I was going to write this in response to a post over at the illustrious philosoraptor’s digs, but it is just too long to post in a series of comments. Also, I’ve been stewing over the general points for a while and so I thought I might put them up on this long-neglected blog (work has been completely insane, but I am finally enjoying a day off). So here ya go:
On Assessing Investigations Outside One’s Subject Matter Expertise
So, I work in a field where unlikely hypotheses are tested and confirmed or rejected on a regular basis with an immediacy which, perhaps, other fields do not as thoroughly enjoy.
For example: in a recent incident which disrupted productivity rather massively at my organization, I was the lone proponent of a particular root cause hypothesis. The part about my job I enjoy the most is being able to use my lifetime of nerddom to investigate issues where many folks do not have the breadth of knowledge that I have about the subject matter (all those man pages and IT textbooks have not been in vain!) and therefore do not initially arrive at the same hypotheses I yield with a high rate of frequency. The most important thing I’ve learned through it, however, is that while deep knowledge of the subject matter is an essential component of those conclusions, it isn’t the sole reason they are reached; plain old critical thinking skills which can be expected of any adult human at this point in life are almost always a key difference as well. Having the courage and work ethic required to perform the analyses and organize the myriad pieces of evidence in the hypothesis-neutral manner required for objective analysis, and then to write that analysis, is often more of an obstacle to reaching those hypotheses than the absence of knowledge regarding the critical evidence, itself. For, even when presented with that critical evidence, it is often the case that my interlocutors do not observe (or wish to endorse) that evidence’s support for the hypotheses I present.
So when I look at analogous situations in other fields, such as, say, this Russiagate thing, I try to accept the criticality of both of these elements and give them rather equal weight. Importantly: when available analyses seem to lead in a certain direction while consistently ignoring various components of apparently-relevant evidence, the person providing the analysis is probably biased (and not simply neglectful) for some reason or other. It seems to me that I am more willing than most to challenge these situations even when working outside of my principal areas of knowledge, as I have seen just how frequently this occurs. Others may be more willing to grant those recognized as superior (in regards to themselves) subject matter experts too much benefit of the doubt insofar as the assumption (it seems to me) goes on behalf of these outside analysts: “Well, they probably already know why I’m wrong, so I’ll just keep quiet.”
But I can tell you: don’t be cowed. Honestly pursue the inquiry. Maintain your fallibility, but don’t just assume (or be concerned by the thought) that their superior knowledge of the problem domain renders your observations invalid. Organize your thoughts, build your case, and focus like a laser on those refutations made available to you. If you find that you are wrong, happily accept it (and the accompanying education on the subject matter) and move on in support of more likely alternatives. Often, in my experience, this turns out in your favor if you’re inquiring honestly, diligently, and most importantly, congenially.
This I render to you as sound advice all the more so when those available analyses offer hypotheses which, independently of situational evidence, run statistically higher likelihood of success. My experience in my official capacity has led me to become hard-pressed not to suspect the individuals offering the analyses are sandbagging and hoping the statistics will play out in their favor, able to ultimately proclaim they were right all along in the face of those who wagered on the generally-less-likely, yet situationally-reasonable, alternatives. These are the opportunities in which those willing to go out on a limb, so to speak, can become the heroes which all those teevee medical shows glorify on a weekly basis. If you can accomplish that without the ubiquitous character flaws, well then you might just be too uninteresting for teevee, but too damn interested to be unworthy of note.
And I say all of this as a preface to what I am about to write below, using a particular article from Douthat as an example in which I observe this trend to be operating against those like myself who believe there is an unprecedented degree of strength of evidence being offered to the public at this point that Trump et. al. did, in fact, conspire significantly against the United States with the Russian government. I admit the long-shot nature of the claim and its general statistical unlikeliness, but unlike Douthat, I am willing to say not merely that “I maintain my official agnosticism,” but that there is good reason at this point for the public to lean strongly in a positive direction; at this point, I would be genuinely surprised if Mueller’s investigation did not return unprecedentedly strong (if not reaching the insanely conclusive degree required to bring charges against the most powerful office in the United States) evidence that our President and his administration engaged in conspiracy with a foreign power to better themselves at the expense of the nation.
