David R. Henderson  

Extracting Information from Recent Events

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More on the Modality of Monoga... Foreigner Day...

In a recent post, co-blogger Bryan Caplan cautions against taking any recent event and glibly asserting that the event shows whatever the person using it wants the event to show. I agree wholeheartedly with that caution.

But that doesn't mean that we can't try to extract information from events. Bryan is, after all, a Bayesian, as am I. So whatever probability we put on something, we should allow recent events to affect that probability, even if only marginally.

So take the event that Bryan did not identify but essentially admitted that he was discussing: the Charlie Hebdo murders. (He didn't identify it because, as he said, he wanted his piece to be more timeless. His point applies whether we are talking about the Charlie Hebdo murders or other awful events.)

One person who has, with zero apparent doubt, proclaimed that those murders were "blowback," that is, unintended consequences of an interventionist foreign policy, is Ron Paul. I've known Ron Paul for years and have a fair amount of admiration for him. I think his performance in his debate with Rudy Giuliani in the 2007 presidential campaign was magnificent. But, and I do mean this as a criticism, Ron Paul is no Bayesian. He seems to have close to zero doubt about all his beliefs. I remember meeting with him in his office once and trying to persuade him that he was wrong in claiming that the Consumer Price Index understates inflation and that it's just the opposite. I got nowhere. There was not even a "I'll look into it." He was just positive that he was right and the fact that I was a Ph.D. economist whose work he respected did not matter.

It was no surprise, given that Ron Paul does think that blowback is an important effect of U.S. foreign policy, that he would also think it an important effect of French foreign policy. But given how non-Bayesian Ron Paul is, one should not take his word for it but should, instead, carefully weigh the evidence.

I have not carefully weighed all the evidence because I don't have a lot of the evidence. Neither does anyone else who is addressing the Charlie Hebdo murders.

But there is already some evidence of blowback.

Reason Foundation senior policy analyst Shikha Dalmia, who is a friend and whose work I generally admire, challenged Ron Paul's claim of blowback, writing:

This flies in the face of the declared motives of the attackers. The journalists -- whom the assassins identified by name before summarily executing them -- were not agents of French foreign policy. Their sin was that they violated an Islamic injunction against drawing pictures of the prophet -- and in unflattering ways to boot.

But my antiwar.com colleague Justin Raimondo responds as follows:
Al Qaeda, which took responsibility for the attack on Charlie Hebdo soon after the smoke cleared, has repeatedly declared they are retaliating against decades of Western intervention in the Middle East: this has been a staple of their propaganda since Day One. And Amedy Coulibaly, who worked in tandem with the Charlie Hebdo attackers in murdering four people in a kosher delicatessen shortly afterward, was quite explicit about his own motivation. While Coulibaly was holding the hostages, he answered when French radio station RTL rang the store phone, slamming the phone down but leaving it off the hook so that his rant directed at his victims was heard and recorded:

"'I was born in France. If they didn't attack other countries, I wouldn't be here,' [he said].

"In RTL's recording, the man purported to be Coulibaly tells the hostages that they are accountable for France's actions against Muslim militants abroad, in part because the hostages pay taxes and elect the government's leaders. 'But I am telling you, it's almost over. Militants are going to come. There are going to be more and more. They (France) need to stop. They need to stop attacking ISIS. They need to stop asking our women to remove the hijab ...' You pay taxes, so that means you agree...' with France's actions in Mali and the Middle East, the apparent gunman says in the recording."

Dalmia is right that the Charlie Hebdo people were not agents of foreign policy. But that's not enough of an argument. Much blowback is against people who are not agents of foreign policy. Virtually none of the New York or Pennsylvania victims of 9/11 were agents of U.S. foreign policy. But Osama bid Laden made clear that he was attacking them over his upset about U.S. foreign policy.

Do I know that the Paris attacks were blowback? I do not. Nor do Ron Paul or Justin Raimondo. Does Shihka Dalmia know that they were not blowback? She does not. We simply don't have enough evidence.

Bryan writes:

But the overwhelming majority of recent events are sound and fury, signifying nothing. Serious thinkers don't base their worldview on what happened yesterday, or last week, or last year. Instead, they endlessly ponder the totality of human history, a body of evidence that makes all recent events combined look small and hollow.

