Technically Accurate

Michael Kinsley, and Eugene Volokh have both criticized the Bush administration for claiming that Bush’s State of the Union statement about Iraq trying to purchase uranium from Africa was “technically accurate”. I disagree with them (and sent Eugene a message with basically this post’s content).

Here’s the quote: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Their argument is that when Bush says “The British government has learned X” he implies “And I believe X to be true.” And if X turns out not to be true, or if Bush wasn’t convinced that it was, then his statement was not accurate.

I think that when somebody says “The British government has learned X” it doesn’t mean “And I believe X to be true,” I think it just means that they (the British government) believe that it’s true and whether or not you should believe that it’s true depends on how trustworthy you believe British intelligence gathering and analysis is. Otherwise, why mention the British government at all? Do people really care about trivia such as the history of various pieces of intelligence? I don’t think so. I think it means: here is a claim, here is the source, I haven’t been able to verify it independently, so treat it as you think appropriate.

I agree that, in this context, it implies “And I think it might be true”, but that much is technically accurate; as far as I know.

And even this implication is not true in all contexts where we speak of “X learned Y”. For example, if I say “Palestinian children learned that Jews drink Arab blood” it doesn’t mean “And I believe it’s true, or might be true.” It just means something like “The claims were presented to them and they generally accept it as true.”

Another technical point is that this claim is about acquiring uranium from Africa not just Niger and not just the incident with the forged documents.

In any case, the administration has admitted that the statement should not have been in the speech because if its potential to mislead. I think they are right about this and that they’re right about it having been “technically accurate”. I doubt that anybody supported the war largely because of this one statement. So, I’m a bit confused about what the big deal is.


Eugene Volokh has written some very good posts about the Dusty Baker controversy here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Briefly, Baker (a black manager of the Chicago Cubs) got into trouble for saying the following:

“Personally, I like to play in the heat,” he said. “It’s easier for me. It’s easier for most Latin guys and easier for most minority people.

“You don’t find too many brothers in New Hampshire and Maine and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, right? We were brought over here for the heat, right? Isn’t that history? Weren’t we brought over because we could take the heat?

“Your skin color is more conducive to the heat than it is to the light-skinned people, right? You don’t see brothers running around burnt and stuff … running around with white stuff on their ears and nose and stuff.”

Eugene (rightly, I think) says that this shouldn’t be a big deal; that if the statements are indeed false it is an honest mistake, and not the sort of generalization that should be considered rude or offensive. But, this observation of Eugene’s caught my attention:

Things are properly different, as a matter of good manners, when the allegation is tied to something that people generally see as a character defect. Lack of intelligence falls into that category (maybe it shouldn’t, but it generally does); so does uncoachability. When we suggest that people have such attributes, we are properly held to a higher standard of proof. We can see that even if we set aside race: “I’m pretty sure my acquaintance Joe Schmoe might be prone to heat exhaustion” is something that we can comfortably say on very little evidence. “I’m pretty sure my acquaintance Joe Schmoe isn’t smart” is something that we would generally pause a little longer before saying — especially if we’re saying it in public.

Moreover, when we suggest that people as a group have such attributes, those members who lack those attributes understandably bristle — the generalization is felt as more of a personal attack. Again, I think we see this even outside the context of race. Generalizations about groups (fraternity members, people who engage in certain occupations, residents of a particular area) are, especially if they’re accurate, quite acceptable if they relate to a relatively morally neutral property. But if they relate to a morally troublesome trait (stupidity, dishonesty, and so on), they cause more bristling, even if they are statistically well-supported, though not as much as when they’re made about groups that have a more self-conscious identity (such as racial, ethnic, or religious groups).

Have you noticed that it’s very common for people to make this “character defect” sort of generalization about children, and it’s considered quite acceptable? In fact, just today I noticed James Lileks wrote this:

Who believes that hypocrisy is somehow the greatest sin of all? Adolescents. Which ought to tell you something.

I hope the day will come soon when this sort of thing makes us all bristle as much as if it was said about a race.

By the way, if you haven’t read this yet, do it now!

Wanna Bet?

I like to gamble. Is gambling unreasonable?

Superficially it seems unreasonable. With a few exceptions, legal gambling is an activity with a negative expected outcome. The more you do it, the more money you are likely to lose. So what good attributes does gambling have that might compensate for this costly expectation?

It’s fun.

Money won is twice as sweet as money earned. That sounds immoral, but it isn’t. Won money isn’t stolen, it’s gained honorably via a voluntary agreement. And there is something sweet about an immediate payoff.

It’s creative.

Betting on an event immediately makes it more interesting. It was a very clever innovation to add this element to life. Also, depending on the game, there can be a considerable amount of skill involved in maximizing your chances to win. This can involve playing the game well (as in blackjack), avoiding really bad bets (all games), and managing your money to reduce your chances of losing your entire bankroll during the session.

It’s a growth experience.

I think gambling helps you learn a lot about yourself, and gives you an opportunity to improve. It shows you how you handle both victory and defeat. You discover whether you have the discipline to limit your losses to what you decided was reasonable. If you’re not satisfied with the way you do these things, you can work on yourself and improve over time. Mastering these skills benefits many areas of life.

It’s dramatic.

Most of our days are rather boring. Gambling gives us a chance to add an exciting element to our lives; to do battle with uncontrollable forces; to risk something; to feel more alive. Some people get this feeling by driving fast, or by jumping out of airplanes, or riding rollercoasters.

I think there’s something noble and courageous about choosing to face risks, so long as we’re not being irresponsible and risking more than we can afford. Living morally might require us to risk our security some day. And success in many areas requires skill at measuring risks against rewards. Gambling can help us prepare ourselves to better deal with those situations.

Independence Day

As July 4th approaches, my son suggested that I blog something about the Declaration of Independence. I was trying to think of what I could say that
would possibly be original or interesting.

Fortunately for me, Eugene Volokh linked to this entry by Eric Muller (via John Barrett) of a previously unpublished July 4th, 1941 address by (then Attorney General and later Supreme Court Justice) Robert H. Jackson. The speech was intended to tie the Declaration principles to support for american involvement in the war in Europe, but it applies as well today, and it applies to more than actual “dictators”. Here’s an excerpt:

You are lifted and inspired, like generations before you, by the majestic cadence of the boldest, the noblest, and best known of all American writings. The Declaration of Independence speaks strong doctrine in plain words. It is the world’s master indictment of oppression. The fervor of its denunciation haunts and challenges dictators everywhere and in every field of life.

But the Declaration of Independence does not stop with mere denials and negations. It sets forth great affirmations as to the permissible foundations of power and political leadership among free men. It lays down a fighting faith in the rights of man — merely as man — a faith to die by if need be, or even more bravely to live by. It impresses upon all political power the high obligation of trusteeship. It established an accountability by the governing few to the governed many. That is why men abroad who wield dictatorial powers over subject peoples would silence the reading of the Declaration of Independence, would tear all mention of it from the record, and torture all recollection of it out of the minds of men. Even at home there are some who hope it will not be read too loudly.

We do not need to be imprudent or foolhardy, but we should recognize that no amount of cautious behavior, no amount of polite talk will earn for us the friendship and goodwill of dictator systems. Ultimately we must come to the day when we shall face their threats and their enmity for no other reason than that we persist in living the kind of life we live.

One fact emerges clear above all others. We Americans cannot cease to be the kind of people we are, we cannot cease to live the kind of life we live. We are not the kind of people the dictators will ever want in the world. They will never have any use for our kind of life, nor we for theirs.

Every American knows now, as he knew it in 1776, that there is nothing for him in that way of life.

Read the whole thing. It’s not very long.