George Will goes anecdotal

James Lewis
Conservative star pundit George Will is now bemoaning the Iraq War, singing in perfect harmony with his employers at the WaPo. The reason? An anecdote told by Senator Gordon Smith, Oregon Republican. The Senator is apparently going around telling a story he heard about an Iraqi police trainer who was stoned to death, allegedly  because he was Catholic. The Senator says he heard it from a Soldier, who apparently heard it from somebody else, since he does not presumably speak Arabic. So this is a fourth-hand anecdote: Possibly true, of course, but still, quite convenient for the Senator and the Pundit.

I'm curious: Is this how our political elites make life-or-death policy decisions? Is it how our Senators and top pundits come to conclusions about the fate of the United States and its foreign affairs? Because if it is, they should go back to college and take a few courses in history, political science, economics, and even, heaven forfend, sociology.

The trouble with anecdotes is that they are anecdotes. In France after World War Two, a war of revenge broke out against Nazi collaborators, who were summarily punished without trial -- except for some, like Francois Mitterand, who joined the Left. In Germany at the same time, the Nazi Grey Wolves were still fighting and committing atrocities. In Greece, Italy and Yugoslavia, men were castrated and hung upside-down, like Mussolini. In Hungary during the anti-Soviet revolt ten years later, Jews were hanged from lamp-posts, accused of collaborating with the hated Russians.

You want horror anecdotes? War and tyranny are overflowing with them. Look to Iran since the Jimmy Carter-Ayatollah Khomeini Peace-in-the-Middle-East Revolt for routine human rights abuses by the regime. Remember a guy called Saddam Hussein? Or look to Hamas in Gaza today. We now see "honor" killings of innocent young women by their brothers and fathers in London. And has anybody recently checked the Washington, D.C. police blotter?

George Will's story about the Iraqi police trainer is terrible if true, even if it is third-hand evidence. Will used it in his column to suggest, presumably, that Iraq is incorrigibly stuck in the 7th century, or in a Saddamite time warp. The question remains: Is that really true?

Scientists are routinely taught that anecdotes mean little in the absence of carefully sampled and widely collected evidence, with all the methodological safeguards of decent research. Anecdotalism is used every day by the European media to tell horror stories about America; it serves the desperate need for Europeans to feel superior, but factually it means nothing whatsoever about the United States. Anecdotes are mere rhetorical salvoes, when we desperately need facts.

So we hope that George Will is paying attention to more than horror stories. They are bad enough, and one hopes that if this one is true, that the perpetrators were suitably dealt with. Or at least, that it was fact-checked by the ever-vigilant editors at the WaPo. But war brings anarchy, with people doing terrifying things to each other even outside of actual battles. Hell, even peace brings plenty of destructive behavior. The question remains whether law and order  can be established in Iraq -- some 90 percent of which is currently reported to be stable and gaining in economic strength.

I'm disappointed in my old hero George Will.  There are only four lifetime political careers in America: The judges, the bureaucrats, the Senate and the media. In return for a lifetime grant of immense powers, we can at least hope that members of those elites will check their facts before coming to conclusions. And no, just reading your WaPo or NYT in the morning isn't good enough.

James Lewis blogs at http://www.dangeroustimes.wordpress.com
Conservative star pundit George Will is now bemoaning the Iraq War, singing in perfect harmony with his employers at the WaPo. The reason? An anecdote told by Senator Gordon Smith, Oregon Republican. The Senator is apparently going around telling a story he heard about an Iraqi police trainer who was stoned to death, allegedly  because he was Catholic. The Senator says he heard it from a Soldier, who apparently heard it from somebody else, since he does not presumably speak Arabic. So this is a fourth-hand anecdote: Possibly true, of course, but still, quite convenient for the Senator and the Pundit.

I'm curious: Is this how our political elites make life-or-death policy decisions? Is it how our Senators and top pundits come to conclusions about the fate of the United States and its foreign affairs? Because if it is, they should go back to college and take a few courses in history, political science, economics, and even, heaven forfend, sociology.

The trouble with anecdotes is that they are anecdotes. In France after World War Two, a war of revenge broke out against Nazi collaborators, who were summarily punished without trial -- except for some, like Francois Mitterand, who joined the Left. In Germany at the same time, the Nazi Grey Wolves were still fighting and committing atrocities. In Greece, Italy and Yugoslavia, men were castrated and hung upside-down, like Mussolini. In Hungary during the anti-Soviet revolt ten years later, Jews were hanged from lamp-posts, accused of collaborating with the hated Russians.

You want horror anecdotes? War and tyranny are overflowing with them. Look to Iran since the Jimmy Carter-Ayatollah Khomeini Peace-in-the-Middle-East Revolt for routine human rights abuses by the regime. Remember a guy called Saddam Hussein? Or look to Hamas in Gaza today. We now see "honor" killings of innocent young women by their brothers and fathers in London. And has anybody recently checked the Washington, D.C. police blotter?

George Will's story about the Iraqi police trainer is terrible if true, even if it is third-hand evidence. Will used it in his column to suggest, presumably, that Iraq is incorrigibly stuck in the 7th century, or in a Saddamite time warp. The question remains: Is that really true?

Scientists are routinely taught that anecdotes mean little in the absence of carefully sampled and widely collected evidence, with all the methodological safeguards of decent research. Anecdotalism is used every day by the European media to tell horror stories about America; it serves the desperate need for Europeans to feel superior, but factually it means nothing whatsoever about the United States. Anecdotes are mere rhetorical salvoes, when we desperately need facts.

So we hope that George Will is paying attention to more than horror stories. They are bad enough, and one hopes that if this one is true, that the perpetrators were suitably dealt with. Or at least, that it was fact-checked by the ever-vigilant editors at the WaPo. But war brings anarchy, with people doing terrifying things to each other even outside of actual battles. Hell, even peace brings plenty of destructive behavior. The question remains whether law and order  can be established in Iraq -- some 90 percent of which is currently reported to be stable and gaining in economic strength.

I'm disappointed in my old hero George Will.  There are only four lifetime political careers in America: The judges, the bureaucrats, the Senate and the media. In return for a lifetime grant of immense powers, we can at least hope that members of those elites will check their facts before coming to conclusions. And no, just reading your WaPo or NYT in the morning isn't good enough.

James Lewis blogs at http://www.dangeroustimes.wordpress.com