Douthat’s Representative Analysis
So as I alluded above: with Russiagate, obviously it’s a hell of a lot less likely that Trump et. al. conspired with Russia to steal the 2016 election. How often has such an act been proven throughout history? Never? If so, I would say it’s generally a much safer bet for a career analyst to conclude that it did not happen. If true, the current situation is, in fact, the kind faced by career analysts which I describe in the preface above.
So how does Douthat do in his recent article? In my estimate, he does exactly what I see others do in my field: play up the evidence promoting the safe hypothesis and ignore or downplay the evidence against it. For example:
Douthat Asserts The Public Ought to have Less Confidence Now than Ever
Douthat concludes that the Steele Dossier’s interpretation as “a narrative primarily grounded in Russian disinformation” now faces “odds…as low as they’ve been since this whole affair started” that it (the interpretation) is incorrect. Despite this,
- He admits that the first big possibility in the Steele dossier is now known with reasonable confidence to be accurate; Russian intelligence was behind the hacks of the DNC and the release of stolen emails through Wikileaks. When this whole affair started, this was not known. Does that not indicate that the Dossier has, at the very least, better odds of being accurate than when we started?
- His counter-evidence for the remainder of the Dossier’s claims are rooted solely in a single testimony from Cohen in which Cohen disputes part of one of the Dossier’s principal claims.
I just don’t get that analysis. It seems quite wrong. To suggest we ought to believe more strongly that the Dossier is largely inaccurate because:
- One of its major claims has been validated and
- One of its major claims is facing a partial refutation from a single testimony
reeks to me of stretching to reach that safe hypothesis. We don’t, by any means, have any sort of evidence leading to a super-high confidence in the Dossier’s credibility, but it is absolutely false to assert that the available evidence indicates we ought to view it as having the lowest chance of probability for being accurate since it was initially seen by the public.
Further, this point ignores the fact that:
- We, the public, do not have access to all the information available to those who initially viewed the Dossier with a degree of severity that, at the very least, warranted its further investigation.
- We have heard numerous times (and, of course, must expect) that there are additional corroborating pieces of evidence which we still have yet to hear.
Despite those obviously-relevant facts omitted by Douthat, here Douthat pretends as though that single testimony by Cohen brings the whole thing down to the lowest level of likelihood for accuracy we’ve yet seen.
As I said: does that mean we, the public, ought to have a high degree of confidence that Mueller will conclude the Dossier was 100% accurate? Absolutely not. But does it mean that Douthat et. al. are obviously correct in painting those who have significantly more confidence in Mueller’s report lending more support to its principal “possibilities” as holding obviously-weaker positions than he? No. Not at all. And to do so, in my estimate, is to aggressively play it safe with a generally-more-likely hypothesis for the purpose of being able to say “see, I told you so.”
Douthat Leverages Evidence Against His Position as Though it Were For It
Douthat seems to share the common (and well-justified, in my opinion) belief that Trump et. al. are the kind of folks likely to seek to engage incompetently in conspiracy with the Russian government as evidence that… they are probably too inept to have done so? This seems wrongheaded to me for a couple of reasons:
- Rather than taking the fact (that his readers will agree without hesitation) that they are “fools and wannabes, who might have been willing to play games with spies and hackers, but who mostly just bumbled around haplessly on the sidelines” as evidence FOR the hypothesis that this particular administration is more likely than most others to have actually conspired with a foreign power against the American democratic process, he twists it to turn it against the hypothesis.
- Surely, Douthat knows as well as any that conspiracy (the closest criminal analogue to “collusion” that could come from this) does not require that either side effectively carry any of it out; it requires only that both sides intended to do so.
If we all agree this administration is a group of bumbling fools who were willing “to play games with spies and hackers”, then we all agree they were more likely than others throughout history to have attempted to do so.
What is going on here? This seems like straightforward debate-101 rhetorical shenanigans to me. Again, Douthat looks to be sandbagging and hoping for his conclusion, painted far more strongly than it ought to be, to turn out correct so that he could act as though he were the totally sane one all along and others who disagreed were just totally obviously wrong.
