September 1, 2010

Through a Lens Darkly

Hatched by Dafydd

In a post published today on Patterico's Pontifications, Patterico highlights a pair of news stories that seem at sixes and sevens. Both relate to the two Moslem immigrants from Yemen to the United States who were arrested in the Amsterdam airport and charged with plotting a terrorist attack... but one story says the two were actually friends, while the other says they were complete strangers -- at least according to unnamed U.S. government officials. ("The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss the investigation.")

Detroit News:

Both of the detained men are friends who lived and worked in Dearborn [Michigan], said Imad Hamad of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. The al Soofi and al Murisi families are prominent within the Yemeni-American community in Dearborn, Hamad said. reprinting an AP story:

The two men arrested in Amsterdam -- both traveling to Yemen -- did not know each other and were not traveling together, a U.S. government official said.

The point most important to the investigation is whether the two were connected; because if they didn't even know each other, they clearly weren't joined in a conspiracy to blow up planes, and this flight could not have been the "dry run" that many believe it may have been, including police in the Netherlands.

But the salient point to me is the simple fact that one story said the two were "friends who lived and worked in Dearborn" -- and relied upon Imad Hamad, who appears to be local to Dearborn, from the way he speaks of their neighbors; while the other that said they "did not know each other" -- and its source was a pair of anonymous federal officials, presumably associated with the FBI, which is conducting the probe.

Patterico goes on to say, "Who ya gonna believe? I think you know where I stand." But I'm less interested in the metaphysical truth of the terrorism allegation here -- any prosecution would likely occur in the Netherlands -- than I am in the epistemology of terrorist law enforcement. How does the FBI purport to know that the two are strangers to each other?

I'm not a philosopher, but I understand that classical philosophy is divided into three broad areas of study: metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. (Though with modern philosophy being taken over by psychology and deconstructionism, I have no idea whether anyone else still uses these concepts -- save perhaps in an "archeology of philosophy" class.) Very roughly and glibly put, I define them this way:

  • Metaphysics: What we know.
  • Epistemology: How we know what we know.
  • Ethics: What we do about what we know.

Most people seem to focus on ethics; most of the rest appear lost in metaphysics. But I've always been fascinated by how we "know" what we know -- or think we know; how do we try to answer Pontius Pilate's famous question, "What is truth?"

Problems abound everywhere. First, we must find evidence, which may require a lot of digging. Where is it? Who's got the evidence, and will he tell us?

Next, all that digging will invariably unearth conflicting evidence; how do we reconcile it when (as in this pair of stories) some evidence says one thing, while other evidence says the polar opposite?

Then the third problem: How much of the evidence can we believe? People lie, people forget, people misunderstand or misremember. People do all of the above when they write books, produce documentaries, or publish blogposts, as well. So who is persuasive, and why?

Finally, once we've found as much evidence as we can, and once we've reconciled the contradicitons as best we may, how can we put what's left into a narrative, a story that tells us what happened before, what's happening now, and what's likely to happen in the future?

But even when we've surmounted these general obstacles, there is another and larger hurdle to overcome: the filtering effects of ideology, expectation, face saving, faction, and interest.

  • Ideology: Your belief system can determine what you can and cannot accept; for example, a person who, for deeply religious reasons, believes biological evolution doesn't happen will tend to disbelieve any scientific evidence supporting it. Similarly, a devout environmentalist may be ideologically incapable of considering evidence that global warming is natural and has many positive and benign effects.
  • Expectation: The expression "seeing is believing" has it exactly backwards; it's more accurate to say believing is seeing. That is, we all tend to see what we expect to see.

    In the one psych class I took, we were briefly shown a drawing of a subway scene, then asked to write down everything we remembered. One mini scene was an angry encounter in one part of the car between a white and a black man; the white guy held a straight razor in his hand -- not threatening, just holding. Yet more than three quarters of the (very large) class "remembered" the black man holding the razor -- and remembered him threatening the white man with it.

    The misremembering seemed evenly divided among Left and Right in that class. Expectation can easily color (sorry!) one's perception and memory... we all tend to remember things, not as they happened, but as they should have happened.

