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Sunday, August 19, 2007

A Defense of "Fake but Accurate" 
The adherents of the FBA doctrine of media analysis mount a spirited defense of their hypothesis in the comments to this thread.

Steve Quiggin writes:

A bunch of rightwing blogs are getting excited yet again about Scott Beauchamp. For those who haven’t followed the story, Beauchamp is a US soldier in Iraq who wrote some pieces for The New Republic which, among other things, described bad behaviour by US troops, such as deliberately running over stray dogs and taunting a woman disfigured by burns. The pro-war lobby has worn out dozens of keyboards seeking to discredit Beauchamp, his story and the very possibility of running over dogs in an armoured vehicle. Now it appears the US Army has denied Beauchamp’s claims. (To reiterate, I don’t care about or intend to debate, or even to link to, the details of this case).

Some might suggest that the truth or falsity of these stories doesn’t matter much in the light of this. or this or this or this, to list just a few of the disasters have taken place while the wingnutosphere has been defending the US Army’s commitment to animal welfare.

But that would miss the point. What matters, in the world of rightwing postmodernism, is not reality but the way the media reports it. One bogus memo is enough to turn George W. Bush from a scrimshank who used his family connections to line up a cushy billet to avoid war service, and then shirked even that, into a war hero.


As one commenter points out, Quiggin tries to attack any right wing tendencies toward media postmodernism by way of embracing another, even stupider postmodernist argument - that no individual writer or journalist can be usefully outed as a liar if the broader narrative has an element of truth to it.

This is the essence of FBA analysis, which is itself an assault on inductive reason. But more than that, it is an assault on reason itself: When a scientist predicts, for example, that a golf ball hit into the air will eventually return to Earth, and bases his prediction on the Theory of Gravity, his deductive reasoning process stands on the shoulders of trillions of previous observations and generations of inductive scientific inquiry.

He is therefore reasonably certain that his deductive reasoning process will not cause him to publicly embrace a falsehood.

Quiggin, and his supporters in the comment thread, however, have no such solid foundation to their inquiry. As a result, when an ideological ally of theirs, Scott Thomas Beauchamp, is exposed to be a fraud, they are intellectually ill-equipped to process the event. They are reduced to attacking the messengers of the bad tidings, introducing irrelevant red herrings into the argument, and defending Beauchamp. Except that Beauchamp cannot be defended, at least by a competent observer. So they must then attack someone else whose conclusions based on personal observation come at variance to their own - in this case, Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack.

Quiggin's reasoning skills are so sloppy, his thinking so undisciplined, that not only does he manage to mount a nondefense of Beauchamp by invoking Rathergate (huh?), but he manages to excoriate O'Hanlon and Pollack without a single, solitary evidentiary reference.

To wit:

The fact that Pollack (author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq) and O’Hanlon had consistently supported the war, the occupation and the surge was not seen as anything to worry about.


An ad hominem argument. According to sloppy thinkers on the Port side of the boat, only consistent anti-war voices are allowed to reach valid judgements on the history of the war. This, again, is an assault on reason. A hypothesis must be falsifiable in order to be valid. The attempt to discount critics solely on the basis of their prior support for the war is an attempt to inoculate Quiggin's hypothesis from falsifiability. By Quiggin's doctrine, it is logically impossible for a war supporter to be right.

It is logically impossible for Quiggin to be right.

And none of the armchair experts worried at all about the logistical and technical issues on which they are usually so keen to display their expertise.


Again, not relevant to the argument. The validity of O'Hanlon's piece stands or falls quite independently of whatever anyone else says about it. Quiggin is demonstrating an instinct for the capillary here.

It was left to Glenn Greenwald to point out that Pollack and O’Hanlon went on a guided tour organised by the US military, spent every night in the Green Zone, and formed many of their most striking impressions on the basis of two-hour visits to places like Mosul.


Interesting. Greenwald questions the validity of their methodology. Which is a valid mode of criticism, even for liberals (except when deployed to question global warming or Darwinian evolution. No liberal can be consistent about anything of consequence, ever.)

Except that Greenwald's criticism fails, too, because he cannot account for Petraus, who has spent much longer in Iraq than O'Hanlon, seems to broadly agree with O'Hanlon's optimism. That optimism appears to be largely shared by officers and senior NCOs with multiple tours in Iraq. Greenwald's arguement is quickly neutralized by this control group. Indeed, among Americans, I would argue that the longer an observer has been on the ground in Iraq, the more likely he or she is to hold the view that the defeat of the Islamist insurgency is possible, if we do not lose our will and cede initiative to the enemy.

So where are the defences of O’Hanlon and Pollack? Technorati finds a few sites still trumpeting the initial report, and some pushing a similar one from Der Spiegel, but that’s about it. Apparently it’s more important to prove that an obscure private is telling tall tales than to offer a serious defence of the latest claims of imminent victory.


And so the FBA doctrine is once again encapsulated. Except it's incompetently done. First of all, Beauchamp is wholly irrelevant to O'Hanlon and Pollack's observations. Completely.

Second, Quiggins also wholly ignores the very real gains that have recently been made against the Islamists in Iraq - specifically, in Ramadi, the rest of Al Anbar, and Baqubah. He presents not a shred of support as to why those recent gains are immaterial to our eventual success.

Rather, he desperately clings to red herring after red herring, to trope after trope, and tries to argue with obscuration rather than illumination.

What's more, now that Quiggin has dug himself into a hopeless hole, the equally undisciplined thinkers in his audience continue to supply him with shovels:

From Steve Labonne:

Who cares about Beauchamp, particularly? Because there’s lots more testimony to the serious abuse of civilians here. Not to mention that anybody with half a brain and a little imagination and sympathy would not even need to be told that such things will inevitably happen if you plunk young, frightened soldiers down in the midst of a civil war in a country whose language and culture are completely alien to them.


Who cares about the truth, when I have my own biases and preconceptions to keep me company?

Don't miss Megan McArdle, who has more:


Mr Quiggin is confusing two different kinds of "wrong". Lots of experts are wrong--indeed, given the style of US journalism, just about half of the ones quoted on any story. That's not the same as a story being wrong--i.e. having printing major facts (or quasi-facts, such as technical jargon or scientific theories) that were/are not as described in the story.

The significance of the latter is not that a) there is a media conspiracy to discredit the war or b) that right wing bloggers are on a savage tear against disconfirming evidence. The significance is that, if journalists do not care avidly about only printing things that are, to the best of their ability to determine, true, then it doesn't really matter whether they please John Quiggin by editorialising about the various people making domestic and foreign policy claims. That is because no one will be able to trust that there even was a trip to Iraq or a Michael O'Hanlon, so they won't read the story in the first place.


Splash, out

Jason

Comments:
For a couple years now we've been told that 'reality has a liberal bias'.

Apparently, this isn't so true, otherwise they wouldn't have to make so much up.
 
Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack are nothing but different flavors of Kool-Aid.
 
Well, vigilante - you obviously quote them at length. But you do nothing whatsoever to develop your argument.

At least Quiggie gets points for making an effort.
 
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