Monday, July 12, 2004

Joe Wilson and rational decision making

Clifford D. May has another great article about Joe Wilson's non-investigation into uranium purchases in Africa. It turns out that Iraq did try to by uranium in Niger (as any reasonable person would have expected) and that Joe Wilson was less than completely candid and professional.

I've had some big arguments with friends over the Bush lied issue. I could never actually pin them down to the two central commitments of a lie: that Bush believed Iraq never sought uranium from Africa and yet said that they did. But you know how these arguments go: they slip away from outright endorsing problematic claims and continue making statements that require those claims. And they never --even before the reports that May discusses-- had any evidence on their side, but that never made them doubt.

For example, they found enormous relevance in the fact that one set of documents purporting to show that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Africa turned out to be a forgery. These are smart guys. Scientists and engineers with graduate degrees. In no other area would they claim that because one piece of evidence gets discredited that you should throw out all the other evidence. Especially when the theory in question predates that particular evidence.

For another example: they are enormously impressed that Joe Wilson failed to find conclusive evidence for the theory. In no other real-world context would they claim that if one investigator failed to find conclusive evidence, that proves the theory is false. And they completely ignored the fact that he did find non-conclusive evidence: a high-level official told him that a high-level Iraqi official had wanted to discuss "trade". Since Niger produced nothing that Iraq might want besides uranium, he (the official) concluded that this is what the Iraqi agent wanted. This is not conclusive evidence, but it is strong evidence. So even a completely inexperienced investigator with a prejudice against the theory in only two weeks staying in one hotel and doing no legwork managed to find strong but not conclusive evidence for the theory. This sort of thing is not usually taken as a disproof of a theory.

When I pointed out that Bush had qualified his statement by referring to British intelligence, my friends insisted that since the CIA had "proven" that Iraq never sought uranium from Niger, he shouldn't have believed British intelligence. These same people are constantly talking about how bad CIA intelligence is. But in this one case, where there was (they claim) a dispute between the CIA and British Intelligence, they think that Bush going with British Intelligence was "lying". Outright, deliberate lying. Not a judgment call. Not a carefully cited reference to an authority. No. It's a bald-faced, deliberate, malicious lie. In no other area would they make judgments like this.

And in fact, there was no such dispute. The CIA never claimed it had proven that Iraq never sought uranium from Africa. The most that can be said is that they didn't feel certain that it had happened.

Experiences like this sometimes make me doubt even the possibility of objectivity. I respect these guys a lot. Like I said, they are very intelligent. And in technical areas they are very objective. I've witnessed each of them, several times, changing their mind on a technical issue after days of arguing. Eventually someone makes a new point and everyone agrees that it's conclusive. All of the people on the wrong side change their minds without a hint of stubbornness. These people don't let their egos effect their technical decision making at all.

In politics this never happens. The basic facts as I detailed them above were manifest to all of us. In my view, their position was completely indefensible. I couldn't say with certainty that they were wrong, but surely any reasonable person had to see the weakness (more like non-existence) of their case. Someone in the argument, whether them or me, had a failure of objectivity so severe that it led to completely irrational decision making.

I like to think that it wasn't me, but objectively, if I'm postulating the existence of this kind of mental breakdown, I have to acknowledge that there is no reason to suppose that I'm immune to it. How would someone know? It seemed completely clear to me that they were making a case out of nothing, yet it was presumably just as clear to them that they had strong evidence. How could I objectively reassure myself that I wasn't the one who was irrational?

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