May 05, 2004

Truth and Legitimacy

Sometimes it is difficult to discern the truth (n. 1. Conformity to fact or actuality) such as when there is little physical evidence and the only witnesses are interested parties. "He hit me first!" "No, he did!"

Sometimes it is not so difficult. But even in these cases a "baffling phenomenon" often occurs. Men who are certain in their rational judgement of the truth then claim to be confused as to what the truth is. This phenomenon is described by Chicago engineer and objective thinker Jack Wakeland in yesterday's edition of Robert Tracinski's "TIA Daily." (A subscription is required but I have a 30 day free trial.)

Wakeland first refers to a NY Times article about a skirmish that occurred in Iraq. THE STRUGGLE FOR IRAQ: BAGHDAD; Attack in Iraq: Many Versions, Obscure Truth:

Times reporter Ian Fisher concluded of the skirmish between American soldiers and Arab militiamen that "determining the truth of what happened in incidents like this one is becoming increasingly difficult. Reality, at this pivotal moment for the Americans in Iraq, is a kaleidoscope of versions." Yet Mr. Fisher spends the rest of the article drawing a very clear portrait of exactly what happened--a portrait as objective and precise as the transcript of a murder trial.

Wakeland then cites examples of the phenomenon in Bob Woodward's latest book and in a UN report on Global Warming. Woodward's book paints a positive historical picture of the administration's determination to protect America, but in appearances promoting the book Woodward bashes them for rushing to act without sufficient regard for the consequences. The UN report concludes in several hundred pages that scientific evidence of a warming climate or of fossil fuel contribution to such warming was ambiguous, but the executive summary of that report claimed it was a scientific indictment of man-made CO2 emissions.

These are examples of intellectual fraud and, to any rational person who takes the trouble to see it, the "nuanced" conclusions are completely illegitimate. Those who blindly assume the validity of these illegitimate conclusions can be excused as uninformed or disinterested. But there are also those who see what is happening, or have it explained to them, and insist on defending the illegitimate conclusions as "justifiable manifestations of alternative perspectives" (e.g. "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.) For their complicity in deceiving the uninformed, these people threaten the existence of a human civilization that is progressive, rational and free - the precise objective of Islamic (and other) terrorists.

Click "Continue Reading..." to see the entire Wakeland essay.

TIA Daily Feature Articles


7. A "Baffling Phenomenon"

Why Does a Reporter Work to Find the Truth--Then to Dissolve It?

by Jack Wakeland


There was a fascinating piece in last week's New York Times (the piece should be available until the end of the week at: http://tinyurl.com/2c57r) about a skirmish that occurred in Baghdad. The article self-consciously admits to the existence of a baffling phenomenon: men, certain in their rational judgment of the truth who, nevertheless, claim to be confused as to what the truth is.

Times reporter Ian Fisher concluded of the skirmish between American soldiers and Arab militiamen that "determining the truth of what happened in incidents like this one is becoming increasingly difficult. Reality, at this pivotal moment for the Americans in Iraq, is a kaleidoscope of versions."

Yet Mr. Fisher spends the rest of the article drawing a very clear portrait of exactly what happened--a portrait as objective and precise as the transcript of a murder trial. By his own statement, Mr. Fisher arrived on the scene of a skirmish six hours after it happened and gathered nearly all the facts in a total of 45 minutes of on-the-spot interviews.

Ian Fisher is a superb reporter. But by what stretch of HIS imagination could he conclude that "In recent weeks, it has become harder for Western reporters to sift through conflicting accounts of incidents like this one."

In a court of law, conflicting accounts are resolved by jurors making a judgment on the credibility of the witnesses. Did they see all or only part of the incident? Was their judgement impaired? Are they telling the truth about what they saw?

In a court of law, the judge excludes hearsay. People in the neighborhood of yesterday's skirmish in Baghdad told Mr. Fisher that "they had heard that four children had been killed but had not seen the bodies themselves." In a court of law this statement would not be admitted.

Ask yourself a question. When it comes to determining the truth, what is the difference between the way a court of law reaches its conclusions and the way an honest man reaches his?

None.

But on the "Arab Street," rumor and hearsay--usually accompanied by ornate anti-Semitic conspiracy theories--are the staple of political conversation.

