Noah Millman wrote:

In retrospect, what suffered the most lasting damage from the terrorist attacks of ten years ago was my belief in my own rationality. I believed that I was thinking things through seriously, and coming to difficult but true conclusions about what had happened, what would happen, what must happen. Here is part of what I wrote, to friends and family, several days later:
Our President has made it clear: we are at war. I do not anticipate that this will be a short or an easy war. Our enemy has operations in dozens of countries, including this one. He is supported, out of enthusiasm or fear, by many governments among our purported friends as well as among our enemies. He has shown his cunning, his ruthlessness, and most of all his patience, in his successful plot to kill thousands of innocents and bring down the symbols of our civilization. And in striking at him, as we must, we will bring down others who will in turn seek their own vengeance upon us.
There is not a single factual assertion in that paragraph that I had any reason to believe I could substantiate. I did not know anything about the enemy. I had no idea whether or not there were “operations” in dozens of countries – I don’t even know what I meant by “operations.” I know what I was referring to with the business about being “supported” by friends and enemies, but “support” is a deliberately fuzzy word; I wouldn’t have used it if I was trying to make a concrete assertion with clear implications. The purpose of that assertion, like everything else, was to build up my first assertion. We were at war. And it wouldn’t be short or easy. Because that conclusion, though grim, was one that imparted meaning to the murder of 3,000 people. I thought I was being serious – examining the facts, calculating the likely negative consequences of necessary action, preparing myself for the unfortunate necessities of life. But I wasn’t doing anything of the kind. I was engaged in a search for meaning in which reason was purely instrumental.

Link (which includes additional good retrospectives) thanks to Ampersand.

This article may have more political content than is suitable for LW-- if you'd rather discuss it elsewhere, I've linked it at my blog. I've posted about it here because it's an excellent example of updating and of recognizing motivated cognition even if well after the fact.


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Similar, but importantly different.
Novalis' link is my favorite piece of immediately post-9/11 writing, but it's a view completely from the outside of the process. My link is about what it looks like from the inside.

Fight Club was probably a better movie to watch to understand the people who attacked us than The Battle of Algiers. All the efforts to ascribe a meaning to the events – the terrorists hate our freedom, or they hate that we are supporting dictators in their region, or they hate that we are infidels, or they hate that we are engaged in wars of aggression against Muslims, or whatever – were responses to our need for meaning rather than to the events themselves.

Just as some say "they hate that we are supporting dictators in their region" and some say "they hate that we are infidels", Millman says "Fight Club was probably a better movie to watch to understand the people who attacked us than The Battle of Algiers."

Millman has a particular political position. From the inside, one's political position looks like just common sense, above the petty politics of trying to fit every event into a narrow world view, which is what the other sides do.

It is hard for him to see this as a political position because it identifies multiple other political positions, rather than just one (which would be a sure sign of it being political). This is analogous to the "d... (read more)

From the inside, one's political position looks like just common sense, above the petty politics of trying to fit every event into a narrow world view, which is what the other sides do.

"Ideologies are like accents. Other people have them, you just talk normal." — Matt Stoller

Which is a shame, really, because accents are awesome. I want one. Preferably Scottish.
It took a significant effort of will to realize that I pronounce water as though it has two r's. I say warter-- it's a Delaware/Philadelphia accent. And even though it looks very odd in print, it sounds completely normal to me. 'Wahter' (the way most people pronounce it, even though it also looks very odd in print) doesn't sound as wet to me.
How about "comb"? How is that pronounced?
I pronounce the b. Is that the question? I didn't know there was more than one way to pronounce it. Also, vase vs. vahse. I think of vase as normal and vahse as affected. I try to keep a grip and realise that people generally say vahse because they think it's normal, not because they're showing off, and the same for aahnt meaning aunt. In at least one dialect (sorry, I don't know which one), both vase and vahse are used, with vahse meaning a fancy vase.
Wow! Here in Australia it's like 'home'. No b. (That might be Australia though; we say water like "w-aww-tah")
I've checked more carefully. I do pronounce the b, but I think it's a softer/briefer b than I use to finish Bob.
Yes, I can tell you do, because you don't spell it 'vayse'.
Upvoted because I had to go back and reread to figure out what you were saying. ("I think of vase as normal and vahse as affected." I didn't even notice because I think of 'vayse' as normal as well.)

