissism. That is relevant, too, and why I am glad to know all of the points in the narrative. The timeline is dismaying, not because a fake pregnancy would Explain It All, but because I don’t want someone who thinks that her own small drama is worth disrupting (or even endangering) the lives of a plane load of people to be my President. (In a way, it is charitable of Sullivan to think that there ought to be a better explanation, beyond a careless tendency to smash things up, for her behavior.) How would Palin act in the sort of drama that involved lives, here and abroad? Not well, is, perhaps, the too obvious answer, and it’s fair to say that I didn’t need to have ever heard of the Mat-Su Regional Health Care Center to decide that I didn’t admire Sarah Palin’s judgment. But it is good to know who she is.

That is one reason why the Trig controversy is not, despite the efforts of some commentators to make it so, a leftist version of Birtherism. 

I am grateful for the back-up, but sad it should be necessary. I urge you to read the latest data points on the story, specifically the eye-witness accounts of two journalists who, after two years of silence, are now saying they saw Palin's pregnant belly covered only by a thin layer of fabric before she gave birth. These are important new parts of this jigsaw puzzle, and they go alongside the handful of pictures we have of Palin pregnant in her one-month public pregnancy. They should be taken seriously and definitely buttress – powerfully – the case that this whole thing is a tempest in a spatula.

Does this long-delayed meta-story settle the matter? The key thing, it seems to me, is to look at all the facts we now have and try to get beyond the order and manner in which we found these things out. This is not easy. But having tried to do that over this weekend, I still believe that none of these new things, alas, prove the pregnancy the way simple medical records would. To me, however, they do strongly tip the balance toward establishing the pregnancy as fact. When you add in the date of Bristol's giving birth to Tripp (removing the likeliest alternative scenario, although there are others) and the odd, last-minute but clear doctor's letter on election eve, the balance of doubt shifts again. I don't see why Quinn or Loy would lie about this; and their accounts seem persuasive – although it is maddening they didn't report this before, and weird that they didn't. They get to an empirical nub: what did you see with your own eyes? It's almost the best empirical test we have. Almost.

A video still from an Israeli documentary film – lightened to show detail below – has also long told us what both Wesley Loy and Steve Quinn have now personally testified to:


Is this what Loy and Quinn also saw firsthand? Whatever the answer, I remain grateful for Salon for doing more than most news organizations have seen fit to do, in putting this on the table and presenting new facts to rebut it. It's a start and I hope they follow up with more. My goal in all this has been simple: to find out the truth, whoever it might embarrass, including me.

I also urge you to read this interview with a pediatrician interviewed by blogger Laura Novak. It covers much of the ground the Dish covered two years ago in our discussions with leading teaching hospital obstetricians and pediatric specialists. But what's particularly helpful is the doctor's candor about the core issue here, especially with this new evidence in mind:

She’s weird in some ways. But she’s not that weird. To do things like fake a pregnancy. Those kinds of people don’t get through a nomination process because there would be too many flags. Because it’s not that they do one thing that’s weird. There would be a history. There’s politically weird and then there’s outrageous behavior. Did she baptize her kids in local stream in middle of winter?  Did she have the kid at home? No. Politically I don’t like her. But she’s not that weird.

Let's note something that even Salon would agree with here. There was no vetting of this rogue candidate. The usual mechanism to filter lunatics and hoaxers out of public life was missing. That's why, by the way, I stayed on the case. I knew no one knew. And I was not able to simply accept that Palin was so obviously sane this was impossible. This was a genuine belief and a real struggle. If I were not a blogger I could have ducked this. But I felt it was my duty not to.

And this is the thing dividing us, isn't it? If you think Palin isn't that weird, as the doctor puts it, then it seems simply loopy to even entertain the idea that she could have used a prosthetic belly to fake a pregnancy. If deep down you think she's so delusional, ambitious and weird that it's possible, even if unlikely, then you start asking questions that you would not usually ask.

And so, really, is this so different than the Birther stuff? Some believe that Obama is so strange that something must explain his rise to the top. Ditto the dream of having his entire presidency ended in one stroke. Palin-skeptics are also subject to this temptation – to over-dramatize her weirdness, to get attached to our own assumptions, and to be misled by the fantasy that her farcical presence in American political life could be ended in one expose.

But the difference remains obvious. Obama provided the salient empirical evidence – his birth certificate – one of those humiliations that public figures have to endure sometimes. Does Salon think it was reprehensible that he was even asked to do so? Was that a betrayal of journalism? Did they expend time explaining that, with contemporaneous birth notices in the papers, asking such a question was not exhibiting sufficient "deference" to the commander-in-chief? Notice how Politico erases this distinction in Ken Vogel's otherwise fair and helpful piece:

During the 2008 presidential campaign, debunked the birth rumors about Obama (after its researchers were allowed by Obama’s campaign to physically examine the official copy of his birth certificate) and Trig Palin

Click the links and ask yourself: why did Factcheck use vastly different standards of evidence for both stories?

And it remains odd to me that a media enterprise openly seeking to "definitively debunk" a question should not simply seek the obvious avenue to do so: ask Palin for evidence she claims she's already produced anyway. That's the real Occam's razor here and it is directed at the media. We are told Palin has already been directly asked and showed no hesitation, even some amusement, in responding. We know that Loy's own editor, apparently aware of the limits of his own reporter's unpublished testimony, asked a month after the election. Why would Salon not follow up on their own? They've already proven they are on Palin's side in this instance, if not in any other, so it would be a perfect way for Palin to kill off these rumors by cooperating with a leftist source to knock them down for good. How much better could it be for both parties? (I have, by the way, asked Justin Elliott, whom I respect, this question and he assures me he will respond in due course on his site.)

But c'mon, Salon. Clinch this for good and all. You can do it. Just ask Palin's camp for medical records. And if she refuses, explain what her reasoning is, given her position on Obama's birth certificate?