Science is once again bent to political propagandizing

I'm actually being a bit generous using the world "science" here, and I only use it because the newspaper article I'm going to savage uses the word — in the title of the article, no less. In fact, this is pseudo science being bent to make a political point:

Bush Iraq misadventure proved by science

Washington: A study carried out by the University of Connecticut has come to the conclusion that had U.S.President George Bush been cautious rather than overconfident about defeating Iraq's Saddam Hussein, he may have thought twice about activating his misadventure in the Middle East three years ago.

According to the study, overconfident people are more likely to wage war, and lose, suggesting that having a positive attitude towards emerging situations and issues may not be all that beneficial.

According to Peter Turchin, the lead author of the study, the latest results indicate that while in the past optimism may have offered an evolutionary advantage, allowing previous generations to cope with adversity and bluff their opponents, in the present, “positive illusions” may contribute to costly conflicts.

"One wishes that members of the Bush Administration had known about this research before they initiated the invasion of Iraq three years ago,” Turchin said, adding “I think it would be fair to say that the general opinion of political scientists is that the Bush administration was overconfident of victory, and that the Iraq war is a debacle.”

Turchin and his colleagues, who carried out computer simulations to verify their findings, now claim that optimism may wreak havoc on international relations.

I hope you appreciate the fundamental premise underlying both the study and the article. The guy who ran the test went into it with this conclusion: “I think it would be fair to say that the general opinion of political scientists is that the Bush administration was overconfident of victory, and that the Iraq war is a debacle.”

Now I, for one, am a little unclear about a political scientist's expertise in matters of international warfare. But then, what do I know? Not only am I lawyer who knows that most experts will prostitute themselves for money, I'm also no longer a liberal. It's liberals who believe anything said by one who calls himself an expert. Or, as Dennis Prager said:

The Left believes in experts. Of course, every rational person, liberal or conservative, trusts the expertise of experts — such as when experts in biology explain the workings of mitochondria, or when experts in astronomy describe the moons of Jupiter. But for liberals, "expert" has come to mean far more than greater knowledge in a given area. It now means two additional things: One is that non-experts should defer to experts not only on matters of knowledge, but on matters of policy, as well. The second is that experts possess greater wisdom about life, not merely greater knowledge in their area of expertise.

That is why liberals are far more likely to be impressed when a Nobel Prize winner in, let us say, physics signs an ad against war or against capital punishment. The liberal is bowled over by the title "Nobel laureate." The conservative is more likely to wonder why a Nobel laureate in physics has anything more meaningful to say about war than, let us say, a taxi driver.

This expert's manifest bias puts me in mind of something Dorothy Sayer's said in her wonderful book Gaudy Night. I won't quote her directly, because I'm too lazy to dig up the citation, but it was something to the effect that it's fatal for a scientist to theorize in advance of his data. Indeed, the whole book is about the errors scholars make when they come up with a theory and then force the evidence to conform to that theory.

Oooh, by the way…. Did I mention the sophisticated study devised to explain that George Bush is an optimist and therefore the war is a disaster? The "scientists" gave 200 people monopoly money and a computer war game, and told them to go at it. The optimistic ones tended to be more aggressive and to start wars. Significantly, the article says nothing about whether those wars were successful — that is, whether the optimistic person, by starting the war, achieved the goal about which he was so optimistic:

Before the game, volunteers were asked to predict how their performance would rank compared with the other 199 people in the experiment. They then played anonymously against other volunteers and received 10 dollars if they won the game. Each player began with 100 million dollars in game money to invest in their military or industrial infrastructure, or to reserve as cash. The program gave them constant updates about the offers and actions of their opponents.

Both Turchin and Johnson found that players who made higher-than-average predictions of their performance – those who had higher confidence – were more likely to carry out unprovoked attacks.

If I were going to continue to give this study the appellation science, I'd have to modify it with a single word: junk science.

[By the way, I can't resist noting that the picture comes from a website that boasts about a monopoly game played to raise money in an ABB — Anybody But Bush — fundraiser.]

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  • Kevin

    As a physicist, I’m sorry to have to report that my computer simulations have proven that Turchin has a mental capacity roughly equivalent to that of a cucumber. One wishes that members of the University of Connecticut Administration had known about this research before they funded Turchin’s research. I think it would be fair to say that the general opinion of real scientists is that Turchin is suffering from Bush Derangement Syndrome (BDS), and that his research is a debacle.

  • Ann

    Dear Kevin,

    I believe you have insulted the cucumber.

    Regards, Ann

  • JJ

    Hmmm…. Turchin? Not a great deal of electrical activity bounding around that internal landscape, I would have said.

    Then again, consider the dingbats that have been Nobel laureates…

    As for over-optimism about defeating Saddam Hussein’s military, it’s a while ago, I can’t be sure – but that WAS his army that dissolved into smoke in just about no time there, wasn’t it? We were ordering thousands of body-bags, preparing and staffing up hospitals, etc., etc. – hell, as far as defeating him was concerned I think we probably weren’t optimistic enough!

    As far as defeating the “insurgency” is concerned: two things. Thing one is, it isn’t an insurgency. Zarqawi, the new guy, most of the Al Quaeda animals – these people aren’t from Iraq. They aren’t, in fact, “insurgents.” They’re invaders, there to make trouble.

    Thing two is, it would go a lot easier if we were less politically correct about it, and went in there like a pissed-off military and less like an international Girl-Scout cookie distribution organization. The hell with hurting the feelings of either the Iraqi fence-sitters, or the democrats. This is a war, people are dying, and the way to end it is to END IT!

    By the way – Sherlock Holmes said it before Peter Wimsey did: it is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of the facts.

  • Ymarsakar

    Over-confidence has little to anything to do with actual competency. It is true that if you don’t see anything wrong in a battle, then that means that what will surprise you is when something goes wrong. But of course, the critics didn’t predict what would go wrong with the iraq War, OIF 1 or 2 correctly. So it is not like they can claim any degree of competency, greater than Bush or his advisers.

  • jg

    Would that PRofessor? Turchin and his crew could serve a bit of military time, learn history, and abandon their (taxpayer funded?) (I hope not) silliness. Just plain silly.
    Higher education is certainly quite often a debacle.
    Turchin knows whereof he speaks.

  • Don Quixote

    Both sides are guilty of unrealistic optimism. I suspect it is a part of the American character. Bush believed that the Iraqi people would welcome democracy as, say, Japan or the Philippines have. The liberals are even more optimistic, believing that if we are just nice enough to the Islamic extremists they’ll be nice to us. Let’s not give up our optimism, but, for goodness sake, let’s not delude ourselves, either.

  • Ymarsakar

    The logic has to be tight, it has to include all the variables. Japan surrendered, en masse, their spirit was broken, they like the South after the Civil War, were expecting the worst treatment from their former enemies.

    The Iraqis? They were defeated, but that was wayyy back in 1992. This is why you don’t pull out and leave the job undone. Bush gets credit for finishing up the mess his father left, which I suppose annoys him to no end. A propaganda message Bush should have sent to the Iraqis was, “my father failed to do everything he planned to do, now as the patriarch I am finishing up the job”. That would have been a better argument to make towards Iraqis in 2003 than …. whatever Bush was talking about.

    This is like mistaking a poisonous snake with a description of a little lizard with 1 milimeter fangs, when i nfact that snake has a fang of about an inch in length. You would have been right in being optimistic, if you had your logical premises correct.

    Uncle Jimbo has a Youtube video story of that incident with the snake at