**Revised 10:03 AM
People often confuse a kind of knee-jerk skepticism for “critical thinking.” But it’s one thing to be cautious about facts incongruent with other well known facts, it’s another just to disbelieve all facts of a certain type (those that come out of the mouths, of, I don’t know, the liberal media). It’s yet another thing to reject those “questionable” facts a priori–that is, on purely logical grounds.
So when the New Republic ran a series of blog posts by a certain “Scott Thomas” from Iraq, many–mostly right wing bloggers and such–disbelieved them, a priori. These blog posts told of American soldiers defacing corpses, killing animals, (and treating Iraqis in a generally shameful manner). Scott Thomas (whose real name is, get this, Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp), writes (courtesy of Hullabaloo):
>I saw her nearly every time I went to dinner in the chow hall at my base in Iraq. She wore an unrecognizable tan uniform, so I couldn’t really tell whether she was a soldier or a civilian contractor. The thing that stood out about her, though, wasn’t her strange uniform but the fact that nearly half her face was severely scarred. Or, rather, it had more or less melted, along with all the hair on that side of her head. She was always alone, and I never saw her talk to anyone. Members of my platoon had seen her before but had never really acknowledged her. Then, on one especially crowded day in the chow hall, she sat down next to us.
>We were already halfway through our meals when she arrived. After a minute or two of eating in silence, one of my friends stabbed his spoon violently into his pile of mashed potatoes and left it there.
“Man, I can’t eat like this,” he said.
“Like what?” I said. “Chow hall food getting to you?”
“No–with that fucking freak behind us!” he exclaimed, loud enough for not only her to hear us, but everyone at the surrounding tables. I looked over at the woman, and she was intently staring into each forkful of food before it entered her half-melted mouth.
“Are you kidding? I think she’s fucking hot!” I blurted out.
“What?” said my friend, half-smiling.
“Yeah man,” I continued. “I love chicks that have been intimate–with IEDs. It really turns me on–melted skin, missing limbs, plastic noses … .”
“You’re crazy, man!” my friend said, doubling over with laughter. I took it as my cue to continue.
“In fact, I was thinking of getting some girls together and doing a photo shoot. Maybe for a calendar? IED Babes.’ We could have them pose in thongs and bikinis on top of the hoods of their blown-up vehicles.”
My friend was practically falling out of his chair laughing. The disfigured woman slammed her cup down and ran out of the chow hall, her half-finished tray of food nearly falling to the ground.
And so on. It gets far worse. Kathleen Parker, conservative pundit, thinks these stories are dubious:
>The conservative Weekly Standard began questioning the reports last week. Bloggers have joined in challenging the anecdotes, as have military personnel who have served in Iraq and, in some cases, have eaten in the same chow hall mentioned.
>Thomas’ version of events in Iraq is looking less and less credible and smacks of the “occult hand.” The occult hand was an inside joke several years ago among a group of journalists who conspired to see how often they could slip the phrase — “It was as if an occult hand had …” — into their copy. This went on for years to the great merriment of a few in the know.
>Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how a phrase as purple as an occult hand could have enjoyed such long play within the tribe of professional skeptics known as journalists. Similarly, one wonders how Thomas’ reports have appeared in the magazine without his editors saying, “Hey, wait just a minute.”
>The New Republic editors say they’re investigating the reports, but refuse to reveal the author’s identity. There’s always a chance, of course, that these stories have some truth to them.
There’s a chance they’re completely true, she ought to say. Parker’s skepticism is based on the authority of conservative bloggers and the Weekly Standard–two sources about which one would have justifiable skepticism. The more basic problem regards the nature of Scott Thomas’s claims.
They are pretty straightforward factual claims. That is to say, they are claims that events x took place at time y. They’re true if they happened, false if they didn’t. So questions regarding their veracity ought to regard whether the author is (a) a real person; (b) really in Iraq in the Army; and (c) really witnessed those events. The New Republic can vouch for all three. And it did. Why not take their word for it–they supported the invasion of Iraq.
Wondering about the types of claims being made, in isolation from the basic conditions of their truth (without waiting for confirmation from the New Republic), is a pretty silly kind of skepticism. It’s silly not only because it turned out to be wrong, but because it was wrong for the most obvious of reasons–the stories turned out to be true. Of course even Parker ought to know this. She continues:
>Stranger, and far worse, things have happened in war. But people who have served in Iraq have raised enough questions about these particular anecdotes that one is justified in questioning whether they are true.
>As just one example, it is unlikely that a Bradley would be driven through concrete barriers just for fun, according an e-mail from a member of the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, made up of officers who are lawyers providing legal services to soldiers. He explained that people aren’t alone out there. Other vehicles, non-commissioned officers and officers would be around and Iraqis would have made a claim for repairs, resulting in an investigation.
>In other words, either plenty of people would know about it — or it didn’t happen.
Again, Parker’s skepticism is of the very general variety–she considers emails from people who weren’t there as sufficient countervailing evidence. Effective general skepticism might include such claims as the Bradley vehicle cannot do the actions described or there were no soldiers at the place described. In the absence of such evidence (and in light of the fact that soldiers–US soldiers even–have been known to do some pretty awful things in war (and get away with it), there is every reason to suspect that such tales could be true (unless they’re impossible). Remember Abu Ghraib anyone? This doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be skeptical. One should. But one ought to be skeptical regarding pseudonymous claims because they’re pseudonymous, not because they don’t “seem plausible” (even though, of course, they are).
The context of all of this, of course, is Parker’s insistence that people who believe things other than she does are insufficiently skeptical:
>It may be that The New Republic editors and others who believed Thomas’ journal entries without skepticism are infected with “Nifong Syndrome” — the mind virus that causes otherwise intelligent people to embrace likely falsehoods because they validate a preconceived belief.
>Mike Nifong, the North Carolina prosecutor in the alleged Duke University lacrosse team rape case, was able to convince a credulous community of residents, academics and especially journalists that the three falsely accused white men had raped a black stripper despite compelling evidence to the contrary.
>Why? Because the lies supported their own truths. In the case of Duke, that “truth” was that privileged white athletes are racist pigs who of course would rape a black woman given half a chance and a bottle o’ beer.
>In the case of Scott Thomas, the “truth” that American soldiers are woman-hating, dog-killing, grave-robbing monsters confirms what many among the anti-war left believe about the military, despite their protestations that they “support the troops.”
>We tend to believe what we want to believe, in other words.
I think she means “you” (she obviously doesn’t believe such pleasing tales). But then again, maybe she does.