Sidebar: I see this in my official capacities all the time. Perhaps I am fortunate to get the confidence from my job to fight against it as I get to see frequently that the evidence, when it leads to improbable conclusions, often turns out to be representative of an improbable situation. With that confidence, I won’t be (and neither should anyone be) disparaged if I lay all this out in this very manner and continue to support what is ultimately revealed to be an incorrect hypothesis. With sufficient evidence, I will of course own my fallibility, but my point in this article is that, thus far, I do not see any good reason to believe that my position is less rational than Douthat’s safe lean towards a big nothingburger, as it were. And most importantly: it is the set of insidious repeated suggestions which drip with anticipation of future safe-bet confirmation streaming from his super-strong-support-for-one-side-while-riding-the-middle-of-the-fence approach that irks me so.
So, if we’re all being reasonable so far, it looks to me like Douthat is 0 for 2 on his major points while acting as though his position is super plain and obvious (but totally “officially maintaining” his “agnosticism”! Can’t critique him later if you’re right! He’ll totally pwn you endlessly later if his generally-safe bet is right, though).
Douthat Claims Cohen’s Testimony Substantially Damages the Likelihood of Conspiracy
Douthat’s leading analysis of Cohen’s testimony in defense of his view that the testimony contributes substantially to lowering the likelihood of accuracy in the Steele Dossier is that, upon receiving a call and being informed of the hacked emails’ impending dump, Trump said “something to the effect of stating ‘wouldn’t that be great.'” Douthat claims, weirdly, that “This doesn’t seem like how a years-long collaboration with Russian intelligence would unfold.” And yet:
- Cohen’s testimony indicates that Stone, who is now indicted for lying to the FBI on this very matter, claimed to have learned from a conversation he had with Assange of Wikileaks, about this matter and did inform Trump about it. This would strengthen the credibility of the Dossier, not detract from it.
- Why would Douthat seem to act as though this simple paraphrase from Cohen would fail to resemble something that might happen during collaboration with Russian intelligence? If it is true that Trump did manage to do this and hide it from Cohen, wouldn’t this sort of snide remark be exactly the kind of wink-wink admission to Cohen of Trump’s involvement that we WOULD expect?
I’m not saying this is strong evidence in support of the Steele Dossier’s content. I’m just saying it’s in no way at all, as far as I can see, any evidence against it. But, here again, Douthat is presenting it in an unwarranted “C’mon, really?” tone. It makes no sense to me (minus my hypothetical explanation of his ulterior motive, of course).
However, one thing Douthat gets right, of course, is that Cohen’s assertions that he:
- Never went to Pargue to meet with Russian intelligence
- Never heard anything about Kompromat
- Never had any direct evidence of conspiracy (or “collusion”) between Trump et. al. and the Russian government
Certainly provide some counter-evidence to at least one part of one principal claim in the Steele Dossier. Of course, the testimony also supports (in conjunction with the FBI indictment against him) the hypothesis that Stone was actively involved in discussions regarding the hacked email content with Wikileaks (now understood to have been coordinating with the Russian government). It doesn’t offer a lot of support, but it is some, and it corroborates information contained in the FBI indictment. Swapping out Cohen for Stone really doesn’t do much damage to the Dossier at all.
In fact, Cohen’s refutation of his involvement tying in corroborating evidence for that accusation being made against Stone, whom we now know with a pretty high degree of confidence did lie about his contacts with Wikileaks (and he did formerly admit to having a “perfectly-legal back-channel” with Assange AND that he and Assange discussed the emails), pretty much serves merely to remind us that we have two huge justifications for anticipating that the Mueller report will include some very substantial and damaging information:
- Stone first publicly claimed, and then subsequently denied to the FBI, that he communicated with Assange regarding the hacked DNC emails. The FBI acquired documentation from a raid against him which he said did not exist.
- Stone lied about this for a reason. In my mind, it is unlikely that this reason is for any reason other than Stone’s expectation that the nature of these contacts would land him in significant criminal jeopardy.
- The FBI has provided ample evidence that Stone lied in its indictment.
- The FBI has even further evidence not yet made available to us regarding just what he was hiding through his lies about this.
- If 1, 2, 3, and 4, well then..
