Friday, June 27, 2008

The Russian Roulette Fallacy

You cannot judge the wisdom of a decision using information unavailable at the time the choice was made. Winning (surviving) a round of Russian Roulette doesn't mean you weren't a moron for playing.

I first thought of this after a trade show in Chicago. The boss ordered everyone to stay and help pack the booth. A bunch of us had earlier flights and were itching to get to the airport. We mutinied. On the cab ride I hoped for heavy traffic, so we could be "right". It would have been harder to condemn our rebellion if we'd gotten to the airport just in time, hustling to catch our flights. Versus hours sitting at the gate, that would have been shameful. But these inconveniences had no bearing on whether it was a wise choice to leave when we did. We had no reliable way to know the traffic or airport conditions before we became part of them.

Finding weapons of mass destruction had no bearing on whether invading Iraq was a good idea. A motivated government, unfettered by scruples, will always find clever ways to thwart scientifically rigorous, politically correct weapons inspectors. Getting away with it would have been global Russian Roulette. Five rounds with no bad result (spinning the chamber each time) are exactly as dumb as a sixth that backfires. Five nations evading weapons inspection for no good reason may appear quite similar to the one with a great big, nasty reason. There's no reliable way to know even today who else would be arming if Saddam were still in power.

On the other hand, one white-hat affable Texan is not a smart way to police the globe. It's only a matter of time before someone perfidious and creative gets the role and does some real damage. The important question is how can we earthlings invent a body we can trust with enough power to makeover a country's governance when that is a wise decision. We're going to have those — a person or group with that much power, and a time and place that needs that call — some way or another. The question that matters is how we will choose that decider and that enforcer.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

"A motivated government, unfettered by scruples, will always find clever ways to thwart scientifically rigorous, politically correct weapons inspectors." Oh? Combined with the Russian Roulette analogy, the point would seem to be that one should immediately overthrow all "motivated governments," so long as they happen to be "unfettered by scruples." (Lest one flirt with disaster, that is.)

Under such a principle, some in other countries might classify the U.S. as, at present, qualifying for a forced regime change.

But to accept the Russian Roulette analogy, one must first accept the justifiability of preemptive war. Then, yes, there becomes the burden of proof and who it is who gets a look at the evidence beforehand.

Bob Stein said...

Kewl, my first actual dissent. I'm clinging to a thread of hope you're interested in thinking and understanding and building ideas, versus a football rally. Cause I gotta tell ya, I find the former so very much more interesting.

Yep, I say overthrowing a government can be a wise decision. An ├╝ber-drastic resort, of course, but it must never be completely ruled out. My concern is how poorly we're set up to make the next such decision, e.g. the two ways I pointed out we could commit the Russian Roulette Fallacy. Agreed, "motivated" and "unscrupulous" are lousy criteria. How the heck do you measure those? But I'm aghast you omitted the one I proposed be high on the list, and this can be measured early: noncooperation with weapons inspectors. Disaster is flirted, foreplayed, and positively bedroom-eyed when any country expects they can do that without unbearable consequences.

"Preemptive war" is an easy phrase to apply to Bush in 2003, as Tojo in 1941. I doubt it'll be so clear who starts the next big tussle. But I like where I think you're going with that, some rules of engagement for whomever we pick to deal with world-class assholes.

I'm typing this in the warm red glow from my Misunderstanding Alert Sensor. Your note is articulate and lucid and engaging in spite of the glaring omissions (e.g name). Let's talk voice-to-voice. Skype, or I'll buy you a phone card and give you my home office number. Or do you prefer the more traditional runaway comment misunderstanding? If you already understand as much of my point as you want, we can confine the discussion to my understanding of your reaction. I believe I could learn something.

sohbet said...
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