Yeah, as a supporter of both wars that occurred as a result of this, a lot of us clearly fucked up very badly. Like really badly. Even if I can still see Afganistan as the right thing to do, the totality was clearly something which I supported and which was clearly the wrong thing to do.

And not just the United States but all of humanity is paying for the consequences. Not just in the forms of massive numbers of people dead but also a terrible economy and all sorts of science that isn't getting funded. In a world without the Iraq war, things like the Jam... (read more)

It's important to avoid the if-not-for-the-worst-waste-of-money-in-the-budget-the-most-worthy-unfunded-program-would-have-been-funded argument.
3Paul Crowley12y
The argument here is that in truth, without the worst-waste-of-money the funds would have been spent on some way which would have been better, but would not have been the way the speaker thinks is best: it wouldn't all have gone to eg that science program. Is that right?
Basically. The wars are largely funded through separate bills, so the deficit probably wouldn't have been incurred at all. Other similar bills that were limited largely by total debt, such as the bailout and stimulus bills, would probably have been the most different had the wars not been waged. I think of the Iraq war as more "a waste of money" than something causing "massive numbers of people dead." The succession after Saddam was not something that was ever going to go well, which is what what actually happened should be compared to.
2Paul Crowley12y
Something over 3% of the population was killed as a result, by our best estimates. It would be good if a similar survey was done for Libya so we could compare different approaches to regime change.
The cases are very different.
It could have gone a lot better than it did. After the US Gov deposed Saddam, they disbanded the Iraqi army. The Iraqi army was composed of evil, angry people with their own hidden arsenals - the sort of people we really, really don't want to have out of work and stirring up trouble. If we had given them all busywork desk jobs instead, at least for little while, I think that most of the violence would have been averted.
I agree that a well-run invasion and reconstruction would have been substantially better than what happened. I do not think that an unguided, sudden power vacuum would have been substantially better than what happened.
Can you explain why? This seems like a perfectly normal and reasonable sort of argument about dividing a limited pool of resources wisely.
In politics, the argument is perfectly normal and unreasonable. It means (borrowing the idea from novalis' link): "This program was the worst waste of money in the budget, because it was against my political views. It was only funded because of people abusing the process to advance political views different from mine. If it was not for this program, so many other programs could have been funded which agree with my political views and were only blocked for political reasons."
You assume that the government would divide the pool wisely. (Not that it necessarily wouldn't, but not that it necessarily would either.)
I'm not sure if this is really the way upvotes are supposed to be used, but I voted you up from -1 because I don't think "Can you explain why?" is a question that should be censured.
I appreciate this. I genuinely didn't (still don't ) understand what lessdazed was trying to say, and it would be a really bad thing if downvoting ignorance became common practice.
I will try again. Counterfactually, if the US budget hadn't included (pick expenditure), (unrelated expenditure that was't made) probably would not have been made, and (unrelated cut that was made) probably would have been made anyway. As the US engages in deficit spending, whatever program you think most important that wasn't funded, if Congress collectively agreed with you, it would have been funded regardless of other spending. An argument for a program is only weakly an argument against all other programs. If a program is actually bad, it is suspicious that the worst that can be said about it is that it isn't as worthy an expenditure of the most valuable unfunded thing - that's like arguing that someone is sickly because they can't lift more weight than the strongest weightlifter in their city. If someone is truly sickly, there really should be a better argument showing that than that particular measure of their strength.
The way I understood it was that "the-worst-waste-of-money" (and possibly "the-most-worthy-unfunded-program" as well) is a label applied in retrospect. To fund the most worthy unfunded program, you'd need to unfund one of 100 programs. It's likely that of the 100 programs, one will turn out to be an abject failure, but it's hard to predict which one it will be ahead of time. Conversely, just because the unfunded program seems most worthy now, doesn't mean that earlier one could have predicted the need for it.
Right. But we're seeing budget cuts across the board now, and many of these programs are tiny programs which were being funded. When one for example compares things to say the mid 1990s, it does seem that while one can't guarantee that all these programs would be funded it seems like a safe bet that more of them would be funded than are now.
Still it seems reasonable to point out the opportunity cost of spending a couple trillion dollars on a misguided war effort. It is true that the economy would be in better shape without those expenditures, and it's also probably true that US federal budget constraints would be different as a result. (However it may still have been spent elsewhere instead of scientific research.)
Aside from the problem of using arguments to support pre-chosen conclusions, my error in supporting the wars had something to do with the importance of choosing good reference classes. I was largely influenced by arguments that nothing good could come of war-- and I knew that WWII had a pretty good outcome, so that argument that nothing good could happen was obviously unsound. I'm sufficiently allergic to right-wing writing that I didn't give myself a chance to pick holes in the right-wing arguments. Besides, Saddam Hussein really was kind of like Hitler. He really did conquer Kuwait and commit mass murder against Kurds. However, I've since come to the conclusion that the good outcome from WWII was probably an anomaly-- the care taken after the war was the result of a very sharp lesson about how not taking care led to WWII. Viet Nam was closer to the right reference class than WWII, I think. Are there any discussions about the art of choosing good reference classes?