Ian Fisher is an extraordinarily productive reporter with superb judgment on what are the facts and the truth. His mind works with the precision of a court of law…and with far greater speed. Why would such a man, educated in Western universities, pursuing an intellectual profession, rising through the ranks to become a top reporter at the world’s greatest newspaper--why would such a mind bow to the opinions of every unemployed resident and every bigoted anti-intellectual passer-by on a dusty street in Baghdad?

Another case of this "baffling phenomenon" is the Washington Post's Bob Woodward.

Mr. Woodward just finished a round on the talk show circuit selling his book on the inner workings of the Bush Administration while it was deciding if and, then, how and when to invade Iraq. The book is a sequel to a book he wrote a year ago about the Bush Administration’s reaction to 9/11.

In his most recent book, Mr. Woodward presents the actions of those in the White House with all the clarity, color, and drama worthy of the historical moment. The book captured the Bush Administration's focused determination to defend America--and Western Civilization--from Arab-Nationalist- and Islam-inspired terrorism. It painted such a favorable portrait of the Bush administration that President Bush’s press office posted a link to his book on the White House web page.

But in his TV appearances promoting the book, Bob Woodward states that the Bush Administration rushed to judgment on the question of invading Iraq. That it ignored all evidence of future difficulties and evidence that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction might not exist. That it was wildly optimistic about the reception America would get as an occupying power. That it had no realistic plan for rebuilding Iraq.

This pattern is very reminiscent of the United Nations report on Global Warming. A several-hundred page summary was published on the scores of scientific (and quite a few psuedo-scientific) investigations into the possible existence of and causes of global climate change. It showed that these studies produced ambiguous results. No clear findings existed in the scientific corpus that the climate was warming or that warming was caused by the combustion of fossil fuels. None of this, however, prevented the committee leadership in charge of issuing the report from pasting an executive summary on the front of the study stating that it was a "scientific" indictment of man-made CO2 emissions. Few, very few, of the scientists whose views were dishonestly misrepresented have ever stepped forward to remove their names from the UN report.

Ian Fisher’s newspaper article is just the most recent case of this "baffling phenomenon," Men who think rationally and reach firm conclusions and establish them with certainty are later willing to distort or accept the distortion of the product of their own judgment--because they have adopted the view that man’s mind is incapable of reaching firm conclusions on what the truth is.

(Jack Wakeland is a engineer in Chicago and a frequent contributor to The Intellectual Activist.)

Posted by JohnGalt at May 5, 2004 08:26 AM
Comments

It is not baffling (and Jack Wakeland knows this) when you consider the philosophical basis this reporter most assuredly operates from due to the education he almost certainly received and the society he has grown up in.

Mr. Fisher would have to actively and honestly seek to understand his own philosophical premises before he would be able to know just how jarring his willingness to throw out the product of his own proper reasoning is to someone who can see what he is doing.

Since very few people have engaged in such an examination of their philosophical premises his behavior is not baffling at all, only discouraging to all men of reason.

Posted by: Russ Shurts at May 5, 2004 10:24 AM

Sorry to re-post, but this last comment got sent off to the old April file. Besides, JohnGalt referenced this post in relation to the old ABC Scoop set of comments so I thought I would tack in on here. See that post for relevant info.

As for this exact topic are you not making my point that reporting objective reality requires an objective reporter? Reporting completely objective reality to me is akin to taking quantum measurements, the fact that the measuring device is in the system or the observer is watching changes the outcome.

On this issue of the war on terror and my criticism of same:

I question all authority, the UN's included. I have no illusions about the crippling beauracracy and corruption in the UN, but they do however still have knowledgeable, dedicated, and honorable people who work for them that have directly relevant experiece that we could use. Don't throw out the baby with the bath water.

Simplistic and judgemental? I thought that was how you prefered your arguments. :) I am not declaring broad questions of international dimplomacy wrong, I am declaring specific assertations and policy assumptions have indeed been proven wrong. That is reality.

Do you seriously content that the issue is that black and white, that our only choice in fighting terrorism is to do it the current way or go home and hide under our beds? As long as we cling to the fallicy that global terrorism is primarily state sponsored and continue to look for the next state to attack we are doomed to failure. Secretary Rumsfeld is fond of deriding the Cold War era military thinking yet he has not yet come to grips with the reality that global terror is united by a set of beliefs and not bounded by a set of borders. Even Afghanistan could be more accurately described as global terror supporting a state than the other way around. Fighting the war on terror will in fact be more police or intelligence work than military work. It will take many more man hours to find the terror cells than to take them out. Rolling tanks and troops across a country is not going to find and kill terrorists. That is reality.

