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February 24, 2010

My Rule of Thumb

A few weeks ago Charles Davis criticized reporting by Eli Lake about Iran's nuclear activities in the Washington "American is Satan's Harvest" Times. Then Lake criticized his criticism.

I don't know much about the specifics, and have no intention of taking the time to learn. Fortunately, I have a rule of thumb to help figure out which one to trust. It goes like this: "Don't trust reporters who lie to win arguments in the comment section of blogs."

Based on this, I'm going to have to believe Charles Davis.

Five years ago a boring fight broke out in the comments of a post by Matthew Yglesias. I'm embarrassed to say I read it and participated in it. (That link is to the version of the page; for some reason the original is now missing some of what happened.)

One of the fight participants was Eli Lake, who wrote:

You are inventing history...It is true that [France, Germany and Russia] said [Saddam] was in the process of complying, but no one said he had complied. Indeed he had not. He threatened to shoot down surveillance jets, he did not make scientists available to inspectors without chapperones, he was spying on the inspectors. The report the Iraqis filed in december of 2002 contradicted earlier testimony from Hussein Kamal and Iraq's earlier accounts of what weapons they had. The burden of proof was on Saddam to account for his stocks of weapons he admitted to having before the war. In the interim he failed to even live up to the numerous confidence building measures the international community set forth in subsequent resolutions and the original cease fire. Finally, the Kay and Duelfer reports prove he was technically in violation. He had the break out capacity to build chemical and biological weapons, his programs were in tact, and Duelfer said he had the intention to do so once the sanctions were lifted. But please, don't let the facts of the matter get in the way of your theories.

Posted by: Eli Lake | February 10, 2005 11:32 AM

All of these statements were at best highly misleading, and sometimes flatly false. Of course, it's usually hard to tell whether people like Eli Lake are lying or just have no idea what they're talking about. But there is one way to find out—try to bet them money:

I've read most of the Kay and Duelfer reports, and a claim that they prove Iraq's CW and BW programs "were intact" strikes me as bizarre. Moreover, I've never seen anyone else make this claim. Perhaps my understanding of the reports is wrong. But I don't think so. So I would be happy to bet Eli Lake $500 that a mutually-agreed upon arbiter will say that my interpretation of "the facts of the matter" is correct.

In terms of the arbiter, I suggest Daniel Drezner. But as I say, anyone on whom we can both agree would be great.

What do you say, Eli? This is clearly a subject you feel strongly about.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz | February 10, 2005 01:10 PM

Lake didn't respond in the comments. And he also didn't respond when I asked a mutual friend to ask him to contact me. So I feel I'm on firm ground when I say he was consciously lying.

IN CONCLUSION: I don't think Eli Lake should be condemned for lying here. People lie constantly to themselves and others; it's just the human condition. I defy anyone to say they haven't told 1000 lies like this in their lives. That said, reporters in particular should be aware of and try to avoid this tendency in themselves. And if they lie anyway and are caught, they should have the grace to say: You know, I gave into the temptation there to improve reality in order to win an argument. I recognize it's particularly pathetic to do so in comments on a blog, and I apologize, and will strive not to do it again.

The fact Eli Lake didn't have the ability to do this—particularly combined with his characteristic sneering tone—makes me suspect lying like this is habitual for him. Advantage: Charles Davis.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at February 24, 2010 06:09 PM

I endorse this post.

Posted by: Charles Davis at February 24, 2010 06:40 PM

Charles Davis kicks his ass.

I was extra bored, so I'll note that Lake's wiki entry says he an amateur rapper, but though it links to some video of him telling lies, there was, to my great disappointment, no video of him rapping. Since he's a warmonger and apparently not so honest, I will be classless and note that he is quite the pasty white doughboy, so watching him rap would have made this all worthwhile.

Posted by: N E at February 24, 2010 07:58 PM

I had a fight with Lake too, a million years ago it seems; something about some fake Arafat scandal, IIRC.

I thought it was weird, because he is (or certainly was at the time) a reporter, not a journo, or opinion writer, but a freakin reporter - and yet he would openly manifest incredibly powerful ideological bias. Is this normal?

Posted by: abb1 at February 25, 2010 04:02 AM

This tactic reminds me of one I've started to employ against climate change denialists.