Why can't WWII and Vietnam be both in the right reference class? The correct reference class needn't be uniform in the relevant properties. Perhaps it is impossible to conclusively decide about the net effect of an incoming war using only reference class statistics.

One major difference is that Hitler's attempts at conquest and mass murder were in progress when the Allies went to war against him; Saddam Hussein's had ended over a decade before.
Another difference is that Hitler's program of ethnic cleansing was not cited as a cause for war at the time that the allies went to war. That happened after the war.
By what metric can it be said that WWII had a "good outcome"?!
The destruction of two oppressive empires which were engaging in largescale genocide would be the most obvious success criterion. A more cynical point is that for the US at least it really did help the economy. Before the US entered the war we were still in the Great Depression. Things were picking up but not by that much. Also, a major result of the war was funding which went into research that lead to a lot of useful new technologies like radar.

The destruction of two oppressive empires which were engaging in largescale genocide would be the most obvious success criterion.

Yeah, but were these oppressive empires really engaging in largescale genocide before WWII or was it (partially) caused by WWII? If the latter, then that isn't a point in its favor. If I remember correctly, before WWII the "final solution" was supposed to be the Madagascar Plan, not The Holocaust. The only oppressive empire I can think of that was engaging in largescale genocide pre-WWII survived the war (and even expanded its power as a result of it).

A more cynical point is that for the US at least it really did help the economy.

This is definitely not a consensus amongst economists. For instance:

It is commonly argued that World War II provided the stimulus that brought the American economy out of the Great Depression. The number of unemployed workers declined by 7,050,000 between 1940 and 1943, but the number in military service rose by 8,590,000. The reduction in unemployment can be explained by the draft, not by the economic recovery. The rise in real GNP presents similar problems. Most estimates show declines in real consumption spe

... (read more)
The Madagascar Plan was never seriously considered, and when it was considered the war had already started (they were discussing it in 1940). People were already being placed in concentration camps in 1939. Moreover, the Madagascar Plan was a plan specifically for dealing with the Jews. The gays, Roma and other groups were not covered under that. Whether the Holocaust of the Jews was what the Nazi high command intended from the beginning is a matter of some debate. But given their general attitude even if Britain had quickly fallen, I have trouble believing that the Nazis would have stopped with putting all the European Jews on Madagascar, aside from the terrible loss of life that would have occurred in forcively adding millions of people to an environment with minimal infrastructure to support them. Your point about the Soviet Union seems to be a valid one. There is a more general problem here: There are some occasions where defensive wars need to be fought simply because if one doesn't then the enemy will wind up at your doorstep. World War 2 seems to have been such a war for much of Europe. That's less so for the US. But the overall point that having the war was better than the alternatives seems clear.
I'm sure you know this, but "WWII" is not a verb. The United States did not decide "to WWII" instead of "not WWIIing". Japan aggressively invaded neighboring countries for resources and engaged in ethnic cleansing. The United States imposed a gradually more strict embargo of military and dual-use materials, including eventually oil. This precipitated the Japanese invasion of the oil rich Dutch East Indies and the attack on Pearl Harbor to cover for it. If the question is "What should Japan have done?" the answer is "Not try to conquer Asia and not attack Pearl Harbor." If the question is "What should the United States have done?" the answer is not "Not try to conquer Asia and not attack Pearl Harbor." The answer might be "Disband the Pacific Fleet," or "Pay Japan not to invade its neighbors," or "Ally with Japan against Britain," or "Preemptively invade Japan," etc., but if you're trying to direct Japanese fleet movements or German concentration camp policy or the like, you're not engaged in an exercise showing the United States should have done anything differently.
It's impossible to prove that WWII did not prevent the development of arbitrarily wonderful technology. It is also impossible to prove that the Great Depression would have ended in the absence of an economic event like WWII.
I'm not asking for proof; I'm asking for evidence. Proof is way too high a standard for almost anything outside of logic or mathematics.
We're talking about what might have happened if WWII didn't get fought. No reasonable person would demand mathematical precision under those circumstances, and you're assuming I've done just that. This kind of pedantry makes it feel like work to talk to you any further.
Not just that the two oppressive and expanding empires were destroyed, but the conquered countries came out in pretty good shape but not in a position to seek empire again any time soon. In what sense is this not a good outcome?
Lots of people died.

