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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Propaganda Techniques: Observational Selection

There's a list of common propaganda techniques at [Propaganda and Debating Techniques]. It's well worth reading in order to familiarize yourself with common fallacies that we all commit from time-to-time.

There's one trick we know all too well. You've probably been guilty—I know I have. It's called Observational Selection.
Observational Selection

Observational selection, also known as "cherry-picking", is a tactic like counting the hits and forgetting the misses. See only what you wish to see. Overlook and ignore evidence you don't wish to see. And encourage your audience to be equally blind. Observational selection will destroy the validity of any statistical study.
Here's an example of this technique from the website [A Turn For The Better In Iraq?]. In this case, the author picked out a single article from The New York Times written by Brookings Institution scholars Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack [A War We Just Might Win]. Those scholars pointed out that some progress was being made in Iraq in stabilizing the country. The significance of the New York TImes piece is that O'Hanlon and Pollack have been, and continue to be, critical of the Bush policies in Iraq. The other significance is that some editor selected a misleading title for their article, "A War We Just Might Win." The authors have appeared on television to criticize that choice of title as misleading.

Here's part of what O'Hanlon and Pollack say,
Here is the most important thing Americans need to understand: We are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms. As two analysts who have harshly criticized the Bush administration’s miserable handling of Iraq, we were surprised by the gains we saw and the potential to produce not necessarily “victory” but a sustainable stability that both we and the Iraqis could live with.
The author of the article cherry-picked from this opinion piece and published the following under the title "A Turn For The Better In Iraq?"
War In Iraq: It's quite likely that, as you read this, U.S. troops under the leadership of Gen. David Petraeus are winning the war against terrorism in Iraq. And no, it isn't just war-crazed neocons who think so.

The possibility that the U.S. is winning this war -- and not losing, as Democrats would have it -- was raised in the pages of no less than the New York Times just this week.

In a long, thoughtful op-ed following an eight-day trip to Iraq, Brookings Institution scholars Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack wrote about the progress there -- and what's at stake.

Remember: Brookings generally is a liberal -- not conservative -- think tank, though neither O'Hanlon nor Pollack is in any sense a doctrinaire leftist. That said, the two have been to Iraq before and are no great fans of President Bush. But the changes they saw this time were, in their words, "significant."
Notice that this particular article by Brookings Institute scholars is "thoughtful." I wonder how many other articles from the Brookings Institute are "thoughtful." Perhaps all of them? I doubt it.

Also, note that according to this article "U.S. troops ... are winning the war against terrorism." There's nothing in the O'Hanlon and Pollack article that suggest any such thing. What they said was that by backing moderate militia groups, the U.S. army was helping to suppress the most extreme insurgents like those who fight for Al Qaeda. There was no mention of a war against terrorism. I suspect this is because O'Hanlon and Pollack know the difference between a war against terrorism and trying to establish peace and security in Iraq.

They conclude their article with,
In the end, the situation in Iraq remains grave. In particular, we still face huge hurdles on the political front. Iraqi politicians of all stripes continue to dawdle and maneuver for position against one another when major steps towards reconciliation — or at least accommodation — are needed. This cannot continue indefinitely. Otherwise, once we begin to downsize, important communities may not feel committed to the status quo, and Iraqi security forces may splinter along ethnic and religious lines.

How much longer should American troops keep fighting and dying to build a new Iraq while Iraqi leaders fail to do their part? And how much longer can we wear down our forces in this mission? These haunting questions underscore the reality that the surge cannot go on forever. But there is enough good happening on the battlefields of Iraq today that Congress should plan on sustaining the effort at least into 2008.
That doesn't sound like "winning" to me. What happened was that someone who is likely to be a supporter of the war on terrorism picked out a single article by two Bush critics and used it as evidence that "liberals" are now seeing the light and have come 'round to supporting the war on terrorism.

[The photograph is from the US Dept. of Defense and is in the public domain. See Wikipedia:]


  1. I see a similar mindset in astrology believers and their panic over "mercury in retrograde" that happens several times a year. They will point out a computer crashing or a radio going out or something similar and blame it on "mercury in retrograde"... or likewise will use events like this happening as "evidence" of mercury being in retrograde, but don't bother to see that these same events happen when mercury isn't in retrograde (i.e., they need to sample the occurrence of these events over the entire year and see if there is a correspondence). Their mode of thinking is no better than the creationists.

  2. Looks like the NYT is parroting the media meme that O'Hanlon and Pollack are harsh critics of the war; they're not:

    This is just more cheerleading, sold under the guise that this is a "revelation" coming from "critics" of the war...