I say, I will bet you that the global mean temperature between 2010-9 will be higher than the global mean temperature between 2000-9.

I give the listener 2-to-1 odds and insist that they sign a promissory note if I don't know them personally. I've basically set no upper limit on what I bet (although in my own mind I've set the total limit to $2000).

So far one person has taken the bet. But as a challenge, I think it works. For if the denialist is unwilling to bet his own money on scientific baloney, why should he expect that the whole world should bet as well?

This I hope will serve as my retirement fund.

Posted by: Robert Nagle at February 25, 2010 04:03 AM

What if Eli Lake has a rule of thumb of not making bets with people in the comments of a blog post?

Posted by: ADM at February 25, 2010 07:37 AM

Eli Lake was just running with the herd and still is. The lying in 2002-03 was so pervasive and consistent and fact-free that it was disorienting.

Figuring out the 'why' behind that lie pandemic is harder, because that's complicated. Eli Lake almost certainly thinks of himself as honest, on one level, but mostly he has an elevated view of his own 'expertise' because he has the job of going to hearings and listening to Dennis Blair tell us that we are "certain" to have another terrorist attack within the next 3 to 6 months.

The lies that matter these days aren't about Iraq. There's a new game in town, and people should pay attention to how it's played. The U.S. has chosen as part of its defense policy to police the entire world to prevent all the various greedy, nasty nations from returning to their former practice of fighting over everything like a pack of hyhenas. And this has some handy economic benefits too, such as oil. But people really won't go for either of those reasons, so to justify a massive US international "supercop" role, Al Qaeda is necessary. After all, all the old threats of consequence disappeared in 1991. The rest is just details, of which there are many.

There are some problems with Al Qaeda as a danger because of its boogeyman qualities, but if you have a bunch of note-takers like Eli Lake willing to think highly of themselves for writing whatever you tell them, even if it's all totally unsubstantiated, the sky is the limit as to what you can do.

Just don't be expecting Eli to take any fair bets anytime soon. He's not that stupid.

Posted by: N E at February 25, 2010 09:06 AM

I just assume that anytime Eli Lake - or anyone associated with The New York Sun or New Republic write or talk about the Mid-East they are being dishonest.

Posted by: bayville at February 25, 2010 03:26 PM

I think by that time I had already learned never to engage in an extended blog debate under any circumstances.

Posted by: godoggo at February 25, 2010 05:45 PM

"Rule of thumb" as a figure of speech represents violence against women; I suggest "short cut" or "heuristic" as substitutes.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at February 25, 2010 06:19 PM

"Rule of thumb" as a figure of speech represents violence against women

That's actually not so.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at February 25, 2010 06:37 PM

Thanks for the correction. I am glad to have been relieved of the misapprehension.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at February 25, 2010 06:49 PM

Not to be too distracted by thumbs, but in other languages, there are are rules of thumb, too. So aside from all the debunking Cecil gives at your link, add the fact that estimating as "looking across your thumb" is done in German, too.

On the more pressing matter of betting for policing veracity, I seem to recall a study in which a technique was developed to quantify confidence levels. How? By betting.

New semantics for numerical values given to possibility measures are provided. For epistemic possibilities, the new approach is based on the semantics of the transferable belief model, itself based on betting odds. It is shown that the least informative among the belief structures that are compatible with prescribed betting rates is a possibility measure. It is also proved that the idempotent conjunctive combination of two possibility measures corresponds to the hyper-cautious conjunctive combination of the belief functions induced by the possibility measures. For objective possibility degrees, the semantics is based on the most informative possibilistic approximation of a probability measure. We show how the idempotent disjunctive combination of possibility functions is related to the convex mixture of probability distributions.

Got that?

Heck, the original study I saw years ago was almost possible to understand, but the semioticians and semanticists have got to it by now!

Posted by: Joel P at February 26, 2010 01:58 AM

Okay, so now I hear an even better metaphor for estimation in German. Pi mal Daumen means Pi x thumb!! Infinite accuracy times complete fudge. Beautiful.

Posted by: Joel P at February 26, 2010 02:22 AM

Eli Lake is a vile, glistening turd of a man, an absolutely putrid piece of human sewage.

Posted by: stras at February 26, 2010 07:02 AM

Such language. I don't think it's right to call anyone idempotent.