The best policy has some bad repercussions.

The worst policy has some good consequences.

"Don't invade Poland," was not a coherent American strategy for ensuring a peaceful Europe. It was only such for Germany. Likewise "Don't fly hijacked planes into buildings," isn't a policy that the United States needs to implement.

American strategy informs American actions and can only indirectly influence non-American actions.

The Axis was defeated, and the reconstruction brought Europe to the West of the Iron Curtain back to a high standard of living in a relatively short period of time, without the lingering hostilities and hardship which led to a second world war so shortly after the first one.
Comparison to other plausible outcomes.
Such as...?
Since we're talking about America's choice here, the plausible outcomes of the Lindbergh America-First strategy (rather than starting to help the Allies even before Pearl Harbor) look like a Nazi-dominated Europe, possibly including Britain, and a Japanese-ruled China. Germany-USSR was a wild card in any case, but you have to acknowledge the possibility of atrocities on even a wider scale than we saw. Of course, World War II was almost certainly worse for the world than what would have happened if the Nazis had never tried to conquer Europe. But the choice of whether to fight seems to have been made correctly on the part of the US and UK.
I would go further than that. As I recall, in Mein Kampf, Hitler laid out the expectation that the next stage of the Third Reich, to be carried out by his successor after Europe was pacified, was to make war on the United States to establish global domination. Given that Hitler more or less actually did the stuff he wrote that he was going to until he was stopped, it seems reasonable to conclude that the alternative to US/Allies v. Germany in Europe was US v. Germany/puppets in North America a decade or two later.
Not necessarily so. In all cases, Germany and Japan chose to fight.
The US froze German and Japanese assets a few months before the bombings in Pearl Harbor - even this was just one in a long-series of actions that declared the US as an Allied power before Congress allowed it to be involved in the shooting war.
It seems to me like that fits into my narrative, as elsewhere on the page I said: Thank you for adding that fact, as I didn't know it, but if you mean to disagree you'll have to elaborate.
I would argue that the US, Germany and Japan were on a path to war without more choice for any one of the parties. Both sides were making overt hostile actions, which provoked escalating responses. I think freezing a country's assets is as blatant an act of aggression as interdicting shipments of material aid to Britain. I don't know if we disagree, but I disagree with your wording. I'd say the US, Germany and Japan all chose to fight.
This strikes me as an example of the fallacy of gray together with a slice of pretending to be wise by suspending judgement.
I'm not suspending judgement. My judgement is that leadership in the US, Japan and Germany all intended to be at war with each other for a long time before they made it come about.
You should unpack this. Surely it was always conditional. Had all nations disbanded their armies and surrendered to Germany, you think they would have declared war on the United States, their tributary? Once we've established that each was willing to go to war contingent on the actions of other nations - exactly like every nation I can think of in the history of humanity - we can compare the conditions each had. I agree that categorizing those three nations together is connotatively wrong because all nations belong in the group you describe, membership in it signifies nothing. This is the fallacy of gray.
It is not clear to me that the US would have intervened had Japan attacked the Dutch East Indies or even Australia. If this is true and Japan had thought it likely that the US would not intervene, I think US paticipation could have been avoided. All chose to fight contingent on certain actions of others, but the same is true of Ghandi "I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence," and basically every other entity. Each just had different conditions of others before it came to that action from them. For Germany, if adjacent countries had certain territory and did not surrender it, they would invade. For Japan, they would rather not invade the Allies in the East, but would if the US cut off oil. For the US, if Japan waged sufficient amounts of aggressive war, military supplies would be cut off. If more aggressive war was waged, even oil would not be traded. I'd say "the US, Germany and Japan all chose to fight," and this bare fact is of basically no importance. "Both sides were making overt hostile actions," is a type of thing that is true whether one country decides to only import product X when its manufacture complies with sufficient environmental and labor protections or one country demands the cession of most of another's territory on threat of invasion, whether a country wages restricted war by blowing up imports to a country but nothing in the country doing the exporting, or it freezes certain foreign assets suspected of facilitating money laundering.
At least WW2 ended.
In 1989 for Poland.
Yikes. But then the two Koreas are technically still at war IIRC.
