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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Science of Democracy

I came across a wire service story last night that a lot of people would find confusing. Turns out the enemy of our enemy isn't exactly our friend.


The leader of an al Qaeda-linked group in Iraq vowed in an audio tape on Sunday to attack Iranians unless Iran cut off its support for the Iraqi government within two months.

"We give the ... Persians in general, and leaders of Iran in particular, two months to withdraw their support and presence in Iraq," Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, leader of the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq, said in the 50-minute audio tape posted on Islamist Web site which has often carried al Qaeda statements.

In the first such threat by his group, Baghdadi said that unless Iran met his demands, the group would wage a "brutal war" against Iranians.

If you're one of those people who get all their news from right wing talk radio or believe everything the Bush administration tells you about what's going on Iraq, then nothing in those few paragraphs makes any damned sense at all. After all, Karl Rove just recently told an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival that '80-90 percent of violence in Iraq is due to al Qaeda.' The administration's line has been that Iran has been arming iraqis and contributing to the violence. If you were to believe the administration were telling the truth, you'd conclude that Iran was arming al Qaeda.

Clearly, this isn't the case.

The problem here is BS -- too much, too often, and distributed way too freely. In this case, it's the myth of an al Qaeda-driven insurgency in Iraq that allows the administration to call on the ghosts of 9/11 to justify continuing the war. Al Qaeda attacked the US, so we went to Iraq to fight al Qaeda. It's a complete rewrite of history, but there ya go.

Of course, those who only listen to right wing sources won't become confused by this story -- mostly because they'll never hear it. The art of misinformation requires ignorance as much as it does lies. And it works. In 2003, the Washington Post reported that 69% of americans believed that Saddam Hussein was involved with 9/11. Bush and company were careful never to make the connection blatantly, but almost never said the word 'Iraq' without putting 9/11 in the same sentence. It wasn't stated, but it was strongly implied.

As things get worse and worse for them and their war, the administration has been less cautious about telling out and out lies. At a news conference yesterday, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow told reporters, "If you look at what Senator Lugar has said about the surge so far, he says that it's working. His comments indicate that he thinks it's working."

But the exact opposite is true. "In my judgment, the current surge strategy is not an effective means of protecting [U.S.] interests. Its prospects for success are too dependent on the actions of others who do not share our agenda,"Lugar told the Senate. "It relies on military power to achieve goals that it cannot achieve. It distances allies that we will need for any regional diplomatic effort. Its failure, without a careful transition to a back-up policy would intensify our loss of credibility. It uses tremendous amounts of resources that cannot be employed in other ways to secure our objectives. And it lacks domestic support that is necessary to sustain a policy of this type." Richard Lugar's belief that the surge has failed became front page news.

BS is meant to influence decisions made in a democracy. The liars, propagandists, and misinformers practice their art because they believe they'e smarter and wiser than the majority of the people. They believe that people must be convinced to vote in their own interests and if all this convincing requires some lying, then the lies serve the greater good.

But there's a principle out there that tells us that the superiority of the wisdom of a few over that of the many is pretty unlikely. In his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, financial columnist James Surowiecki writes:

...The sociologist Kate H. Gordon asked two hundred students to rank items by weight, and found that the group's "estimate" was 94 percent accurate, which was better than all but five of the individual guesses. In another experiment students were asked to look at ten piles of buckshot--each a slightly different size than the rest--that had been glued to a piece of white cardboard, and rank them by size. This time, the group's guess was 94.5 percent accurate. A classic demonstration of group intelligence is the jelly-beans-in-the-jar experiment, in which invariably the group's estimate is superior to the vast majority of the individual guesses. When finance professor Jack Treynor ran the experiment in his class with a jar that held 850 beans, the group estimate was 871. Only one of the fifty-six people in the class made a better guess.

This is the genius of democracy. The problem is that it only works when everyone's information is accurate. If you ran the 'jelly-beans-in-the-jar experiment' and hid some of the jelly beans somehow, the average wouldn't be accurate at all. Likewise, if you put out the jar as is and suggested there might be hidden WMD... I mean, jelly beans... that would throw the result as well.

Surowiecki uses this as an argument for market-based solutions to just about everything. But he makes the same mistake too many do -- he fails to consider that much of marketing involves misdirection and misinformation. The failures and shortcomings of the product are never in the ad. Given incomplete, misleading, or untrue information screws this whole 'wisdom of crowds' thing up completely.

That's how we wind up with people who still support Bush and the war. Right now, the president's approval ratings are 32%, but given this 'wisdom of crowds' idea, it should be about 6%. The only reason that Bush has even these embarrassingly bad approvals is because about 26% of americans have no freakin' idea what the hell is really going on.

These people don't get a complete pass. Gullibility is a largely self-inflicted condition. They believe what they want to believe and carefully protect their ignorance by only listening to Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly or Glenn Freakin' Beck. FOX News would be their choice. If the wire story I opened with came out of their radio or TV, they'd clap their hands to their ears and shout, "LALALALA! I CAN'T HEAR YOU! LALALALA!" They're wrong because they choose to be wrong and ignorant because they love the alternate reality the propagandists have built for them.

The media doesn't get a pass either. The propagandists may be busy spreading it thick and leaving out inconvenient facts, but it's all easily corrected. The modern press have been called 'stenographers to power' -- they just repeat what they're told. Whether it's laziness or complicity or just a fear of being seen as biased, they repeat the BS word for word and never actually tell you whether or not any of it is true. They'd report the Iran/al Qaeda story, then move on to the latest shovel-load from some pro-war idiot that completely contradicts it. And they'd leave you to figure out which was true.

As a result, we live in a world where reality seems to be entirely a matter of choice. You can believe that al Qaeda's everything in Iraq and that Iran must be arming them or you can believe that Iraq -- and the middle east -- is one helluva lot more complicated than that. You can believe that global warming is a serious problem or that it's a bunch of crap. You can believe in evolution or in dinosaurs on Noah's ark. You can believe that the US landed on the moon or that it was all a hoax on a movie set. You can believe that Hitler was a monster or that the Holocaust never happened. Nothing is true and nothing is untrue -- separating fact from fiction is biased and partisan. No matter how ridiculous the propaganda, no matter how stupid the misinformation, the press feels no obligation to point you to the truth. Journalism isn't about reporting facts, it's about giving an outlet to every nutjob with a microphone or a press release and it doesn't serve the people at all.

You might disagree with some of what I've written here. In fact, you might disagree with all of it. If you're one of those who listen to Rush Limbaugh and believe you're getting the unvarnished truth, just do what you always do.

Clap your hands to your ears and shout, "LALALALA! I CAN'T HEAR YOU! LALALALA!"


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