Posted by: Silence Dogood at May 7, 2004 12:45 PM

At the risk of taking this discussion down a side road...

There certainly are people of integrity at the UN, Silence. But I cannot compare the U.N.'s legitimacy to the Coalition's. No way.

The U.N. sat idly by when $10 billion dollars was siphoned off the top of its "Oil for Food" program, while the people that were meant to be helped saw little or no aid, and UN bureaucrats, their cronies, and relatives made millions. And while Saddam was allowed to keep his prisons and torture camps operational, with money left over to further arm against the US and support terrorists.

After the war, the UN bugged out at the first sight of trouble. Still, people think that this organization is a legitimate (perhaps the only legitimate) administrator for a new Iraq.

Ken Lay, Quattrone, Kozlowski, Ebbers, &c. are small-timers compared to the UN. Yet Senator Kerry (and possibly President Bush) is ready to hand over Iraq. I would feel much better if the country were given over to a governing board of Enron, Tyco, World Com and Andersen execs.

Posted by: jk at May 8, 2004 02:52 PM

You are right JK, there is no excuse for the actions of the UN and they have indeed been shameful. The legitimacy of the whole body is rightly questioned, even if you look past the corruption, the political body of the UN is too big to be very effective and certainly not efficient.

But I still contend that even though the UN may have spent the better part of the last ten years effectively screwing the people of Iraq, Great Britain, Turkey, and the US have done their fair share as well over the last 100 years. I think there is an interesting American phenomenom concerning international politics, with our 4 year election cycle we tend to re-invent ourselves every 4 or 8 years, and yet forget that those in other countries see actions as being American, not tied to a particular administration. Thus even though the Bush administration would not lay claim to any of Clinton's policies, or some of Bush I, Reagan, Carter, Ford, etc. it is incorrect to think that those in other countries see it the same way. They have a more long term view and see policies as being American, the slate is not wiped clean with each new president. Thus the legimacy of the current CPA is brought into question by acts and policies of the supporting governments for many years in the past. Are some of these acts biased and twisted in the minds of Iraqis? You bet, but the reality is that the perception is there and dismissing it out of hand because you do not agree with it will be a costly mistake. In the end, the Iraqi government has to be legitimate to Iraqis, not you or I, and if that means dealing with perceptions, misconceptions, or whatever you would like to call them, it still has to be done.

Posted by: Silence Dogood at May 11, 2004 08:30 AM

Great point. We consider President Clinton's policies ancient history and they think the Crusades are relevant.

At the same time, our country will be deciding, next November, whether to turn the page on President Bush. It disturbs me deeply that Senator Kerry's answer to Iraq always seems to be "we'll have the UN take care of that." Whether one agrees with the Iraqi war or nor, I cannot believe most people would think that a responsible outcome.

Posted by: jk at May 11, 2004 09:35 AM

I think the UN has become something of a giant scapegoat. Member nations have begun to hide behind it and let it take the blame for whatever troubles befall the latest endeavor. In a way, giving authority to the UN is simply a way to avoid responsibility. Kerry doesn't really have concrete plans for very many things he thinks should be changed. I agree with many of his concepts regarding the need for change, but continually wonder how a canditate can get so far into an election race without nailing down and spelling out his vision. I am saddened that my party cannot come up with a better candidate.

Posted by: Silence Dogood at May 11, 2004 12:41 PM

Please excuse my absence from this discussion. I've been quite busy recently but I'm back, for now.

My complaints about the UN are not merely it's widespread corruption and incompetence, but also the moral headlock the organization attempts to impose on America and other principled nations. The UN makes all the right gestures about opposing terror and genocidal dictators but when one of the permanent members is in bed with one of said dictators, (who is usually a UN member himself) they simply invoke their veto to derail the long delayed but completely justified, and vital, death sentence on the regime. Case in point - France (and Russia) protecting Saddam and their Iraqi gravy train. Why waste countless months and years of diplomatic wrangling for agreement when it may simply be discarded in the end? France, having made this unprecedented break with the moral policies of America and the civilized world, deserves all the blame for any damage done to the viability of the UN.

Now, setting aside this nice UN debate let's get back to the original purpose of this post. That is, "Men who are certain in their rational judgement of the truth [who] then claim to be confused as to what the truth is."