Posted by: N E at February 26, 2010 07:52 AM

mistah charley must be a sockpuppet of Jonathan. Nobody on the Internet reacts that way to facts. ^_^

Posted by: hf at February 26, 2010 10:51 PM

Arguing on the Internet is like participating in the Olympics.. even if you win, you are supporting a disgusting commercial marketization of a once noble event... or something.. I think I messed up my metaphor.

Posted by: tim at February 27, 2010 10:42 AM

At least account money and iphoneringtonemaker are appreciative!

If mistah charley ph.d. is a sock puppet, please don't tell me. I couldn't bear it.

Posted by: N E at February 27, 2010 11:23 AM


hf asserts, above:

mistah charley must be a sockpuppet of Jonathan. Nobody on the Internet reacts that way to facts. ^_^

The reference is to my comment in which I thank our host for new information which helps me improve my evidently erroneous model of The Way Things Are (and How They Got That Way).

I believe that all of us are operating on a Bayesian basis, adjusting our Weltanschauung according to data which we evaluate using the lens of our own limited perception (as in a glass, darkly).

To be quite explicit and literal about it, I am NOT a sock pocket for our host here. I have, however, used other noms de cyber at various times and places. A nonexhaustive list:

mark r.
kermit frogster
hermit lobster
Freddy el Desfibradddor
Fannie Farmer (Mrs.) [one of my favorites]

None of these names are "sock puppets" in the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary sense of "a false online identity used for deceptive purpose", because they were not used to deceive, but rather in the pursuit of educational, scientific, philosophic, and artistic goals.

And speaking of the intention to deceive, I would like to bring to your attention the following comment by Jay Ackroyd, at Eschaton

At a conference I was at this week, Daniel Ellsberg recounted a time in 1969 when he explained to Henry Kissinger what would happen after he was given the dozen or so clearances above Top Secret (the existence of which is also classified, of course). What happens first is you feel like a fool. You've published books that you now discover were filled with stuff that was wrong. You have believed you understood how things worked for your entire professional life, but you now find out you were completely wrong, that the real world is entirely different from what you have been told. The books you've written, the lectures you've given are based on a false understanding of the world.

But this stage only lasts a few weeks. After you have been reading this material hitherto unavailable to you for a while, you begin to see everybody else as fools. Only people with these top level clearances know the truth. People whom you previously regarded as experts become ignoramuses, doubly so because they don't realize that they actually know nothing.
And so your conversations with them become telling them what you want them to think.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at February 28, 2010 11:28 AM

We think you are right. Impressive!.

Posted by: ringtone mac at March 1, 2010 07:42 AM

mistah charley, ph.d.

I for one never doubted that you are no sock puppet, but then, I have also conceded that would be too much for me.

What Jay Ackroyd quoted from that conference has been put online by Kevin Drum at greater length in Mother Jones, and the fuller excerpt contains other important points. If anyone is more honest and more important to understand than Daniel Ellsberg, I can't name him. Here's the link to what Drum excerpted.

Not all of the implications from this passage from Ellsberg's book Secrets are obvious. You are most definitely right about us all operating on a Bayesian basis, according to our own limited perceptions, in a glass darkly. And we all certainly posseses inferior information, sometimes almost no information. Consequently, we are confined to guess-work when it comes to understanding why people like Richard Clarke and Scott Ritter, each of whom could fairly be described as an ultra-conservative militarist, were so enraged by 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. We don't know what they know, and we never will.

If Madison was right about power, we'll need more men like Daniel Ellsberg in the years ahead, and let's hope they are able to find the wisdom and courage that Ellsberg did. On the other hand, if Madison was wrong about power and the judgment of our military and our Presidents is consistently sound enough to be relied on, everything will be fine and we should all just relax and accept the necessary sacrifices we have been and will be called upon to make from time to time to generate the "perception management" and simple deception that keeps our military juggernaut rolling and thereby perhaps prevents a third world war, which could arise, or so the military at least undoubtedly believes, if we fail to maintain our vast military supremacy in all regions of the world. (A hyhena never attacks a lion.)

So can we trust those folks with all those security clearances? It's more than a question of information. What are their goals? How is their judgment? What sacrifices are they prepared to make to keep us on top of the world, so to speak? They'd like to decide all that for us too, but then what aren't they deciding for us?

Posted by: N E at March 1, 2010 11:40 AM