I realize that this isn't exactly what you asked, but I would say that reasoning by historical analogy is setting yourself up for failure in general. You are almost always going to elide some important contemporary details. There is usually plenty of other evidence to weigh without adding in history, so why do so? On a separate note, it's pretty clear that Americans' relatively favorable view of the use of force is related to the fact that the only two wars that loom large in the national consciousness are World War II, which almost everyone in the US views as a just war, and the Civil War, which almost everyone in the US agrees was a just war (though opinions differ on which side was fighting the just fight). World War I, which had a major impact on European consciousness as an extremely bloody and completely pointless war, isn't really remembered in the US, and Viet Nam is a tribal mindkiller to this day.
I disagree. I think the Vietnam war does loom very large in American's consciousness. It is the counterpoint to WW II. I remember Cheney complaining in an interview that no one could even wait for the Iraq war to be underway before asking "is it Vietnam yet?". In fact there was a LOT of vocal skepticism about the war in Iraq before it started and as it unfolded.
Do people think of that war as anti-just, non-just, not-just-enough, or just but lost? I think many see it as each of those four.
Yes I think all of those are pretty common views, although the question of justness itself maybe isn't so important in terms of an enduring reaction to that war. To the extent Vietnam was still on people's minds at the beginning of this century perhaps it was as a more generalized example of many ways in which a war can become confounded and much more costly than we would like to think possible. Before Vietnam who could have thought a small country of such limited resources could successfully defy the greatest superpower ever known to the world? In contrast at the start of the Iraq war most people knew it was at least possible, and it seems more than one apologist for the war had to answer the question of "how Iraq isn't Vietnam". By this time we knew that simply calculating the strategic simplicity with which we would dominate the seas, skies and (broadly) land was insufficient.
To be fair, said country was being backed by the second greatest superpower in the world.
I agree that you can't reason by historical analogy alone, but do you think historical analogies should be left out entirely? I strongly agree that American character has been shaped by the feeling of just war, and if one identifies with the north, then with victory in just wars.
Not doing it, or averaging other reference classes into a combined model. Specifics are more important. That was far too specific to be a reference class, it's a reasonably analogous case.
That's a bit confusing. You've got at least 20 IQ points on me, and far more practice at bayescraft; but I saw our disproportionate response and its failure coming by that afternoon. Cringely is hardly the most prescient of pundits; even in his focus of technology. But two days later, he described in detail the coming disaster America would choose. Did we simply get lucky with a temporarily epistemically useful ideology?
I don't know where you are getting the 20 IQ point estimate from, but I doubt it. I also don't have much practice at "Bayescraft" and certainly didn't a decade ago. Cringely's response seems to only focus on the airline aspects not the war issues. I'm not sure what ideology you are referring to in this context. In any event, I suspect that people here overestimate both the advantage of intelligence and the advantage of rationality in making predictions about the world.
Overestimate the advantages to making the best prediction in a field of predictors, are right about the advantages to avoid making the worst prediction in a field of predictors.
I don't understand what you mean. Can you expand?
Rationality prevents you from thinking a Soviet invasion of Poland followed by a break in US-Soviet relations is more likely than a break in US-Soviet relations. It doesn't help much in estimating either.
Would you say that the wars as such were wrong, or just that the post-major-combat part was handled in a bad way? I mean, thing might have looked quite different if some different decisions had been made after the old regimes were toppled. Regardless, I much respect you for publicly stating you changed your mind after new evidence came in.
I'm not very sure about whether the wars as such were wrong, but I do think the evidence suggests that people wildly underestimate the costs of war.
Right and wrong are difficult concepts here; are we looking at the stated goals, the (hidden) real intentions, the outcomes... to what extent do tactical mistakes influence this. I mean, suppose things had stabilized after major combat; I bet many more people would consider it a 'just war' then, without such outrages like Abu Graib or the helicopter shooting video. It's interesting to see how some of the problems on the tactical level seem to have influenced the Libian approach, where western powers are pushing their agendas and determine the outcome of the conflict, but keep their hands relatively clean. Finally, I'm impressed how well most LW'ers handle such a 'mind killer' topic.
I'm pleased, too.
How does Abu Graib qualify as an outrage compared to the kinds of things that are typically done by all sides, even in wars you'd probably consider just? For that matter compare Abu Graib with how our enemies in this routinely treat captives.
I was referring to Abu Graib because of the big public reaction to that - not because it was the worst thing ever per se, but because of the scandal it caused due to these photos. That damaged the war effort quite a bit, I think. I don't think "the other side does it too, and worse" is a valid justification. Even putting the ethics aside, it is very bad PR, makes you loose support and makes reaching your goals so much harder.
