Bear Patrol

Here’s an oft-repeated howler printed in the New York Times from op-ed contributor and Marine Major on duty in Iraq Glen G. Butler

The pre-emptive doctrine of the current administration will continue to be debated long after I’m gone, but one fact stands for itself: America has not been hit with another catastrophic attack since 9/11. I firmly believe that our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq are major reasons that we’ve had it so good at home. Building a “fortress America” is not only impractical, it’s impossible. Prudent homeland security measures are vital, to be sure, but attacking the source of the threat remains essential.

How often have you heard this one in its various versions? The implication here is that the war on terrorism (including the invasion of Iraq) is the cause of there not being any terrorist attacks in the United States. Now the factual claims are no doubt true. First, we have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and there has not been another major terrorist attack-or any terrorist attack-in the United States. No attempt, however, on the part of the author, is made to demonstrate that the two major military operations are the cause of there not being any terrorist attacks in the United States (we should not forget the bombings in Bali and Madrid and elsewhere). Just because, in other words, the war on terrorism (including the invasion of Iraq which even according to George Bush had nothing to do with 9/11) has preceded the absence of catastrophic terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11 does not mean it is the cause. What we have here, in more technical terms, is a perfect example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy-after this, therefore because of this, or the correlation-causation fallacy.

Should someone not be convinced by this analysis, consider the following scene from the Simpsons, where Homer remarks on the success of Springfield’s attempt to control bear activity:

Homer: “There’s not a single bear in sight–the ‘Bear Patrol’ is working like a charm”

Lisa: “That’s specious reasoning,”

H: “Thanks, honey,”

L: “According to your logic, this rock keeps tigers away”.

H: “Hmmm. How does it work?”

L: “It doesn’t.”

H: “How so?”

L: “It’s just a rock,”

H: “But I don’t see a tiger, anywhere.”

H: “Lisa, I want to buy your rock.”

And consider how many times this passage comes up in the context of the war on terrorism and similar matters. Should the author want to avoid the rock-tigers problem, and therefore avoid utter nonsense, he should offer evidence to the effect that specific terrorist attacks have actually been thwarted by the war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq. Simply believing it firmly-and in the present author’s case, actually putting your life on the line for that belief-does not make it so. Undergoing much personal danger and sacrifice in the service of one’s belief does not make them true.