Vincible Ignorance

The Catholic Church defines “invincible ignorance” as ignorance that cannot be remedied by diligent application of all the information and reasoning capacity available. One is not morally responsible for errors arising from invincible ignorance. By contrast, “vincible ignorance” is remedial; it can be overcome through honest effort. The present ignorance of the political Left on many matters is seemingly calculated and more aptly described, in a context far different than that originally intended by the Church, as “affected” ignorance, ignorance that is “deliberate and fostered.” One cannot escape moral culpability for errors arising out of affected ignorance.

Examples of affected ignorance that have grown into articles of faith on the Left abound. A non-comprehensive list might include the following:

  • Senator John Kerry really won the vote in Ohio and therefore the election in 2004 despite a recount and a 2% vote margin comparable to the 3% margin President George Bush enjoyed country-wide.
  • Vice-President Al Gore would have won the 2000 election if the votes had only been counted. They were and he didn’t.
  • Bush allowed guilty Saudi nationals to sneak out of the country just after the September 11 attacks. According the 9/11 Commission Report, everyone who left was appropriately vetted by the FBI.
  • The Saudis were going to keep oil prices down to help their friend George Bush win re-election. Prices actually rose and did not come down significantly until after the election. You do not find those who uttered such a belief now concede that they were wrong, lest the whole sand castle of conspiracy be washed away by a flood of reality.
  • “Karl Rove, the political manager at the White House, who is a very clever man, he probably set up bin Laden to this thing [the Bin Laden tape released less than a week before the election].” OK, only Walter Cronkite was making this unfounded assertion, but few on the Left were repudiating the remark. It fit so pleasantly and conveniently into the world view of the Left.

Add to this growing list, a new assertion. Corey Pein in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) disputes the conventional wisdom that the documents presented by CBS News and Dan Rather and used on 60 Minutes to discredit George Bush’s service in the National Guard were forgeries. He claims that the evidence is not conclusive. Pein is pained by the fact that uncontrolled blogs first called attention to inconsistencies in the documents and believes that the entire episode “looks less like a victory for democracy than a case of mob rule.”

Pein starts off by getting the burden of proof wrong. It is not up to bloggers to provide conclusive evidence that the documents are forgeries. After spending five years on the investigation, it was the duty of a large news organization like CBS, with its economic resources, to authenticate to a certainty the explosive anti-Bush documents released close to an election. Once the questionable documents are released, this burden of proof on CBS is not relieved.

At this point, not the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, or even CBS News will stand by the documents used in the 60 Minutes broadcast, but Pein still pleads to sympathetic readers of the CJR that, “We don’t know whether the memos were forged, authentic, or some combination thereof…” Of course, if we don’t know, the documents should not have been used.

Pein’s primary assault on the conventional wisdom about the “forged” documents is to criticize Joseph Newcomer, a “blogger” who earned a PhD in computer science and was one of the earlier pioneers in desktop publishing. Dr. Newcomer was able to duplicate the form of the CBS documents in just a few minutes using Microsoft Word. Unimpressed, Pein argues that “this proves nothing — you could make a replica of almost any document using Word.” However, the power of Newcomer’s initial case was the he was able to quickly duplicate the document using common Word settings. As Necomer explained, “The probability that any technology in existence in 1972 would be capable of producing a document that is nearly pixel-compatible with Microsoft’s Times New Roman font and the formatting of Microsoft Word, and that such technology was in casual use at the Texas Air National Guard, is so vanishingly small as to be indistinguishable from zero.”

Pein does not even attempt to refute or even acknowledge the far more complex analysis performed by Newcomer. If the case against Newcomer analysis was so strong, debunking Newcomer should have been straightforward.

What the CJR and Pein ought to concern themselves with is identifying the structural or cultural defects at CBS News that allowed this striking oversight? Could changes in protocols of professional journalism serve to prevent similar problems in the future? Instead Pein and CJR are wringing their hands about the most democratic of forums: web logs or “blogs.” If CBS’s evidence for document authenticity had been strong, there is little blogging would have done to discredit the 60 Minutes report. One can easily imagine that there might have been quite a different response by the CJR had Fox News been the news organization caught by bloggers using forged documents to discredit Kerry during the last election. In such case, bloggers would have been heralded as the vanguard of a new, more democratic journalism fighting the partisanship of corporation-backed journalism.

No doubt those who cannot help but believe the worst about George W. Bush will latch on to Pein’s piece as a yet another article of faith in the catechism of the Left: Bush did not serve honorably in the National Guard. In reality, Pien’s writing in the CJR provides one more piece of evidence for the case that in some quarters modern journalism has been hijacked in the service of Left-wing partisanship. More reasonable Liberals will undoubtedly be dreadfully concerned that the fanatic adherence by some of their political cohorts to political fictions will serve to discredit the Left generally.

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