Thursday, December 11, 2014

The report on torture used by the CIA

An NPR interview  this morning made two interesting points about the recent report on torture by the CIA, the first of which I had thought of myself.  This was that it is possible that some authors of the report, or perhaps just those who summarize it, are engaging in belief overkill. They are saying that the extreme methods of interrogation never did any good. They don't need to say this. They could just say, more cautiously, that the amount of good done was so small as not to justify the use of these methods. Belief overkill is the distortion of beliefs so that all conflict disappears and no arguments oppose the favored conclusion, even if the conflict would be easy to resolve.

The second point, made in passing, was that it may in fact be impossible to find a case in which the extreme methods led the CIA from ignorance to certainty all at once. But intelligence does not work like this. It is all about probabilities. (The interview did not use this term, but it was implied.) If a confession extracted under extreme pressure changed the probability of some conclusion, such as an immanent attack or the presence of a terrorist at some location, the probability may change enough to warrant a change in plans. Such changes could happen if a confession agreed, or disagreed, with other evidence already available.

Given the possibility that probabilities were affected, the difficulty of claiming that these methods "never mattered at all" seems to increase. Again, this claim is not needed. The methods are bad in themselves and in the precedents they set for others.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Foreign contributions to U.S. think tanks

The following (slightly revised) was a letter to the Public Editor of the New York Times, written on 9/15/2014.

I was upset at the Times's coverage of foreign contributions to U.S. think tanks such as Brookings. I was reminded of this by the recent edition of The Economist, which points out how attacking these institutions for accepting contributions could make it seem more acceptable when authoritarian regimes elsewhere try to block contributions to NGOs that might threaten them (p. 20, Sept 13-19 edition).

As one letter pointed out, most of these think tanks do not hide the sources of their funds. It would be bad if they did that, but they don't. Beyond this, I do not see what is the least bit wrong with accepting foreign contributions.

1. U.S. policy has major effects on foreigners. Why should they not be    able to try to make sure that we at least know about such effects?    We ought to consider them more than we do. If the foreign    contributions do succeed in bringing different points of view to    attention of U.S. citizens and government, just what is so bad    about that? Are we supposed to set policy without considering such    effects? As a citizen and voter, I certainly do not think this    way, and I am not in a tiny minority on this point.

2. It would be at least a little hypocritical for the U.S. to get up    on a high horse about government funding of private institutions in    other countries, including NGOs. The U.S. government has done this    for decades, and, I believe, still does it. (And I don't see    anything wrong with what we do either.)

3. The Times articles hinted that the conclusions of research    organizations are influenced by their funding. I have seen several    denials of this, and I believe that the culture of places like    Brookings is against such influence. But, as a professor in a major    research university with much the same culture, I can see that such    influence happens, in subtle ways. And it is not the least bit    limited to foreign sources. (I have received grants from Israel,    and I do not feel any pressure at all to conform to policies of the    Israeli government, although perhaps the probability that I would    participate in an academic boycott of Israel has gone from .01 to    .001.) The U.S. government itself has distorted research in major    ways. Right now it is engaged in a massive campaign to boost    biological research at the expense of traditional psychology, which    I think is a mistake. In my own field, partly as a result of this    shift, most research is now supported by the Templeton Foundation,    which has as its ultimate purpose the rapprochement of religion and    science. The topics it supports are limited to those that can be    shoe-horned into this framework, so I and some of my colleagues    have learned to speak a certain way, in order to get money from    them. (Of course, they too have been flexible in choosing topics    that would not offend atheists too much, lest they offend 90% of    the research audience they are trying to reach.) I could go on with    story after story about how research has been distorted by    influences of this sort, including large amounts of money from    corporations such as Exxon. But is it even distortion? or is this    the way science is supposed to work, with inputs from consumers as    well as producers? In sum, I don't see why foreign influences are    being singled out as distortions of research, when they are in    essence a drop in the bucket.

4. Many of the "foreign interests" mentioned struck me as extremely    odd. Apparently Norway gives money to Brookings, and this is    supposed to be in support of Norway's government policies. I do not    know which policies are at issue here, but Norway is a tiny country    with probably the most enlightened policies in the world concerning    the alleviation of world poverty and protection of the    environment. Yes, they have oil, but they know it is running out. I    find it difficult to believe that the money they give to Brookings    is in hopes that Brookings will release a report favoring off-shore    drilling off the Norwegian coast. The drilling is a done deal. More    likely, Norway contributes to Brookings in hopes that it will help    solve some environmental problem.