Unfortunate Credulity

The late astronomer Carl Sagan would deal with UFO sitings or super natural claims that appeared to violate physical laws with the aphorism that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Given that physical laws have be validated and re-validated and that many phenomena could be mistaken for alien spacecraft, if an individual wants to dispute conventional wisdom, he or she has the burden of proof and that burden increases with singularly of the claim.

It is also true that most people operate from established world views in realms of inquiry far less certain than science. Everyone maintains a certain internal narrative about how the world works. Information that conforms with the narrative is granted credence with little or evidence. While those tales that tend to contradict our narratives are subject more scrutiny. In general, this attribute is a virtue. Otherwise, people would be all sails and no rudder, lurching from one idea to the other buffeted winds of information.

Now The New Republic (TNR) is a reputable left-center journal of politics. Except for a scandal involving fabricated stories from Stephen Glass, the editors have a reputation as serious straight shooters, not given to mendacity or hyperbole. This quality is what makes the current scandal surrounding US Army Private Thomas Beauchamp’s dispatches from the Iraq so problematic. Beauchamp, whose wife works for The New Republic, is an young and aspiring writer who has been sending dispatches from Iraq. In his dispatch “Shock Troops,” Beauchamp asserted that the Iraq War was brutalizing to troops and this had manifested itself in cruel jokes about fellow soldiers who had been burned by IED’s or a Bradley Vehicle driver who passed time running over dogs.

It is certainly true that the abrasions of war can raise life-long callouses on the souls of soldiers. Though the effect of war on people can be alleviated by good leadership and training, it is very reasonable to be concerned about these effects with respect to war in general and this war in particular. Unfortunately, the editors of TNR had already developed a rigid internal narrative critical of the conduct of this war and were thus susceptible to a story that played in tho this bias. It now appears the Beauchamp knew just what resonances to strike to sound credible to TNR editors. The tales of cruelty by American soldiers warped by the Iraq War rang true to TNR editors.

However, to those in the military, the stories from Beauchamp were discordant, and soon legions of Internet fact-checkers found series flaw in Beauchamp’s stories. For example, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle may protect troops, but it is certainly not nimble enough to go dog hunting in. The Army conducted its own investigation and discredited Beauchamp’s claims. According to The Weekly Standard, a Conservative opinion journal, Beauchamp has disavowed his stories.

Ultimately, TNR conducted an investigation and stood by the original story. However, they conceded that the cruel remarks made about an IED victim were not made in Iraq, but in Kuwait before deployment to Iraq. This mistake was not inconsequential. It struck at the fundamental thesis of the article. If you are making the case that war makes people cruel, evidence of people who are mean-spirited before they go to war provides no support to the case.

When the TNR editors were faced with this journalistic scandal, they could choose to be either the prosecutors ruthlessly determined to find how and why they were deceived or defendants making less and less believable claims until their own credibility erodes. They chose the latter. However, we hope that this incident will make the TNR editors sufficiently introspective in the future that they might be able to recognize false information even when in happens to support of their own world view. It is not an easy thing to do, but it is necessary for editors to have such skills.

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