Thursday, January 22, 2009

Mistaken Thoughts and Personal Bias

I had a discussion on Facebook over the last two days with a person who seemed to believe everything that George W. Bush wanted him to believe. I won't link to the conversation to preserve the anonymity of the person I was talking with, but it is the profile of a person who I will call TC. It started with TC asking a question about war crime punishment for Bush in a very nasty way. The discussion really started when this person, who I'll call Soldier, stated that Bush had taken no criminal action. TC replied with a long comment on honor and about how Bush had used fear and was a generally bad President.

Then came the turn for the stupid. Soldier started his next comment stating that WMDs were found. Bush himself admitted that this was not true several times. He claims it was one of his failures. Soldier's reasoning for this, which was explained much later, was that he was there and saw it himself.

One trait of humanity in general is that we often see what we want to see. Memory is faulty for this reason. If an ordinary person sees something that is beyond his own personal experience, he is likely to place some meaning on it based on what he wants. This is where religious experiences come from. This is also where these WMDs likely come from.

Soldier probably saw something that was beyond his ability to explain. I have no reason to doubt his statement that he was there. I also have no reason to doubt that he saw something he couldn't explain within the context of what he had experienced up to that point. I have plenty of reason to doubt that he saw any kind of weapon of mass destruction.

These WMDs were supposedly what was left behind by the Iraqis who were taking them to Syria. This was stated as if it were general knowledge that Iraq had WMDs and that Syria has them now. If this were true, it should be known by people outside of the military. Since finding those weapons was a stated goal for starting the war, it seems that publicly announcing that they were found would be good for justifying the war. Every other source in the world says that the weapons were not found. I've even heard it stated as one of his failures by Bush himself. He said it in his last press conference a week before leaving office.

If Soldier is correct, he must know something that his Commander in Chief does not know. Since that Commander in Chief was looking for this very information, it suggests there is a breakdown in communication somewhere in the military. If that is true, we are all in a lot of trouble. We can't trust the military for our safety.

I don't think that is true, though. Soldier wanted it to be true. Most likely what happened is he found some wreckage that he couldn't identify. He didn't have the knowledge about what he was looking at to know what it was. His personal bias led him to believe that he had found a WMD. He, or someone near him, probably reported it to their superiors. An expert was probably dispatched. The expert probably decided that it was nothing important and did not report having found WMDs because he saw none.

I must confess that I did not read everything that Solder posted to that conversation. The revelation that he found WMDs was at the top of a large block of text that was near the deepest part of the crazy pool. I couldn't take it. It seemed like the political version of Time Cube. I skimmed over it, but I could do no more than that. I would have ignored him entirely at that point if he hadn't mentioned having personally seen WMDs.

We can't expect every soldier to have enough knowledge to identify every piece of junk that they see on the battlefield. That is what we have experts for. What we should expect is better education on basic psychology in schools. We need to understand that what we want often colors what we see. It is easy to make mistakes because we so often see what we want to see. That is why the scientific method requires that many people review any research and repeat any experiments before a hypothesis graduates to the level of theory, the highest level of scientific knowledge. For this reason, we should never trust our own perception unless it is verified by others. Only by looking at multiple sources can we be at all sure that we saw what we think we saw.

1 comment:

ShadowFace said...

Wow, I HAVE to read this.