Each of those statements is correct. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't also ponder recent events and try to extract the information from them that we can.


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COMMENTS (18 to date)
Athanasios Ghikas writes:

Caplan says (and we all agree) that "Serious thinkers don't base their worldview on what happened yesterday, or last week, or last year. Instead, they endlessly ponder the totality of human history, a body of evidence that makes all recent events combined look small and hollow."

This would best describe Bernard Lewis the author of the "Roots of Muslim Rage". According to him, neither "imperialism" nor "intervention" on the part of the west are the culprits.

Andrew_FL writes:

I thought Giuliani made Ron Paul look like a callous fool, personally. And I find the "blowback" story to be all too convenient and beyond that victim blaming crossed with moral relativism.

But more importantly, it would be helpful if people would distinguish between "Bayesian" by which they mean people use Bayesian Inference, and the Bayesian interpretation of probability. With regard to probability, I'm a Frequentist. Doesn't mean I don't use Bayesian Inference, though.

Darf Ferrara writes:

Not to take away from your main point, but you probably aren't as much of a bayesian as you think and possibly Ron Paul isn't as non-Bayesian as you claim. I'm sure you're aware of the deviations from bayesian rationality described by, for example Kahneman and Tversky. Those types of findings would suggest that if you are human then you probably aren't a bayesian. In addition, if you have ever disagreed with Bryan Caplan (and I'm pretty sure that you have) then by Aumann's agreement theorem either you or Bryan isn't a baysian.

You mention that Ron Paul didn't listen to you, but given that he already knows and respects your work, possibly the information gained was marginal.

BTW, thanks for clearing up what Bryan's post was about, it was not clear to me what he was getting at.

John Thacker writes:

I think it's quite possible that "blowback" caused people to consider supporting the general idea of terrorism, while at the same time supposing that the particular victims in this case were chosen for precisely the stated, terrible reasons.

David R. Henderson writes:

@John Thacker,
That makes sense as a possibility.

Daublin writes:

Based on the given phone-call quote, the guy just sounds crazy to me. He sounds like a crazy, violent person who is grasping for some kind of grandiose reason to explain his actions.

Harold Cockerill writes:

The vast majority of people murdered by Muslims are Muslims in Muslim countries. Is that murder a result of Western interference?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Harold Cockerill,
The vast majority of people murdered by Muslims are Muslims in Muslim countries. Is that murder a result of Western interference?
Probably not. I’m not sure what point you’re making though.

David Henderson Author Profile Page writes:

Andrew_FL,
Are you willing to say why you thought Giuliani made Ron Paul look like a callous fool?

Harold Cockerill writes:

Mr. Henderson,

I'm thinking it's unlikely the comparatively few murders committed outside of Muslim countries are done for different reasons than the murders committed within Muslim countries. It seems to me trying to blame those few murders on blowback is more an attempt to use a tragedy as a means of altering foreign policy.

D writes:

the main problem with blowback stories is they're always available and generally unfalsifiable.

Andrew_FL writes:

@David Henderson-At the time, what Paul was saying struck me as victim blaming. And the idea that terrorists would no longer want to attack the United States if the US just pulled away from the Middle East and allowed the Israelis to be exterminated struck me, and still strikes me to be honest, as hopelessly naive.

Even supposing the blowback theory is correct, religious grudges historically have lasted centuries if not millennia. Islamic extremist movements will resent US foreign policy for generations at least even if it totally reverses course right now. And if what they really resent is the US not being an Islamic Theocracy but successful anyway, they will resent us forever.

There are better arguments against war than "It's our fault in the first place that they attack us." For me the strongest one is simply that we can no longer afford them.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Harold Cockerill,
I'm thinking it's unlikely the comparatively few murders committed outside of Muslim countries are done for different reasons than the murders committed within Muslim countries. It seems to me trying to blame those few murders on blowback is more an attempt to use a tragedy as a means of altering foreign policy.
I don’t know what your basis would be for your first sentence above. I would think there are multiple reasons for murder. It strikes me as completely plausible, for example, that the 9/11 attackers had different motives than the Muslim who murders his wife.
You’re right that trying to blame those few murders on blowback IS "an attempt to use a tragedy as a means of altering foreign policy.” Then, whether that is legitimate depends on whether those murders are blowback. As I said in my post, I can see that case and I can see the case that they’re not.

