Facts, Opinions, and Credulity

In an excellent essay at Duck of Minerva scholar Sidra Hamidi makes some points that I fear are too frequently neglected:

How does a more thoughtful understanding of the relationship between truth and politics help us think about reports of Russian interference? The controversy is exemplary of the kinds of problems we can get into if we assume that facts speak for themselves. Pundits are often surprised that Trump supporters seem not to care about self-evident facts. The conflict is often portrayed as the CIA presenting facts that Trump, through his usual political cunning, refuses to see as a threat. But liberal embrace of these intelligence reports is no less political than Trump’s rejection of them. While Trump’s knowledge on international politics is likely elementary, this narrative rests on what should register as uncomfortable assumptions. There is the assumption that liberals should trust the CIA wholeheartedly in their assessment of the situation. The recent George W. Bush era in foreign policy, during which intelligence was manipulated to invade Iraq, should make liberals err towards being skeptical towards the “facts” that are presented as “intelligence.” Just because today it is politically-expedient to use the authority of the intelligence community to combat Trump, does not mean that liberals should forget the recent past. And by the past I do not simply mean Bush era foreign policy, but also the historical record of the Cold War and beyond in which the intelligence agencies of great powers interfered with elections around the world, the very act that the CIA accuses Russia of doing to the United States. In this instance, the focus on “facts” falls into a political narrative that actually undermines the left’s historically-critical approach to great power politics.

There is also the assumption that threats from Russia are in fact, objective threats. Certainly, Russia’s potential involvement in the election signals an important shift in U.S.-Russia relations. However, threats to the U.S. are always constructed by foreign policy elites in both the U.S. and Russia: the U.S. is not simply reacting to an aggressive Russia but also plays a part in perceiving Russian actions as threatening. Indeed, liberals should we wary of constructing the threat that Russia poses. This strategy is likely to play into the hand of Trump who recently advocated for a renewed arms race. The “fact” of a Russian threat to the U.S. can be molded to fit many a political perspective. Trump can misuse the threat of Russia to serve hawkish goals.

Despite the essay’s contribution to the strategic quotation mark shortage, I found Mr. Hamidi’s observations thought-provoking. How you distinguish among facts and opinions is of grave importance and not always obvious.

Russian aggression in Ukraine is, as well as I can tell, a fact. Interpretations of what Russian aggression Ukraine means are all opinions. There are other facts, for example, that the present regime in Kiev came into power by forcibly removing the previous regime and that the present regime is anti-Russian are facts, too.

Based on what we know that the Democratic National Committee’s email archive was breached and some of the emails given to WikiLeaks is a fact. The veracity and authoricity of the emails that have been made public also appear to be facts. Just about everything else about the matter is opinion or taken on faith.

Criticism of the Russian government is legitimate; I advocate it. Believing that Russia pursues its own interests nearly goes without saying. I think it’s obvious. Believing that the Russian people are our implacable geo-political foes is a matter of opinion; I don’t think they care that much about us.

But criticism of the CIA is legitimate, too.

In conclusion I want to point out that I have, somewhat tardily, added the excellent foreign policy and international relations blog, the Duck of Minerva to my highly selective blogroll. It’s long overdue and I recommend you visit DoM frequently.

2 comments… add one
  • Andy Link

    It really is depressing.

    Cognitive studies definitively show that people unconsciously bend or interpret facts to align with favored preconceptions – this is a human trait common to everyone. Generally people are also bad at understanding the differences between facts, assumptions, analysis based on facts and assumptions, opinions, etc., unless they’ve benefited from education on the topic. I recently left my job training new intelligence analysts and the people chosen for this career are bright but lack introspection. I’m not pining for any past ideal, but it seems to me our education systems, at both the college and high school level, increasingly teach people what to think instead of how to think. When they get to me they have little skill in this area and not much in the way of introspection. If I were King I’d mandate an epistemology and cognitive psychology course for all students.

    But I’m going off on a tangent. We are way past all that at this point. Factionalism is so strong that practically everything is judged on how it affects the score vs the other side and I can’t tell anymore if this is intentional or if people have collectively drunk the Koolaid and don’t even realize what they are doing. A philosophy where ends justify means and process only matters if one agrees with the result rules the day.

    I need a drink.

  • steve Link

    ” increasingly teach people what to think instead of how to think.”

    Hate to say it but this could also just be a sign that you are getting older.


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