A long and checkered medical history has combined with more than a half century of political science to sharpen my sense that uncertainties are inherent in science, and are the most interesting elements of doing science.
Some will already be chortling at the notion of political science. True, there are softer and harder versions of the work, and I've been associated with both. Likewise medicine.
My earlier memories are of a physician who knew it all, and worked in a classy office with well ordered journals of the American Medical Association. We had no car. He made house calls, and once joined my father on the floor, pulling me out from under the bed, where I had fled to avoid a tetanus shot.
My graduate education in politics came along with stays in the university's neurology ward, where a confusing and painful combination of symptoms, prior to the availability of CTs and MRIs, produced a nasty conclusion by a committee that I had five years to live.
Forty-five years later I fell into a 10 percent chance of a bad reaction to statins medication against cholesterol. Along the way to figuring out what was wrong, I encountered the specialty of rheumatology, that I had not known existed.
And most recently I found myself in a four percent sample of cases when a common growth on the skin of old people has some unpleasant innards.
That produced another meeting with a committee of physicians, this time from several disciplines at the Hadassah Hospital. Its conclusion was more encouraging than what I heard from neurologists long ago. The worst element in the written report was on the heading that included my name and personal details, including the ghastly age of 79. What most impressed me was the time invested by a number of busy professionals on someone who, in the best of circumstances, didn't have much time left.
The uncertainties in all these experiences led me to ponder the nature of science, and its fascination with cases that don't fit well known patterns.
Now we're back to politics, and its collection of variables and situational factors that are as perplexing as anything in a problematic medical diagnosis.
Those of you in my audience of modest size, who actually read what I write, may recall my puzzling through mixed indications about Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump. And wrestling with the egos of politicians here and overseas thinking they can solve the problems of Israelis and Palestinians, while we're actually doing all right (by the fuzzy standards of international comparison) tinkering with various kinds of accommodation.
The many ways to diagnose political problems competes with anything likely to bother a committee of physicians. Just as individual peculiarities might frustrate a physician used to working by set expectations, so the variability of political activists and ordinary voters can frustrate those who expect normal outcomes.
Think back to the recent surprises in the election of Donald Trump. And remember the photo of Harry with a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune. Its banner headline was, "Dewey Defeats Truman."
Even more pressing than explaining election results are figuring out the sources of social problems, and pondering government policies that may do less harm than good.
This is another issue that has appeared more often than many of you like in these notes, i.e., the traits of the US population that resemble those of the Third World. No doubt they exist. Life expectancy, infant mortality, various measures of violence and incarceration are off the charts produced by indicators for the leading countries in the OECD.
Why? and What to do? are both elusive. African Americans are prominent in the problems despite countless studies, proposals, and programs since Abolition in 1865, and civil rights a century later.. But they are not alone. What used to be called poor whites, and more recently trailer trash, are in the mix, along with Hispanics and what remains of the Native American population.
Americans, as well as Europeans, are wrestling with an influx of Muslims, many of them refugees from a kind of sectarian violence similar to what the Christians did to one another until recent centuries. That some of the Muslims are inclined to practice in Europe or the US a continuation of jihad against one another and non-Muslims adds pressure to understand and decide on courses of action.
That we're dealing with analyzing large populations rather than individual patients makes he tasks of social scientists more complicated than those of physicians. Moreover, we have far less by way of resources to finance our research.
Physicians' historic and continuing concern with epidemics touches some of the issues faced by social scientists, now made more pressing by the greater freedom of sex without pregnancy, and the ease of international travel.
You want more? Consider the tensions between Donald Trump and the Republican majorities in House and Senate over issues of health care, tax reform, and the wall against Mexicans.
Israelis continue to deal with issues that Jews have been squabbling about for several thousand years. Read about the rebellion of Korah against Moses and The Jewish War of Josephus if you think that problems between ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, non-Orthodox religious Jews and secular Jews are something new.
Those who sometimes call themselves British or Spaniards are dealing with unresolved issues of identity and national boundaries. Their issues are closer to the headlines, but not all that different from internal issues in Germany, France, and Italy, as well as how the US and other countries cope with multiculturalism, legal and illegal immigration.
Irresolvable and insoluble, but also fascinating and helping to expand the frontiers of knowledge are what's most useful and exciting in the continuing work of science. Practitioners know more about politics and medicine, and are more conscious of what they do not know than when I first encountered both kinds of science seven decades ago.
Judgment remains important in both fields, especially when it is appropriate to decide and report, but when honesty requires the admission that uncertainty remains, and may outweigh whatever is being said at the moment.
Some American friends have wished me a Happy Thanksgiving.
Thanks, and the same to you, but it doesn't exist here. Most Israeli ovens are not big enough for the big bird. We have enough holidays without importing others. And our Mediterranean diets are healthier.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem