February 26, 2003
No Evidence? A Thought Experiment

Some who oppose war on Iraq like to claim that there is "no evidence" that Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction. For example, Guy Cabot uses the phrase three times in the comments on this Daily Rant post.

Imagine that you have a next door neighbor who:

  • Is said, by those who have known him longer than you have, to be a major drug dealer. They also say that he has a record for drug possession and drug dealing.
  • Keeps his shades closed at all times.
  • Always wears sunglasses, even after dark.
  • Drives several very nice cars, though he never goes to work and has no visible means of support.
  • Has half a dozen locks on his front door, as you discovered when you once borrowed a cup of sugar and it took a solid minute for him to open it.
  • Stood in the doorway blocking your view when you borrowed the sugar, and made you wait outside while he went and got it, closing and triple-locking the door to make sure you could not come in while he was in the kitchen.
  • Seems to spend a lot of money on fluorescent grow-lights, to judge from the brand names on his package deliveries.
  • Has frequent power failures, to judge from the way his lights often flicker and sometimes go out entirely for hours.
  • Has dozens of visitors every day, most of whom arrive after dark, many of whom come very late at night, and few of whom stay for more than 10 or 15 minutes.
  • Does not let the police in when they raid his apartment, as they occasionally do, but waits for them to batter down the door. As they do so, the toilets are always heard to flush repeatedly.

Suppose also that:

  • You have never personally seen any drugs in your neighbor's hands or in his house.
  • He always vehemently denies that he is dealing or even using drugs.
  • He nevertheless often alludes to the possibility that he could get hold of any kind of drug for you if he wanted to.

Would it be fair to say that there is "no evidence" that your neighbor is dealing drugs? Or would someone who said that be -- just a wee bit naïve? I am not asking whether this is enough evidence to convict your neighbor beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law, still less whether drug laws or drug enforcement practices should be changed or abolished. (Let's stay off that contentious topic.) I am asking whether it would be honest and intelligent to say that there is "no evidence" that this hypothetical neighbor is a drug dealer.

There is a shorter and simpler version of this thought experiment:

Suppose you see one recently-shed cockroach skin in your kitchen. Should you assume that it came from a roach that was only passing through, and that your kitchen is not infested with cockroaches? Is there "no evidence" that you have a pest problem? Or is it fairer to suppose that where you see one cockroach (or a dozen empty nerve gas containers), there are hundreds more that you cannot see because they much prefer not to be seen?

Posted by Dr. Weevil at February 26, 2003 10:45 PM

Is it just me or does the promising "new energy device" acclaimed in the Disclosure Project buy a few more years before anything foolish in Congress takes place?

Posted by: Nathan Barna on February 26, 2003 11:04 PM

Care to tell me what the Hell you're talking about? What is the Disclosure Project? And who is talking about an energy device?

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on February 26, 2003 11:19 PM

Dr. Weevil:

I think Guy comes from two distinct strands of thinking:

1. The need to be right (which I'm sure no one else is guilty of); and
2. The need to carry things to their logical conclusion.

That latter aspect seems to be the root of the old saw that there is no idea so stupid that intellectuals won't support it.

People should be treated equally. Nations are like people. Nations should be treated equally. Treated equally is especially important before the law. You should only be judged by what can be proven. Criminal law requires conviction "beyond a reasonable doubt". Any accusation requires "beyond a reasonable doubt" for punishment to take effect. We have not established this for Iraq.

That, at the risk of hypersimplification, seems to be the mental "chain of custody" that drives the likes of Cabot and company. (One reason, I suspect, for the regular query of why Israel isn't treated the same as Iraq, never mind the important legal point that the Iraq resolutions and the Israeli resolutions were initiated under separate and distinct parts of the UN Charter.)

Just a thought....

Posted by: Dean on February 27, 2003 12:07 AM

Guy seems to have a somewhat higher ("somewhat" meaning, in this case, "enormously") standard of evidence for the case that Saddam possesses WMD than he does for his insane notion that Bush was singlehandedly responsible for an economic peak that occurred just a couple of months after he took the oath.

But consistency, bugaboos, etc., etc.

Posted by: David Perron on February 27, 2003 05:35 AM

Doc W, I will dismiss your tone as being the result of a pivotal time for you.

What concerns me the most is those who allegedly hold pragmatism in the highest regard (how else would our GNI blow everyone else away?) fall short of making the best decisions at times even with the best intentions.

Indirect deductions are an idealist's tool. Why are you employing them in "pragmatic" discourse?


Posted by: Nathan Barna on February 27, 2003 08:35 AM

What IS Nathan talking about, indeed?

Posted by: Sigivald on February 27, 2003 04:58 PM

That's got to be a 'bot speaking. Few other than Chomsky himself can say so much and mean so little.

Posted by: David Perron on February 28, 2003 10:38 AM

Dave, I actually tried to be concise. I am sorry if the message consequently meant little to you. Appreciate the honesty, however.

Posted by: Nathan Barna on February 28, 2003 01:16 PM


Please answer the questions: what is a GNI? If you want to participate in a discussion, you have to be willing to use language other people understand. And please don't assume that I have to be either a total idealist or a total pragmatist. Like most sensible people, I'm a little of each.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on February 28, 2003 11:22 PM

Its a right to disbelieve... I guess.

Posted by: The Weevil has landed on March 1, 2003 12:20 AM

Gross National Income --

And any sensible person would ask these questions, and in this order:

a) What are the reasons for war?

b) What is the cost of war?

Your rationale, along with the administration's, is implausible. Even oil executives fear the region will be destabalized if Bush can follow through with his policies toward Iraq.

The administration provides only a means to speculate out of fear of inviting misunderstanding if they include oil or preemptive Isreal strikes [against Iraq] in their rhetoric. And North Korea has a nuclear program too you know. Neoconservative's largest fear -- this includes Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld -- is that Hussein will be permitted to dominate a "vital region." Hence, now we have the reasons and now know why the region is vital.

Since the Disclosure Project is chosen to be ignored by the administration, and even the American public, many either do not want to believe that we are less than five years away from annulling the "vitalness" of the Middle East, or many simply do not keep themselves informed.

If terrorism is our main concern, clearly it's not the administration's, then containment is the only sensible action (we do not want to upset our oil execs), don't you think?

Be careful not to endorse recklessness, doc, when all of the information is there but has not been assimilated.

Posted by: Nathan Barna on March 1, 2003 07:58 AM

Ah, Nathan reveals himself. He used the magic term "oil execs," so I think what we have here is neither a "pragmatist," nor a "realist," but a subspecies of troll.

Posted by: Andrea Harris on March 1, 2003 09:48 AM


Do you think you may have misconstrued the context a bit?

Posted by: Nathan Barna on March 1, 2003 04:26 PM


Golly, I hope 'her' spells are delicate and merciful.


Posted by: Nathan Barna on March 1, 2003 04:28 PM

Dr. Weevil, you seem to be a reasonable sort. So tell me why people like Guy are the butt of the criticism when it is the President and the administration who went to the UN and who have not taken action outside of that process. Guy has no influence on that (well, unless you count the lukewarm polls, which is why I suspect there's been no action)....the Bush administration is the one that has the means and the decision to make.

So instead of expressing frustration with the Guys of the world, why not with the guy who hasn't acted?

Posted by: jane on March 1, 2003 09:02 PM


I engaged in a similar thought experiment a while back. I think you'll enjoy it.

Posted by: "Edward" on March 3, 2003 01:20 PM

Nathan, I believe you neglected a question or two. Possibly more. I think at the top of the list should be something like this:

1) What is the cost of not going to war?

As for the responses to your first post, it seems in retrospect that you assumed that when you mentioned something called "Disclosure Project", people would know what you meant. Ditto for claims of some new energy device.

And having made a visit to Disclosureproject.org, I'd like to provide this for the entertainment of others:

The Disclosure Project is a nonprofit research project working to fully disclose the facts about UFOs, extraterrestrial intelligence, and classified advanced energy and propulsion systems. We have over 400 government, military, and intelligence community witnesses testifying to their direct, personal, first hand experience with UFOs, ETs, ET technology, and the cover-up that keeps this information secret.

IOW, tinfoilhat central.

Posted by: David Perron on March 4, 2003 01:05 PM

Dave, your post started off well. What happened! It had potential in leading to substance but you chose to resort to a meaningless rebuttal full of discussion fallacies.

What IS the cost of not going to war? I know you have an answer, but why didn't you at least clue me in a little? Why didn't you address the proposed alternative of containment? Why can't we have a productive discussion without the insults? What do UFOs, or your "entertaining" excerpt, have to do with an energy device whose technology has nothing to with DPs cause--did you listen to the audio? Attack that instead.

As a freshman student of business administration who is taking an introductory course in debate, I am getting the impression that personal feelings should not get in the way of making sound decisions.

My interests and evolution are at the Q1 stage of gestation; however, I do know facts and/or ideas shouldn't be ignored and generalizations are a death sentence. I also understand that some decisions need to be made without all the facts--the essence of the front lines, of course--in order to keep moving forward (efficiently) in the right direction while preventing catastrophes.

As [real] Americans, we will naturally decimate anti-Americans. But have all the stakeholders in OUR cause been considered? And more importantly, can we be smarter still? This defines the "influentials" doesn't it?

Hubris can and has been a self-destructive force of the rights.

Carefully evaluate the alternatives rigorously and discuss them objectively and incisively.

Posted by: Nathan Barna on March 4, 2003 03:54 PM

Mr. Cabot has been doing his best impersonation of a troll on my blog lately.

He's been less impressive than he was on Jay's/Jane's site.

Posted by: Ricky on March 4, 2003 10:27 PM

Dave, your post started off well. What happened! It had potential in leading to substance but you chose to resort to a meaningless rebuttal full of discussion fallacies.

This might be a reasonable assertion, except that I didn't actually attempt to rebut anything. I normally don't attempt a rebuttal in cases where I don't understand the point, or if there is in fact a point at all.

What I posted was intended to point out that there was no such dichotomy as: either we spend a bundle on war, or we can just be friends and spend nothing at all. As I noted previously, the reasons for war have been amply covered practically everywhere you care to look. If you're not satisfied with them, you're welcome to be specific regarding your dissatisfaction. Because, as you indicated, generalities are a death sentence.

Posted by: David Perron on March 5, 2003 08:18 AM

I normally don't attempt a rebuttal in cases where I don't understand the point, or if there is in fact a point at all.

Maybe my point wasn't clear. Some of these forums are contaminated with points that are not clear to me as well, but I usually resist complaining about it and insulting others out of frustration. You certainly didn't seem to have a problem googling the information you sought.

Many of your and others' needs are very complicated. Hence therefore, many of you allow your high intellects to elicit schizophrenic properties resulting in aggressive and relentless behavior to protect perpetually increasing higher standards that are relative to every other insecure American.

Granted these are all side effects from a melange of curiousity and primal instincts and natural human ignorance, so there is really nothing anyone can do about it. So I'll be on my way, and you may be on yours.

Blog on.

Posted by: Nathan Barna on March 5, 2003 10:06 AM

For the clarification:
I thank you, and so does the other guy.

Posted by: David Perron on March 5, 2003 10:43 AM

Oil plays an important role in printing and other important technologies unrelated to energy. One of my false premises was that oil = energy AND NOT oil <> energy.

I appreciate everyone tolerating my unexcusable youthful exuberance. I'm trying to apply as I go.

Posted by: Nathan Barna on March 7, 2003 01:32 PM

At the risk of being on-topic, may I mention that I think your first analogy is a little off? I remember someone comparing Saddam to a parole violator. Except Saddam has had real violations, and none of you examples would have been violations. There are the aluminum tubes that Iraq was banned from buying, the traces of mustard gas the inspectors found, and the al-Samoud missiles he isn't supposed to have, to name a few. What if someone found crack in your neighbor's house and he claimed he flushed it down the toilet, put he didn't film it because it would break his family's hearts?

(I personally dislike analogies that compare Iraq to a suspected criminal, because it tends to imply that international law is similar to criminal law. The way some people talk, if Saddam had said he helped Osama plan 9-11 in that Dan Rather interview, they would claim we can't invade because he wasn't properly Mirandized.)

Posted by: scott h. on March 7, 2003 10:48 PM

At the risk of being on-topic...


When an underlying premise is the object of refutation, the topic is in scope.

Posted by: Nathan Barna on March 8, 2003 01:41 AM

scott h.:

My analogy was quite limited in aim. I've certainly never maintained that Iraq is a legal problem, rather than a politico-military problem. I just thought that an analogy from a quite different (civil / legal) field would be useful in getting across the idea that indirect and circumstantial evidence can be quite sufficient in proving a case, as long as there is enough of it.

I think we're actually in agreement.

Posted by: Dr. Weevil on March 9, 2003 10:54 PM