Monday, July 26, 2004

Iran, Iraq and 9/11

The discovery of significant ties between Iran and al Qaeda is, I think, extremely significant. The discovery is, of course, significant first and foremost because it is crucial that we know who is offering assistance to bin Laden and his cronies. But it is significant for domestic political reasons as well. By this point, rightward-leaning Americans are virtually the only people left in the world who still believe in a significant, "operational" relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda. But once a belief of this kind, bolstered by propaganda and partisan sentiment, is established in people's minds, it is very difficult to shake it loose with mere evidence that the relationship in question did not exist. It is difficult for sober, responsible claims like "there is no evidence of a relationship between x and y" to shake loose beliefs acquired as a result of hearing dogmatic, impassioned assertions of a relationship between x and y. The conclusion that, after thorough investigation, it has been discovered that there is no evidence of such a relationship seems pasty and weak compared to the strident and confident assertions that established the belief in such a relationship.

It is common in discussions in the philosophy of science to hear it said that people do not abandon old theories--no matter how much evidence is adduced against them--until a better new theory becomes available. Suppose this is true. (Note: this doesn't mean that it is irrational to abandon an old theory without a new theory to replace it, though some have (incorrectly) asserted this as well; here I am making a psychological point, not a logical one.) Suppose also that 'no one assisted al Qaeda in carrying out 9/11' doesn't count as a competitor theory in the cognitively relevant respects. In that case, many people who currently cling to the Iraq helped them theory might finally be willing/able to abandon that discredited theory if the Iran helped them thoeory is shown to be more well-supported. Of course both countries might have helped al Qaeda; the theories aren't mutually exclusive. But that doesn't matter since, again, we are talking about psychology not logic.

We seem to be poorly-equipped, cognitively speaking, to deal with doubt and uncertainty. The cognitive science literature is filled with findings that show that we jump to conclusions too quickly, stick to our accepted conclusions long after they have been disproven, and weigh confirming evidence more heavily than disconfirming evidence. These tendencies seem to explain, at least in part, why people are so bad at abandoning their current theories until those theories are replaced by new ones, even when the old theory has already been disproven. Although logically speaking disconfirmation is easier than confirmation, psychologically speaking things are just the reverse. Consequently it might be easier to convince people of the truth of a theory which they perceive (rightly or wrongly) to be incompatible with the theory they now hold than it would be to simply convince them that the theory they now hold is unfounded. Strange but--perhaps--true.

Here's a prediction based on the above: if a decent bit of evidence of Iran's involvement in 9/11 does become widely accepted, this will mark the tipping point at which the Iraq helped holdouts become willing to abandon their old theory. One further prediction: if that happens, it will mark the much-discussed tipping point at which Bush's credibility topples over.

Of course there will be hyper-ideological "dead-enders"--I'm not saying that there is any amount of evidence that will convince Stephen Hayes or Dick Cheney. What I am saying is that most of the remaining proponents of the Iraq helped theory will begin abandoning that theory in earnest if it becomes reasonably clear that Iran cooperated with al Qaeda in ways that significantly aided them in carrying out 9/11.

I'm not saying that this is the rational way for theory change to take place, I'm merely predicting that that's how it will happen.


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