Thursday, January 08, 2004

Here are excerpts from an article in the Christian Science Monitor.  I am quoting it to illustrate a common fallacy, and to illustrate how a good journalist avoids this fallacy.  The article provides commentary on a number of concurrent events.  This concurrence seems to form a pattern.  Naturally, when one perceives a pattern, it is tempting to conclude that the pattern means something.  As your brain sorts through the millions of phenomena it perceives each day, It has to decide which phenomena to tag as being worthy of executive attention.  This is a complex process; complete discussion is way beyond the scope of this article.  Let it suffice to say that one aspect your brain looks for, in deciding what to raise to conscious attention, is the rarity of the perception.  When a few rare events occur together, your brain says: "there's a pattern forming; this must be important."  Of course, this is not a logically valid conclusion, by Aristotelian logic.  But each human brain uses its own logic.
For example, if you flip a coin 10 times, and it comes up heads each time, you might be tempted to conclude that the pattern "must mean something."  But of course, it is random; it does not mean anything special.  Also, please keep in mind that if you encounter any large collection of data, even if it is mathematically random, there will appear to be patterns within the data set.  Again, the patterns are real, they are there; but they do not mean anything, no matter how startling they may be. 

from the January 09, 2004 edition In world's hot spots, forward steps
From Pakistan to Sudan to North Korea, problems may be starting to yield to economic imperatives and global pressure.
By Howard LaFranchi | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
WASHINGTON – The dawning new year has been witness to good news from a number of the world's most protracted conflicts and dangerous trouble spots.
Promising developments are suddenly marking the global landscape: between nuclear powers India and Pakistan; in Sudan, where rebels this week reached an agreement with southern rebels that could end Africa's longest civil war; in Libya, which recently announced it would give up its unconventional weapons programs to reenter the community of nations; in US-Iranian relations, with Iran agreeing to international inspection of nuclear sites; and even in North Korea, which this week offered to freeze its nuclear programs.
Geopolitical deescalating events, unfortunately, are rare.  So if five occur in a short time span, it is natural to expect that someone will think it "must mean something."  Mr. LaFranchi took the time to collect some of these musing from prominent experts, and collect them in his article.  The theme of the collected musing is this:
"The debate in Washington is over whether all of this is a product of tough Bush administration policies and the war in Iraq, or whether it's more the result of multilateral diplomatic pressures and things like economic sanctions having an impact," says Charles Kupchan, a foreign-policy expert at Georgetown University.
Mr. LaFranchi goes on to quote various experts who opine that this sequence of events proves that the hawkish policies of the Bush administration are achieving the desired effect of promoting world peace.   (I doubt that world peace is what Bush is looking for, but that's another story.)   Other experts argue that the concurrence of events proves the opposite; that it is only the diplomatic efforts that have occurred after the end of large-scale hostilities in Iraq, that have led to these geopolitical tectonic shifts.  The opposing points are illustrated in these quotes:
  • Georgetown's Kupchan says recent events demonstrate the reemergence of diplomacy and negotiation. "The biggest change of the last six months is Washington's recognition that in most cases, a negotiated solution is really the only viable alternative," he says. "The war in Iraq is demonstrating just how costly the military route is."
  • A more muscular US role in the world - and in particular Bush's declaration after Sept. 11 that countries would be seen as either with the US or against it - "has forced a lot of countries to make choices," says Jon Wolfsthal, a weapons proliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
When the author wraps up the story, he makes a point of the fact that one should be cautious about drawing conclusions based on what could be a mere coincidence, or more likely, a complex dynamic scenario with multiple determinants; he does not fall for the fallacy that a sequence of rare events "must mean something".  The fact is, we have not seen the resolution of any of the five hope-inspiring events.  It is this relctance to draw a firm conclusion from inadequate evidence that leads me to say that Mr. LaFranchi's article is an example of good journalism; it truly is a fair and balanced view.
...some experts are cautioning that what looks like progress might only be scratch deep. "You can attribute some of this to President Bush's foreign policy, but in other cases it could be dangerous to overplay the significance of what's happening," says Max Boot, a foreign-policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.