So you agree that the media reaction to Abu Graib cannot be justified as a rational reaction to those photos. The question thus arises why the media reaction was what it was? I believe the answer is because a lot of people in the media were already opposed to the war and thus were looking for any excuse to show it in a negative light.
Sure, media have their biases - one way or the other; the biggest one is probably that focus primarily on what their readers find noteworthy -- so they pay more attention to some celebrity's new dress rather than to a thousand deaths in Africa. One reason that excesses on "our side" are more noteworthy is because we tend to believe that we have higher standards than the enemy. Thus, it is more noteworthy when some on our team do not live up them. Also, having incriminating photos did not really help... In any case, I'd say that any politically-motivated selection bias is the least of the problems, compared with the fate of those that were severely abused or worse.
Also, there's good reason to believe that torture degrades the intelligence apparatus that uses it. Torture seems easier than rational methods, and also feeds false information into the system.
It was gratuitous. This is unlike other situations with worse consequences like death, such as when an explosive goes off-course or a target is misidentified.
The examples I had in mind were also gratuitous. This is an example of what I was referring to. Or to use an example from the Iraq war, consider that at the time standard operating procedure from the insurgents was to behead captives on camera.
I don't have the exact quote, but "War is letting terrified 19 year olds with heavy weapons make your foreign policy".
That's a solid outside view reference class.
I'm not sure if the post major combat decisions were the only problem. That obviously was a major part of what happened. But a major issue appears to be that we simply didn't have the resources to really handle two wars at once. And it seems that even with the bad management decisions made in Iraq, the Iraqi people were not nearly as willing to cooperate with the US or ready to establish democracy as I thought. The complete and utter absence of WMDs also made a major argument for the war completely incorrect. It is possible that with much more careful decision making things might have turned out very differently. It is in general difficult in any complicated situation to pick any specific thing and say "but for that, things would have gone well". Even if the main cause was post-invasion decisions, the bottom line is that people like me implicitly trusted our armies and politicians to make good decisions in that context and they didn't. There's another issue that also doesn't come up much: there's a certain fraction of the population which wasn't in favor of the Iraq war, and they like saying "I told you so" but in fact they didn't. Most of their argument was meaningless slogans. Iraq wasn't about blood for oil. And there wasn't an intrinsic moral problem with it. Some of the people against the war expressed worry about a Vietnam type situation, but even then that's not what happened. What has gone wrong in Iraq has only a superficial resemblance to what went wrong in Vietnam. I almost want to shout at those people "look! With all the motivated cognition that was happening why couldn't you actually hit on what actually might happen?" But that may be simply due to an emotional need to feel like things aren't completely the fault of people like me.
I'd be careful about that kind of thinking. When you get something wrong, dismissing the people who got it right as low status and wrongheaded is a convenient way to avoid updating on the evidence. A bit under half the US population opposed the Iraq war, including many prominent people (Senators, opinion writers, policy analysts, etc.), but you seem to be focusing on a small fraction of opponents ("no blood for oil", war is intrinsically wrong) who mostly opposed the Afghanistan war as well, which puts them in much narrower company. Arguments made against the Iraq war at the time (many of which are at least hinted at in this short piece by Dahlia Lithwick) included: 1. that an immediate war was not necessary because Saddam Hussein was not on the verge of doing terrible things 2. that the US was likely to face a lengthy and costly military engagement 3. that the new Iraqi government which replaced Hussein's regime wasn't likely to be a very good one (liberal, democratic, effective at maintaining peace & stability, etc.) 4. that the war would be led by the Bush administration so we'd end up with the outcomes of the Bush administration's war, not the imaginary Iraq war that you might want (this is one response to djcb's point: if you can predict in advance that things will be handled badly, then that means that the war as such is a bad idea) 5. that much of the available information about the reasons for war was coming from the Bush administration, and there were reasons to be suspicious about significant parts of the case that they were making, which cast doubt on the foundations of the whole enterprise (see also Daniel Davies on this point) But the simplest case is just that war is a destructive, costly thing, so if you're going to get involved in one you'd better have a damn good reason and you'd better get it right. The war needs to accomplish something at least as big as its cost, which means the bigger the war the h
