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Quasi Exculpation Suggestion

As the search for an explanation of why the administration didn't hint Zarqawi before the war continues, I should offer one possible exculpation of sorts. When I first wrote about the Zarqawi camp and the role it played in the administration's case for war, I took our failure to strike the camp as prima facie evidence that the administration didn't really think he, or Ansar al-Islam, was a serious risk to American security. It was just something like the mythical aerial drones that they'd seized on in an effort to scare people. After the NBC story came out, I shifted toward a presumption that NBC had the story right, but maybe I was right the first time. That would explain why we don't get a proper official denial here -- they're not going to say, "we didn't strike the camp because we didn't really think it was a threat, that was just something we made up to scare people, but then it turns out that it really was a threat and now we look like idiots."

It would be particularly neat if that turned out to be the case, however, because then we would have a real-world application of the Gettier problem. Indeed, it occurs to me that if the JMM-derided Financial Times story about Niger turns out to be accurate, that might be a Gettier case as well. Perhaps one ought to think of the entire Bush administration as an attempt to bring greater public attention to the fine points of epistemology.

July 2, 2004 | Permalink


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What's a Gettier problem?

Yes, I could Google, but if you're going to write about it I think you should take the trouble to explain it.

Posted by: Bernard Yomtov | Jul 2, 2004 10:41:32 AM

Didn't you say something similar about Bush in the "New Column" post a few weeks ago?

In context, a "Gettier problem" appears to be when one says something that one doesn't know to be true, but is in fact true. Matt's example is of Bush saying that Zarqawi was a major threat last year, at a time when Bush himself (judging by his failure to destory the camp) didn't sincerely believe this. However, in actual reality, Zarqawi IS a threat. The problem is in determining whether or not Bush lied. Based on Bush's own subjective knowledge, he was a liar; based on objective reality, he told the truth.

I think judgments of people's truthfulness ought to be based on their own knowledge, and not by their accidentally tripping and falling ass backwards on the truth, but if it's puzzling philosophers enough to give it a name, then I guess it's more complicated than I realize.

Posted by: PG | Jul 2, 2004 10:54:48 AM

A Gettier problem comes up whenever the following are true:

1. p is true.
2. I believe that p.
3. I am justified in believing that p. (That is, I have good reasons to believe that p.)
4. I don't know p.

These cases show that justified true belief isn't knowledge. And that, for some time, was the standard philosophical analysis of what it took to know that p.

Posted by: ctd | Jul 2, 2004 10:56:07 AM

Oops, I misspoke there. What I descibed there was the structure of a Gettier case. In ordinary philosophical parlance, the "Gettier problem" is the problem of providing the correct analysis of knowledge--given that Gettier cases show that it isn't justified true belief.

Still, that should clear things up a bit.

Posted by: ctd | Jul 2, 2004 10:59:17 AM

Are you suggesting that the point of the Bush administration is to determine what the meaning of "is" is?

Posted by: LowLife | Jul 2, 2004 11:08:59 AM

Now that I think about it, these aren't real Gettier cases. What Bush exhibits are instances of unjustified true belief.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Jul 2, 2004 11:12:50 AM

"A Gettier problem comes up whenever the following are true:

1. p is true.
2. I believe that p.
3. I am justified in believing that p. (That is, I have good reasons to believe that p.)
4. I don't know p."

are you sure?

I thought that "knowing p" itself meant that conditions 1-3 are satisfied, and a gettier case is a case where 1-3 are satisfied, but the justification for believing p in 3) happens to be wrong, even though there is some other reason for it to be true.

example: I believe that matthew yglesias has a website because I have seen it before, so I have a good reason for believing it, but if matthew took down his website this morning and then started a .com that sold toilet paper online, I would meet the conditions of "knowing" he had a website without actually "knowing" in any common sense way...

Posted by: jonathan | Jul 2, 2004 11:15:54 AM

oh, nevermind, further comments have clarified the issue

Posted by: jonathan | Jul 2, 2004 11:19:13 AM

No, you just THINK further comments have clarified the issue, but you don't really KNOW that.

In classical American form, the 'Gettier' problem quickly becomes a 'gotcha' problem....

Posted by: serial catowner | Jul 2, 2004 11:48:49 AM

Now that I think about it, these aren't real Gettier cases. What Bush exhibits are instances of unjustified true belief.

Isn't it just a statement of the truth despite the absence of belief.

Bush says: "Zarqawi is a threat", but doesn't believe it, even though it turns out later that, in fact, Zarqawi is a threat.

But even then, it's quite arguable Zarqawi only is a threat because of actions Bush took that were, in part, dependent on the belief that Zarqawi is not a threat, to wit, not acting to minimize the threat posed by Zarqawi prior to invading Iraq, so at the time he made the statement that Zarqawi was a major threat, he in fact had a true belief -- and quite probably a justified one -- that Zarqawi was not a major threat. He also had a false belief, and quite possibly an unjustified one, that Zarqawi would remain a non-threat.

I don't think there is a Gettier case here, just a failure to anticipate the consequences of one's actions, mixed with some outright dishonesty.

Posted by: cmdicely | Jul 2, 2004 1:44:28 PM

Ansar al-Islam was not a threat. They mostly just took potshots at peshmerga every once in a while.

I am not yet convinced that Zarqawi & friends are actually behind all the things that people say he's behind. If nothing else, if I were leading an insurgent group and I wanted to get my cowardly hostage-taking to get international notice, I'd say "Zarqawi Zarqawi Zarqawi." At the time of the Nick Berg incident, people weren't even clear on whether Zarqawi had one leg or two.

If there's evidence that Zarqawi is orchestrating these attacks beyond the fact that people are invoking his reputation--or even that all these attacks are linked--I'd like to know what it is.

Otherwise, all I can think is that in the fog of war, you can take hits from friendly fire even in a PR campaign.

Posted by: Melissa O | Jul 2, 2004 3:06:15 PM

All knowledge is of Gettier's type. We know nothing until we know everything, which is impossible. Ptolemaic astronomers accurately predicted many events, for the wrong reasons. A thousand years of common sense (anyone can see that the sun circles the earth) and accurate predictions proved wrong by Copernicus' system. Without a quantum theory of gravity that logically engages quantum electrodynamics, we are just making guesses.

Posted by: epistemology | Jul 2, 2004 6:10:31 PM

How much does Matt charge for a roll of toilet paper?

Posted by: Bernard Yomtov | Jul 2, 2004 7:35:11 PM

I'm not sure anything having to do with the mishandlng of Zarqawi could be classified as "neat" no matter the philosophical cubbyhole to which it can be applied....

Posted by: benton | Jul 2, 2004 8:08:09 PM

Only unreconstructed Platonists worry about Gettier's problem. For the rest of us, the problem is only definitional: knowledge does not reach out to touch some objective reality. To say I Know means only "I am going to act on the basis that X is true".

Posted by: masaccio | Jul 2, 2004 10:36:24 PM

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