Russ correctly pointed out that this phenomenon is not baffling, and Jack Wakeland acknoledged this by putting the term in quotes. Consider the original example: Ian Fisher claimed that "reality...is a kaleidoscope of versions" and then proceeded to portray an objective and precise account of the events. He claimed that truth was unknowable and then applied rational judgment to the evidence and concluded what, in fact, the truth was. Why does a man do this?

Before I offer my own rational conclusion, I should call attention to another example of the "baffling phenomenon:" Silence commented that "Reporting completely objective reality ... is akin to taking quantum measurements, the fact that the measuring device is in the system or the observer is watching changes the outcome." The subtle meaning of this statement is two-fold. First, no matter how objectively one evaluates the evidence he can never be "completely" objective, and therefore certainty is impossible. Second, there are as many "incompletely" objective conclusions as there are observers. In other words, no judgement is more valid than any other. For the maker of this statement, it is at once a disclaimer of responsibility for his statements that follow and an admission that he will never concede agreement on any matter.

The "baffling" part is that Silence then offered several (inobjective?) conclusions, using terms like "proven wrong" and "that is reality."

I promised my own rational conclusion why a man would do this. The reason is that these men operate under a set of flawed philosophical premises. Those premises were not actively formed, but passively accepted from the education and the society he grew up in. These premises are incabable of leading to a rational conclusion because the premises are inconsistent in and of themselves. As Russ told us, one of these men "would have to actively and honestly seek to understand his own philosophical premises before he would be able to know just how jarring his willingness to throw out the product of his own proper reasoning is to someone who can see what he is doing."

Posted by: johngalt at May 13, 2004 11:58 AM

My point is that you cannot creat a completely objective and factual report of a complex incident in real time from a single viewpoint. Observers in different places will see a different angle, none of them false, but none completely factual either. Truth does exist and can be ascertained but time and multiple accounts will be required if the subject has any complexity, such as the battle scene described. This is the same logic I use to claim that many of the ascertations of this administration concerning the war in Iraq are objectively false. There has been plenty of time and plenty of accounts from many vantage points that all converge at the same conclusion - that which was foretold has not come to pass.

Posted by: Silence Dogood at May 13, 2004 05:30 PM

Yes Silence, I understand your point. I "get" what you're saying. And MY point is, in a nutshell, that some interpretations of the same set of facts ARE false. Like the one that says "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." Fighting for the freedom to enslave and murder others is a false ideal. (It is "true" in the eyes of death-loving terrorists, but this perspective is championed in the dispatches of Reuters "news" service. Do they love death too?)

The extension of my point is that your (and Reuters') inability to "get" my point is a product of flawed philosophical premises. Absolute certainty is not required to make a rational judgement. This is a philosophical trap. (No matter how certain the evidence there is always a man who will question it in some way.) All opinions or "points of view" are not equally valid. This is also a philosophical trap. (If this were true you would not care who wins any election.)

Finally, let's look at just one of "that which was foretold" that "has not come to pass," the first one: "We will be greeted as liberators" - wrong. In order for this to be "wrong" there must not have been a SINGLE PERSON who greeted us as liberators. We happen to know this is false. Reason also suggests that a majority of Iraqis have greeted us as liberators or else we would have been driven out by now. The fact that there are SOME there who still try to kill us does not disprove the original claim.

Posted by: johngalt at May 14, 2004 08:22 AM

You are both missing another important point. One CAN create a completely objective and factual report of a complex incident in real time from a single viewpoint. It may not contain every piece of information on the subject but it can still be completely objective. You said, "observers in different places will see a different angle [this part is true], none of them false, but none completely factual either." The level of factuality is not based on the viewpoint of the observer or the completeness of the report, it is based on the
whether the observer gives a rational description or a biased one. The same distinction also exists in the interpretation of the reader, who can read the completely objective and factual report rationally or with a bias toward a preconception.

It is mistaken to say that a description is necessarily false or necessarily true based on it's level of completeness or comprehensiveness. The advantage to recognizing this is that the person giving the rational description realizes that his description must be taken in context. He saw the battle from the west for example. If another rational observer comes along and says that from the North I saw ...., the two of them will get together and reconcile their views. It is entirely likely that one view was far superior to the other. Why do you suppose tickets on the 50 yard line cost more? They are not EQUAL by nature of being different or having come from different angles. The fact that another angle exists does not obviate the truth, objectivity, or rationality of my observations and especially does not reduce the effectiveness of my mind in making and interpreting those observations.

Posted by: dagny at May 14, 2004 12:05 PM
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