Right!

Jane Galt nails one on decisions, evidence, false positives, false negatives, tradeoffs in error rates, and the relationship between intellectual humility and civility, with particular application to the war in Iraq.

And Arthur Silber points out the pervasiveness of “confirmation bias” — the tendency of people to see the facts that support their current beliefs and not see others — in the same context, while Kevin Drum notes the readiness of both sides to attribute deliberate bias to each other.

If you doubt the point about confirmation bias, search for mentions among antiwar bloggers of the celebrations that greeted US troops as they entered Najaf, or among prowar bloggers of Iraqis returning from Jordan to fight for their country.

If you doubt the point about eagerness to attribute differences in perception to ill-will, note how hard it seems to be for Glenn Reynolds to understand that the willingness of people who are against the war to believe the reports of civilian casualties that he is so eager to disbelieve doesn’t mean that they are rooting for Iraqi civilians to be killed, any more than he is rooting for more anti-Semtitic incidents in France or on the fringes of the anti-war movement. People who thought the war was going to go badly and who now selectively perceive that it is going badly — just as he selectively perceives that it is going well — are simply seeing what confirms their beliefs, not wishing for bad news. Or note, on the other hand, the complete unwillingness of the anti-war bloggers to imagine that Glenn might be calling them as he sees them.

Since I regarded whether or not to go to war as a close decision in the first place, my ego isn’t heavily invested in having been right in finally coming down on the pro-war side. Since my natural tendency when in doubt is to look for disconfirming evidence, I may be slightly more prone to pass on what looks like bad news than what looks like good news. So far, what’s coming from the battlefield looks to my inexpert eyes like pretty good news; what’s coming from Washington sounds to my somewhat more expert ears like evidence that the people involved, who after all have more access to the facts than I do, think that some really bad news is in the offing.

Update: Whoa! An email from a fellow blogger asks for an explanation of the last sentence. I was not speaking on the basis of any sort of inside information. Reading the newspapers and the blogs, I hear distinctly the sound of knives being drawn and butts being covered, as half the Bush team, plus much of the Pentagon brass, tries to blame what they obviously think is the upcoming disaster on the other half of the Bush team. Then the goalposts start to creep toward midfield, as we hear that securing the countryside and leaving the Ba’athists in control of Baghdad, or maybe securing Baghdad but leaving them in control of the area around Tikrit, would count as victory, even if there were still active resistance going on. All that, in the face of what looks like good news from the battlefield, suggests to me that people who know more than I do expect this to get a lot uglier before it gets any prettier.

On the other hand, Mickey Kaus could be right: maybe all that negative buzz is just disinformation, designed to lull the Iraqis into expecting a longer pause than they’re actually going to get. (Alternatively, the aim could be to make whatever outcome actually comes out look better to the voters.) Expect the unexpected, and you won’t be surprised.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com