Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Same Old Same Old

According to HL Mencken, nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. It's equally impossible to lose a political debate, or personal credibility, by underestimating the attention span and incuriosity of the Australian public. Especially on the internet.

A recent study by two Harvard University economists - Radha Iyengar, Jonathan Monten - published at the US National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) has been picked up by defenders of the war in Iraq as a rhetorical big stick, leftists for the whacking of. If you can't afford the $5 (US) NBER charges for electronic delivery of the paper, you can get some idea of its content from this US News report.

I first learnt of the study from this post on Andrew Bolt's blog - "Leftists Lie, Iraqis Die":
It comes with lots of important caveats, and yet:

Are insurgents in Iraq emboldened by voices in the news media expressing dissent or calling for troop withdrawals from Iraq? The short answer, according to a pair of Harvard economists, is yes.

Kudos to Bolt for mentioning that the study included "lots of important caveats"; no kudos for that inflammatory title and omitting those important caveats from his own coverage of the study. No kudos, either, for ignoring the ending of that US News report:
But before partisans go wild on both sides of the aisle, here are just three of the important caveats to this study:
  • The city of Baghdad, for a variety of reasons, was excluded from the report. The authors contend that looking at the outside provinces, where 65 percent of insurgent attacks take place, is a better way to understand the effect they have discovered. Other population centers like Mosul, Basra, Kirkuk, and Najaf were included in the study.

  • The study does not take into account overall cost and benefit of public debate. Past research has shown that public debate has a positive effect on military strategy, for example, and, in the case of Iraq, might be a factor in forcing the Iraqi government to more quickly accept responsibility for internal security.

  • It was not possible, from the data available, to determine whether insurgent groups increased the overall number of attacks against American and Iraqi targets in the wake of public dissent and debate or simply changed the timing of those attacks. This means that insurgents may not be increasing the number of attacks after all but simply changing the days on which they attack in response to media reports. (emphasis added)
That last caveat rather detracts from Bolt's implied argument, that the left should jolly well shut up about Iraq - not that he's in favour of limiting free speech, of course, he just wishes that opponents of the war would wake up to themselves. It's not known, from the study, whether public dissent leads to new attacks, or whether the insurgents are timing their attacks to coincide with periods of public dissent.

Bolt's argument, such as it is, is tenuous. And pretty childish. "Every time you say that going to war in Iraq was a mistake Iraqis die" is little better than "Every time you say I don't believe in fairies a fairy dies."

I don't believe in fairies. I don't believe in fairies. I don't believe in fairies. That's three blokes who won't be going to the next Sydney Mardi Gras.

Bolt's argument is made even more tenuous by that last caveat - if debate merely influences the timing of the attacks, rather than the overall number, it becomes a case of "Every time you say you don't believe in fairies a poofter bashing happens".

I don't believe in fairies. I don't believe in fairies. I don't believe in fairies. That's three blokes I've just put into intensive care.

If you want to limit the chances of a skeptical reader - a potential critic - finding those caveats, you do as Currency Lad has done in this post. You link to the NBER abstract, which doesn't mention those embarassing caveats at all:
Finally, given the emboldening effect of anti-Bush agitprop and mendacious journalism, it would help if some observers grew up. If only they were as serious about liberty and peace as they are about "global warming."
There's one caveat to the study that US News doesn't list - perhaps it's omitted from the NBER paper as well. It's too bleeding obvious to rate a mention.

In the US, in particular, it's difficult to stifle dissent from government policy completely, because of that well known First Amendment to the Constitution. In Australia the protections are weaker but we like to at least pay lip service to the idea that we're a democratic society where freedom of speech is valued and respected.

There's a very obvious double standard in play in both cases. Bolt and the Currency Lad have this week lauded the publication of Geert Wilders' Fitna on the web as a victory for free speech. Yet here we see them advocating restraint of free speech when it comes to discussion of Iraq. Debate on that thorny topic would be best conducted if one side - the critics of the war - just kept their mouths shut. Critics of Fitna, those who dare to suggest that Wilders' film shouldn't have been published - bad evil opponents of free speech. Bolt and Currency Lad, who would like public debate on Iraq to be conducted without the participation of the war's opponents - defenders of "responsible" free speech.

There's a name for that. It's one of the words that George Orwell is credited with introducing into the dictionary: doublethink.


tigtog said...

What have you got against fairies, you big meanyhead?

Seriously, nice post.

Gummo Trotsky said...

Me mam was frightened by a drag queen when I was still in utero.

Seriously, ta.