I really don't think this is the place to relitigate the Iraq War, but for the record, there were people opposing the war for reasons that were a)not easily compressed into slogans and b)to a greater or lesser degree validated by the evidence. For my part, I opposed the Iraq war despite overestimating the probability that Iraq had functional "weapons of mass destruction" (I mean chemical and biological here, and the former really shouldn't be considered WMD, but such is the terminology) because I expected that it would produce regional geopolitical chaos afterward. At the time, I underestimated the amount of sectarian conflict and (so far at least) overestimated the degree of Kurdish-Arab ethnic violence. But I was not and am not an expert on the area. Other people really did get this right at the time.
Upvoted. I certainly don't disagree with the point that some people got it right. The concern is more that the fraction that got the right objection seems to have been a small fraction of the people opposing entry.
I'm not so sure about that. Certainly if I reasoned from the positions of my own immediate social circle, I would get an unrepresentative picture of what people opposed in general believed, but I can say that those who could articulate clear and sensible reasons for not going to war which were vindicated by time were not in short supply, even at anti-war rallies where the actual talking points were more along the lines of "no blood for oil."
The main problem with motivated cognition isn't that it fails to find true results, the main problems are that it can't distinguish between true and false and is blind to contrary evidence.
I suggest evaluating a point of view by its best proponents, not its worst or even its average proponents. Andrew Rilstone got a lot right, ten years ago:
Right. That's an obvious failure mode that occurred here. Unfortunately, it isn't always clear which proponents of a view are actually the best. Moreover, sometimes the best proponents get lost in the noise of the less intelligent/rational/informed proponents. This makes me worry how often this occurs. To use a really extreme example: maybe the Young Earth Creationists have some really slamdunk argument but I'm not noticing it because it is so rarely used? The failure that occurred in this context doesn't seem to be that large a scale of getting reality just wrong but it does create those sorts of worries. The scale of the post 9/11 failure, not just by me, but my lots of people, some quite smart is frightening. I can look back and see specific things that went wrong but how much of even that is hindsight bias? How many big decision are we making even now that I support that in a decade will seem incredibly wrong and stupid?
I feel much the same way about the financial crisis.
What does this mean, exactly? Hopefully the number of big decisions you support where you estimate the probability that things will be better than the counterfactual without the big decision is one is zero. There's more to it than the probability things will be better - the worst thing that can happen is a lot worse than the best thing that can happen is good. Those last sentences are both atrocious. If I think of a better way to say that I will edit it.
You have more to lose than you stand to gain, maybe? Edit: Well yes, I meant 'you' in the generic sense. "There is always more to lose than stands to be gained," perhaps. (That's a horribly depressing worldview, incidentally. Which isn't to say it's wrong, just that... it's not the kind of thought you could use to cast the True Patronus Charm, if you know what I mean.)
A good recent article.
That's an interesting article and I thank you for linking it, but the issue was never the truth value of any particular factual claim. It's just, when I offer as a synthesis of your point "You have more to lose than you stand to gain" and your response amounts to "Too specific", I have to think you're actually saying something along the lines of "All altruism is counterproductive" which is horribly depressing whether or not it's true. Again, I'm just remarking on how something appears to me. And maybe implicitly asking you to refute the point or explain how you deal with it.
It's not all counterproductive, I'm not saying that for two reasons. First, I was only speaking about decision making and considering the odds of various future outcomes. Obviously, no mater what one's intentions are or how poorly decisions are made, things may work out very well. Second, I am claiming that it is usually the case that there is more to lose than to gain, that building things takes more work than destroying things. It can still be best to be altruistic. Consider two six sided dice, one with sides numbered 6-5-4-2-1-1 and one with sides numbered 3-2-2-2-2-2. If I offered you dollars equal to the result of the roll of a die, and the opportunity to roll either, you would probably choose to roll the first, even though its worst case scenario is worse.
That's too personal, I'm trying to say something that applies at every scale and every level of selflessness. Under Saddam, hundreds of Iraqis annually were tortured, raped, and/or murdered for intimidation, crimes of their relatives, fun, punishment for losing international sports games, etc. Made into amputees, put into sausage machines alive, and on and on. But the population was over 30,000,000, and the best plausible government wouldn't have the best justice system either. So war risks all those millions' lives. Sadaam wasn't killing millions annually - even without the low intensity war of the no-fly zones he probably wouldn't have killed more than hundreds of thousands, as he had done in the past. If he had had many chemical weapons, it could have been really, really bad.