  • Face saving: Human beings don't like being embarassed or humiliated, and they will often remember things happening differently to avoid such painfulness. For example, if you were the guy who thought James Joyce wrote "Trees," and the other guy mocked you, then a month later, you might confabulate a memory where you were the one who correctly identified the author as Joyce Kilmer, and it was the other idiot who thought it was James Joyce!
  • Faction: If you are a member of a political, business, social, or other faction that vehemently argues for one side of a contentious issue, you may have a very hard time even understanding the other side's evidence, let alone acknowledging it. This is true even if you, yourself don't particularly care about that issue; it's an important issue for your "side," and you identify with that side.
  • Interest: If you have a financial or other personal interest in one particular side of an issue, you might not be trustworthy on that point; you may even lie to yourself! For example, if you have a huge investment in a company that sells carbon allowances, you may very well be incapable of fairly evaluating arguments against anthropogenic global climate change. For the same reason, trial lawyers can't see any benefit in tort reform, while even conservative politicians tend to drift into supporting more government control (they "grow in office"), thus giving themselves more power.

Now that we have the rhetorical tools we need, we can get to the point of this post... at last!

Let's assume that Imad Hamad either lives in Dearborn or knows many people who do, so he would actually know whether Ahmed Mohamed Nasser al Soofi and Hezem al Murisi were in fact friends. I suppose Hamad could have some obscure reason why he would either lie about it or be unable to imagine the two not being friends, but I confess I cannot think of any. Why would ideology, expectation, embarassment, faction, or interest hinge on whether those two were friends or strangers to each other?

But let's look at the other side: Members of the administration of Barack H. Obama have many reasons why they really, really wouldn't want to admit (even to themselves!) that this might have been a dry run for a terrorist attack, even if their own evidence implies it:

  • The ideology of the Obamunists is that terrorism against the United States was caused by America's own wretched actions -- invading Moslem countries to steal oil, bullying the world, and of course, supporting those Zionist squatters in Palestine. Heck, the president won't even say the word "terrorism;" such events are just "man-caused disasters." Surely anything they do to us, we richly deserved!
  • The expectation of the administration is that the election of Barack Hussein Obama, coupled with the wonderfully pro-Moslem and pro-Arab policies he has put into place, will absolutely resolve the "miscommunication" that led to all this violence (in the previous administration). But if guys named Mohamed are still anxious to attack America, then that means... But no, that just can't be.
  • And think how embarassing to have a domestic terrorist attack while B.O. was president! Especially two or three years into his presidency, not eight months, as with George W. Bush. The One would never live it down.
  • Too, his own ultra-liberal-verging-on-socialist party is absolutely committed to the idea that all we need is diplomacy. They're already looking askance at the Obama administration, what with not shutting down the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility, continuing the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and talking about possibly still using Bushitler's military commissions. To remain in good standing with his evaporating political allies, Obama simply cannot prosecute people before they actually set off a suicide bomb or murder some Jews; that could only be racial profiling -- just like W. used to do.
  • Finally, the president must consider his own reelection prospects in 2012. If he ever admitted (even if he knows it's true) that radical Islamists continue to attempt massive terrorist attacks, it would immensely complicate his reelection strategy. What is Obama supposed to argue -- "Reelect me, and I swear I won't do as bad a job on national security as my first term?" His own power depends upon convincing voters that he has kept us safe, much better than did his predecessor. He cannot admit it's only sheer luck that we haven't been hit again, or he'll start seeing those "Miss me yet?" t-shirts on his own White House staff.

In other words, Imad Hamad has no obvious reason to lie or misremember that al Soofi and al Murisi are pals, no detectable "parsing filter;" but Obamunists have many filters pushing them to believe the pair were total strangers.

Which is yet one more reason to lean towards believing the Detroit News story over the Associated Press... at least until more and better data comes through.

That was my point, small though it may be. But hey, getting there is half the fun!

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, September 1, 2010, at the time of 6:05 PM

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The following hissed in response by: EMM CEE

Reelect me, and I swear I won’t do as bad a job on national security as my first term?

That line worked really well for George Bush. Maybe you'd better not count Obama out yet.

The above hissed in response by: EMM CEE [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2010 7:03 PM

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