Again, not conclusive, of course, on the collusion/conspiracy front, but certainly this section of my post seems again to indicate that Douthat’s assessment inappropriately weakens expectations of the Mueller report’s content rather than, well, strengthens them a significant and appropriate bit.
Ignoring the extremely significant developments already made known to the public (e.g. Stone) which advance expectations of the Dossier’s credibility and the manner in which this testimony corroborates them in favor of harping on the testifying individual’s denial of involvement amounting to a refutation of one part of one principal claim made by that Dossier which still has very strong support (below) from other sources… all to conclude that we should now have the lowest-expectations ever based on the available evidence..
Douthat Seemingly Ignores Known Evidence About Manifort’s Russian Contacts
Douthat glosses the fact that we know Manafort shared campaign polling data with a Russian-intelligence-linked figure. He proceeds from that gloss directly into a series of nothing-but-assertion sentences that we ought to view the Dossier more skeptically.
What the heck? Why on EARTH would Manafort share campaign polling data with anyone linked to the Russian government? How is that NOT massively curious evidence that, alone, strengthens the expectation that Trump et. al. engaged in conspiracy or collusion with the Russians in ways that directly involve the 2016 election? All the more so when we also heard in Cohen’s testimony (which Douthat completely ignored) that Trump actually paid and directed Cohen to rig online polls in his favor.
So we have as-yet-unrefuted evidence that:
- [From Cohen’s testimony] Trump directed Cohen to rig online polls in his favor in an attempt to cause the American public to believe more support existed for Trump than actually did.
- [From the Dossier, the FBI, and the CIA] Russia did spend massive resources on a large-scale information war in an attempt to cause the American public to believe more support existed for Trump than actually did.
- [From the Dossier] Paul Manafort worked directly with the Russians to further the acts alleged in (2).
- [From the FBI] Paul Manafort is known to have shared polling data with individuals known to be connected to Russian intelligence.
- If Manafort were supporting the acts alleged in (2) which Manafort is accused of supporting in (3), we would expect him to do exactly the kind of thing alleged in (4).
Again, how anyone can view all of this and think there’s just not much of a chance that Trump et. al. conspired with the Russians to engage in that information war, I just do not understand. It is obviously true to anyone that Trump is a horrible, horrible liar. He exaggerates and lies whenever he can to his benefit. He specifically does this in a way that generates a false appearance of support for his lies. “EVERYONE believes X!” “ALL THE PEOPLE ARE SAYING Y!!” He does this because he understands that creating a public impression of agreement regarding those lies ramps up support for them. It’s how he runs his businesses:
- Build a mediocre product (i.e. any trump property)
- Ensure the public thinks EVERYONE thinks those properties ARE THE GREATEST EVER.
- Attract folks to his business by (2) in spite of (1).
We have tons of evidence that this has occurred. And this is exactly the kind of scheme in which the American Intelligence Community believes Russia to have engaged. And Paul Manafort was caught sharing polling data with them. AND Paul Manafort has a history of political shenanigans exactly like this. AND Paul Manafort’s history has been sufficiently suspect to warrant FBI wiretaps against him even before his involvement with Trump!
I just don’t get how a reasonable person looks at this and thinks: “Eh, they probably weren’t involved in Russia’s information wars.”
Douthat Ignored Tons of Other Supporting Evidence
Just a brief run-down because I’m kinda done with this:
- Trump has been bailed out of financial trouble by payments from Russian-based entities which have attracted the interest of the US Government on account of their similarity to money-laundering schemes.
- Trump ran the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2016 amid all this, claiming to have received gifts from Putin.
- Manafort worked for a decade for a Ukrainian political party which was supported by the Kremlin.
- Both prior to AND after his work with Trump, the FBI was granted surveillance warrants against Manafort (first for (3), then during his work with Trump).
I dunno. I’m done. There’s a whole crapload more, but there’s some of the most significant stuff that wasn’t included in this article thus far.
So In Conclusion… Why is it so Outlandish to Believe a Russian Conspiracy Likely Took Place?
Point is: I don’t know why so many very rational people are acting as though it’s so wildly irrational to believe and expect that the Mueller report will include extremely damning evidence in support of the hypothesis that Trump and his team conspired with the Russian government to benefit Trump and his team at the expense of the United States of America.