David R. Henderson writes:

@D,
the main problem with blowback stories is they're always available and generally unfalsifiable.
I agree that they’r always available. I’m not as certain as you that they’re generally unfalsifiable. Can you elaborate?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Andrew_FL,
At the time, what Paul was saying struck me as victim blaming.
I think you’ve got to do better than say how it struck you at the time. The way to do better would be to produce evidence that he blamed the victim. He often took great pains to say that he wasn’t. He, rather, was making the point that the 9/11 terrorists were reacting to U.S. foreign policy.
And the idea that terrorists would no longer want to attack the United States if the US just pulled away from the Middle East and allowed the Israelis to be exterminated struck me, and still strikes me to be honest, as hopelessly naive.
I’m not sure where you got the “allowed the Israelis to be exterminated” part. Certainly, as far as I can tell, Ron Paul never argued that they should not be able to defend themselves. And it’s hard to argue that cutting U.S. aid to Israel to zero, when such aid is less than 1.5% of Israeli GDP, would allow Israel to be exterminated. But putting your side comment about Israel aside, I agree with you that ending U.S. intervention in the Middle East would not end the desire of terrorists to attack the United States. Instead, I think that it would reduce the desire, with the result that something that is not a great danger would be made an even smaller danger.
Even supposing the blowback theory is correct, religious grudges historically have lasted centuries if not millennia. Islamic extremist movements will resent US foreign policy for generations at least even if it totally reverses course right now. And if what they really resent is the US not being an Islamic Theocracy but successful anyway, they will resent us forever.
All true.
There are better arguments against war than "It's our fault in the first place that they attack us." For me the strongest one is simply that we can no longer afford them.
I agree with your first sentence, which is why I’m glad that Ron Paul, unlike some America haters, did not use that argument. Two strong arguments are the Hayekian knowledge argument and the unintended consequences argument that I’ve made here and, more extensively, on antiwar.com. If you had said that a strong argument is that wars are expensive, I would have agreed wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, the truth is that we CAN afford them.

Andrew_FL writes:

@David R. Henderson-With regard to whether I need to do better, I said he made him look like a callous fool, not that he was a callous fool. The same with whether he took great pains to not blame the victim. He sure sounded like he was, to anyone not convinced of his argument and position already.

I'm sorry I wasn't clear that I was trying to make a point about why a Republican crowd was unreceptive to the points he was trying to make. I was trying to say, he chose the worst possible argument to make in the time and place he made them. And at the time, I was the sort of person who would be totally unreceptive to the point he was trying to make.

With regard to what would happen to Israel if the US completely left the Middle East, if it didn't make it easier for Islamic Extremists (and it is not even just extremists who would like to see Israel exterminated) then I would contend it would have no effect on the motivation of terrorists, not even marginally. I think it's wishful to believe otherwise. But I could be wrong.

I am glad to see, though, we agree more than one would think. And you're right, we could easily afford them, by themselves. It's them combined with everything else we can't afford.

However, the Hayekian knowledge argument is one against Nation Building, less than it is against intervention in the Middle East per se. And it is indeed a good argument against it, that's certainly true.

Arguments from unintended consequences are more generally good arguments against such interventions, but they're a little too general to rank them all, together, as a single "best argument."

Harold Cockerill writes:

Mr. Henderson,

Actually I was thinking more along the lines of the motivation for groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram in murdering tens of thousands of fellow Muslims as opposed to the perpetrators of domestic violence. I'm thinking they blow the brains out of everybody for the same reason. I don't have a special insight into or a really solid understanding of what that reason is. It just seems to me that human nature would be that what drives then to barbarity within their own society would be the same thing driving them to barbarity where we live. I appreciate your response to my comments. As a carpenter I don't have too many conversations with economists.

jj writes:

Ron Paul is old. You shouldn't be able to impact an old Bayesian's views much.

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