Unchangeable minds

by John Quiggin on February 1, 2004

Among the famous quotes attributed to JM Keynes, one that stands out is

When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir

I am reminded of this whenever I read discussions of what was in the minds of those who pushed us into the Iraq war. It’s regularly stated that the behavior of Saddam Hussein in obstructing weapons inspections led analysts to assume he had something to hide. I shared this view until late 2002, and was reinforced in this by the behavior of Bush and Blair, including the various dossiers they published and the push for UN Resolution 1441 – they acted like police who had their suspect dead to rights, and only needed a search warrant.

In November and December 2002, however, the facts changed. First Saddam announced that he would readmit UN inspectors, without restrictions on the sites to be inspected and that he would declare all his weapons. Then he proceeded to do just that, claiming to have no weapons at all. Meanwhile Bush and Blair suddenly started hedging about the nature of the knowledge they had declared. The same pattern proceeded right up to the outbreak of war. Time after time, some condition would be declared crucial by Bush and Blair (overflights, interviews with Iraqi scientists, out-of-country interviews with Iraqi scientists), the Iraqi government would agree after a brief delay and then new condition would be raised. As quite a few observers noted, the behavior was the same as that of the Austro-Hungarian government with respect to Serbia in 1914.

Given the change in facts, any unbiased observer would have concluded, correctly that the balance of probabilities favored the hypotheses Bush and Blair were bluffing and that there were no weapons of mass destruction in usable form. I drew precisely this conclusion at the time, though with the mistaken corollary that Blair would stick to his word and refuse to go to war once Saddam called their bluff.

If those facts weren’t enough, it was obvious that, if Saddam did have weapons he would use them in the early days of war, preferably before Coalition troops had entered the country. Thus, it was apparent by the first days of the war that (with probability close to 1), there were no usable weapons. The fact that the contrary belief prevailed for so long is testament to the power of faith in the face of experience.

Book Titles

by Kieran Healy on February 1, 2004

Coming up with a good title for your book is a tricky business. There was an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education a few weeks ago about the convention of “Vague General Title: More accurate but perhaps less interesting subtitle.” Sadly, the working title of my own draft book falls squarely into this mode. It’s hard to avoid it while also staying away from the grandiose, the misleading, the glib or the overly cheesy. Not all disciplines face this problem to the same degree. My other half is an old fashioned analytic metaphysician, for instance, and when you are developing a new property mereology to solve problems in ontology then you can get away with a book title like Objects, which might in other respects seem rather general.

One persistent trend is books titled “American [Whatever].” American Dynasty, American Skin, , American Terrorist, American Nightmare, American Empire … Those are just the ones I knew off the top of my head. Are there any other countries where authors or publishers have this habit? Maybe it happens because the adjective “American” scans easily in a way that, say, “French” or “Azerbaijani” doesn’t. So we should expect, say, _Namibian Psycho_ but not _Welsh Skin_.

Given the prevalence of this kind of title, maybe I should re-name my own book — which is about blood and organ donation in the U.S. and Europe — to American Kidneys.

For All Suitably Restricted Definitions of ‘World’

by Kieran Healy on February 1, 2004

Tim Dunlop encounters U.S. sports commentators at their most excitable:

Over the last few days I’ve heard four radio commentators refer to the Superbowl as the “most important sporting event in the world”. Those exact words.

This is especially true this year with the eagerly-awaited Lingerie Bowl at half-time. Depending on your outlook, the Lingerie Bowl is either (1) A measure of how deeply the Title IX revolution in women’s athletics has penetrated into the football industry, (2) A high-end version of the noble American tradition of powder puff football; or (3) Sadly available only on Pay-Per-View.

Anyway, the most important sporting event in the world is the All Ireland Hurling Final.