We’re not ready to talk yet

by Joshua Foust on 8/20/2009 · 9 comments

So this was an interesting exercise about the Afghan election today. On Twitter, there was a terrible signal to noise ratio—If you read this AP story closely, you see what I did: the vast majority of input came from Alex Strick van Linschoten and Pajhwok, but like fifteen people were all RTing it. So TweetDeck just gave me many copies of the same tweet—not useful. I tuned it out.

Meanwhile, all the experts trying to have their instant analyses seem to have no idea how foolish they look, from Steven Walt refusing to recognize the strawmen he’s arguing against to Tom Johnson popping his head up to remind us that Afghanistan is just like Vietnam (really, Tom? Really?).

Then there are the news accounts and “analyses” (no offense, Spencer, you’re convenient and I didn’t want to Google to find others) of voter turn out. We barely know what turnout is in American elections right away, and those are electronic. Voters don’t have to dodge rocket attacks, arsonists, gangs of marauding finger-amputators, and no-shows. In places like Zormat and Alasay and Tagab—places I know—voting was closed entirely due to security threats.

Put another way, we have no idea how the election went. Given the number of tweets already declaring broad swaths of Kabul as officially split between Karzai and Abdullah—and really, what DID you people expect?—representing tens of thousands of paper ballots that must be counted by hand, I have zero confidence in any of the instant numbers coming out of that place.

All of the pundits and experts and journalists trying to make a name for themselves with this election (and not everyone—the legitimate experts out there portray themselves differently) sound nothing so much like a textbook case of Michael Crichton’s Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect, which is summarized:

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

As my links above indicate, that doesn’t only apply to the newspaper. The overabundance of experts in the face of a continued lack of and need for actual expertise is incredibly discouraging. And seriously, people, give it a rest—only Allah himself knows for sure what’s happening right now, and how it will play out. Americans can barely discuss their own election in calm, reasoned tones—and certainly not the day it’s happening. It’s rare election commentary is valid for days after an American election. Why are we so arrogant as to presume we can handle Afghanistan’s election any better?

If we’re not all admitting—and I’m using the plural deliberately, because I include myself in this—that we’re stumbling about in the dark while prognosticating about this thing, then we are lying to our readers. It’s that simple, and it’s way too early to be putting out “definitive” accounts of anything.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Brian Conley August 20, 2009 at 4:25 pm

Hey Josh,

Thanks for the hard-nosed reality here. This is KEY. One thing I pointed out to Heidi Vogt for her article which predictably did not get included, is the fact that despite all the hype during the Iran election debacle, and the lack of hype during the Honduras coup, the populations utilizing twitter in both places were essentially similar, educated, western-focused, english speaking, with high internet access(in iran this was of course tempered by Iranian filtering). In Iran’s case those tweeting reflected western bias and the western paradigm on Iran (USA is good, Ahmadi bad we need dialogue but without Ahmadi). In Honduras’ case they ran counter to the dominant US paradigm which reflected statements out of State opposing the coup.

so wht happened? No one is aware of the people tweeting from Honduras, whereas everyone and their grandmother has heard about Iran. At the end of the day, twitter was not providing a revolutionary new outlet, it just provided yet another microphone for the privileged and those whose message was comprehensible, understandable, and manageable by the western media paradigm.

We’ve got a long way to go to correct this, but at least we’re trying, right?

Christopher Chambers August 20, 2009 at 7:10 pm

This one gets my vote (will now repeatedly press submit to “stuff” the comments box…). Let’s take a step back and wait for Ramadan.

Ian August 20, 2009 at 8:04 pm

Very accurate representation of my experience today, too. I kept searching for some new, good fat story but kept finding the same stick figures.

By the way, I think you shouldn’t call what Walt does “arguing against a straw man.” You’ve said this about Rory Stewart as well, inaccurately. A straw man is an intentional misrepresentation of an opposing view to make it easier to tear down. Analyzing with good faith the rhetoric of our politicians and leading psuedo-expert wonks is not to construct a straw man; it’s to understand the flaws in thinking that have guided American policy recently. Finding the flaws is something you and I should support–even if we don’t agree (I don’t) with his conclusions.

Joshua Foust August 20, 2009 at 8:49 pm

Ian, you’re not the first to bring that up. Some of his points, like the one about safe havens, are good ones to bring up for discussion. However, he predicates his entire argument on the idea that the discussion about those things isn’t happening.

That’s simply not the case, at least in the pundit circles I see. The war might be a foregone conclusion at a lot of op-ed pages, but there is an entire progressive movement dedicated to challenging Barack Obama on the fundamental merits of the war, and they’ve gathered enough funding for full-time bloggers on the subject.

I’m not opposed to arguing the merits—hell, if I had more energy and hours in the day I think I could probably make a meaningful contribution for the staying argument—but Walt’s premise is false, even if some of his points are good ones. That’s what I wrote off as a “straw man.” His six points deserve addressing, but accusing people of not even talking about it — especially as opinion polls show a slim majority thinking we have no reason to be there — is not a particularly valid point.

Ian August 21, 2009 at 11:46 am

Walt’s premise is not “accusing people of not talking about” his six points–at least not in the FP blog posts that people have discussed recently. If he doesn’t make that accusation, are you saying that Walt is not constructing a straw man?

Spenc/r Ackerm/n August 21, 2009 at 7:41 am

None taken, really, but, self-interested as this is, I don’t think I’m an example of what you point out above. The first lines of the post you cite are “Short answer:*shrug*” and “We don’t yet know what voter turnout was.” One of the last is “If the facts change so will this assessment.” That’s because I agree with you that someone in Washington can’t possibly cover this with any authority, and that has to be conveyed to a reader. The rest of the post, where I think the value is added, is an If/Then statement. But I tried throughout yesterday and will try again today and going forward not to pretend to my readers that I have information I just don’t have.

Joshua Foust August 21, 2009 at 8:00 am

Spencer, you’re right. The reason I pointed to you was literally because you came up in my RSS reader. The reason I said “no offense” was because I didn’t want to impugn your work, which, as you said, has been very above board. I’ll think of a way to rephrase that.

chris seiple August 21, 2009 at 9:38 am


Thanks very much for your dose of humble reality…I couldn’t agree with you more. Indeed, eight years on and billions and billions of dollars in “international community” aid later, we should be more than humble about what’s going on, and what it’ll take to simply do no harm, let alone engage at the nexus of culture and the rule of law, sensitive to the former, consistent with the latter.

Two pieces for your consideration about the missing element of analysis: religion.

1. http://www.military.com/news/article/coin-the-currency-of-victory-in-afghan-war.html; and,

2. http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0804/p09s04-coop.html.

Both discuss just how little we know about the prism through which life is seen in many places Central Asia…

Keep up the good work!

David M August 21, 2009 at 9:51 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 08/21/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

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