Friday, 11 January 2008

Anti-anti-war propaganda and knowledge

I found this article in the WSJ, following a link in a comment on the perpetually outraged SWP-aligned blog Lenin's Tomb. For once the Trots actually have a fair reason to kick off as this opinion piece is pretty rubbish, as you can tell from the first para.

Three weeks before the 2006 elections, the British medical journal Lancet published a bombshell report estimating that casualties in Iraq had exceeded 650,000 since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. We know that number was wildly exaggerated. The news is that now we know why.

The last two sentences really bother me. The assertion is broadly that you can know that a proposition is false without knowing why. Maybe I've been reading too much blah about epistemology lately, but I'm a bit sceptical that this is actually possible. I use my own lack of knowledge on this subject as a case in point. I also found the Lancet figure problematic, it sounded way too high. But if I am honest my 'knowledge' of the real level of deaths in Iraq is drawn solely from the media, and has no empirical basis. It is therefore quite possible/likely that my idea of what of a reasonable estimate of these numbers would be is anchored by previous numbers that I have heard used (for example by Iraq Body Count).

I don't therefore think that my feeling that the Lancet figure was wrong is justified true belief, and from reading the WSJ piece I'm fairly sure the author is in the same boat. I would argue that whoever wrote the WSJ piece believed, rather than knew, that the Lancet figures were exaggerated, and based on what they have written I don't think they know 'why' they hold the belief either. The 'justification' (the 'why') does not 'justify'. Therefore this article is actually more a useful example of confirmation bias in practice than anything else.

For example, when you look at the actual 'evidence' the WSJ uses to explain 'why' the report exaggerated the death toll in Iraq, the argument looks threadbare. It's principally a list of the political affiliations of those involved with producing, funding and publishing the report, not an examination of their data or methodology. In other words the report findings are wonky because of the politics of those involved. I'm not at all questioning that beliefs can influence our assessment of evidence, but you need to prove that this has happened, not just imply that it has taken place. Otherwise it's just an ad hominem attack, surely?

The one bit in the article that gets anywhere close to querying the data is actually buried down the bottom. The legitimate criticism here is that the Iraqi researcher involved in the report did not make his data available to others. But it isn't explored any further. The point that he also made claims about depleted uranium is again more along the lines of 'he says things we don't like, therefore his evidence is flawed'.

Finally, the last paragraph is also worth a look:

In other words, the Lancet study could hardly be more unreliable. Yet it was trumpeted by the political left because it fit a narrative that they wanted to believe. And it wasn't challenged by much of the press because it told them what they wanted to hear. The truth was irrelevant.

As regular readers will know, I enjoy the exposure of narratives masquerading as knowledge, but there are several things wrong with this. On a practical point from what I remember the Lancet study was challenged in a number of places. I certainly debated it with people on messageboards, and I remember Dubya's comment that the study was 'not credible' being featured in media reports. Secondly, the article does not prove that the Lancet report is unreliable, even though I share the belief (rather than justifed true belief, ie knowledge) that the figures do not stack up.

But more broadly the paragraph could have been written about the coverage of any number of reports by non-specialist media. Skewed and unreliable reports are trumpeted by differing political factions all the time. And if the line being advanced fits the narrative the media want then such studies get swallowed hook, line and sinker. Shockingly this applies to Fox News and the WSJ as much as it does to the BBC and The Grauniad. So while I agree with the thrust of the WSJ's piece here personally I think it's not really a comment about the Lancet report, or the claims of the anti-war movement. It's actually a comment about how unreliable the media can be as sources of information - a point this article itself unwittingly demonstrates very well.

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