Incidentally, the fallout from 9/11 was what trned me towards Kahneman and Tversky in 2004, from there to following the burgeoning rationality discussion and ultimately here. Millman's moment mirrored my own and the realization that all this coukd sound smart, plausible and be acceptable to others (even reinforced by them) while being terrifyingly wrong pushed me towards questions about my own ability to think clearly.

Very relevant here: The Peloponnesian War, book VI, chapters 8 through 32.

(The chapters are short, read it.)

A point I've raised a few times when talking to friends about this; imagine how different the world would look if 9/11 had been a domestic attack, representing the same degree of lasting threat from sources within our borders.

Things might actually be worse in some respects. Security issues on airlines and such might be even more extreme in that circumstance. Although presumably things might be better for a lot of people outside the US.
It's possible, but I find it very doubtful that the increase in security measures would have been as severe, let alone more so. Comparing the reaction to the Oklahoma City bombing six years earlier, the difference is great enough that I suspect that a lot of the paranoia was fueled by the idea of an external enemy. Personally, I suspect that if the 9/11 attacks had been domestic, the Department of Homeland Security most likely would not have been created.
That's a good point. The reaction to the Oklahoma City bombing and other domestic terrorism (such as the Unabomber) supports your analysis.
In retrospect, the 9/11 attacks may have been something of a rationalist awakening for me. Not in the sense of making me want to approach the world in a rational way, that I've had as long as I can remember. Rather, I think it may have marked my realization that I was living in world where communal failures of sanity posed a greater threat than mere hostility, and in our fervor to address the problem, we were going to make things much, much worse, and neither the people in power or the people who voted them into office could be trusted to know better.
I think it had more to do with the scope of the attack. For example, the response to the first trade center bombing was comparable to the response to Oklahoma city.
In terms of their fatalities, the relative magnitude of the first World Trade Center bombing to the Oklahoma City attack was less than that of the Oklahoma City attack to 9/11. Certainly, 9/11 wouldn't have had such a powerful effect on the public if the attack weren't of such great magnitude. But external threats tend to unite groups much more powerfully than internal ones, and the positive feedback from that makes hate spirals much easier. If we had been confronted with a threat which we couldn't externalize as a monolithic enemy, and were instead given a clear case of terrorism as the product of an ideological extreme within a society, the one in which we ourselves lived, the idea of declaring a state of war on terrorism would have looked far less credible.

9/11 as mindkiller

Yes, the response was as predictable as it was pointless

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