Thursday, May 19, 2005

The media have closed ranks behind Newsweek regarding its latest journalistic lapse. The magazine's defenders have gone on the offensive with comparison's of Newsweek's shoddy fact checking and the White House's erroneous reliance on reports of WMDs. Pete Stark wonders how the White House dares criticize Newsweek in light of the government's intelligence failures. Here's how:

One point is often overlooked: The President's decision to go to war was not an incorrect decision based on incorrect data, it was a correct decision based on indeterminate data. As a matter of decision theory, the president's decision was the correct one. Here's the principle:

The risk of doing nothing if the data was true was greater than the risk of doing something if the data was false. Even moreso, the risk of doing nothing when the data was uncertain was greater than the risk of doing something definite based on indefinite data.

If Saddam was clandestinely supplying terrorists with mass-destructive technologies, the risk of doing nothing was tens of thousands dead in American cities. The data that Saddam contemporaneously had weapons of mass destruction was not the only data considered. Saddam did have and used poison gas against civilian populations. He abetted terrorists by paying solatia to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. By any reasonable analysis, Bush's decision was correct.

Compare this with Newsweek. There the risk of doing nothing with tenuous information was much less than the risk of publishing it. The worst case scenario if they did nothing was perhaps they would lose a scoop. The risk of rash publication was demonstrated in the news: riots, and further inflaming the oft-manipulated anti-Americanism of the chronically disaffected.

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