Man Without Qualities

Friday, March 14, 2003

Who Knew II

An astute reader writes to point out that most of the known controversial transactions between German firms and Iraq broke German law, have not demonstrated German government complicity and happened under the prior strongly pro-American government of Helmut Kohl. Some such transactions have resulted in criminal convictions in Germany and the German media seem not to have been shy about reporting the shenanigans. Chicago Boyz has more.

But the thoughtful and intelligent Steven Den Beste certainly has nothing to be ashamed of in having brought up these ideas (or, as he terms his efforts, getting the idea into circulation and causing some others to start looking for evidence of it) - regardless of whether there are mistakes or bad guesses here (which has certainly not yet been demonstrated). Mr. Den Beste points out:

I was not (as [Robert Musil has] suggested) saying that I had concluded that the French were indeed treacherously involved in illegal dealings with Iraq. (Nor is it the case that I check under my bed for Frenchmen every night before going to sleep.) What I said was that it was a disturbing possibility that we needed to start considering, since I didn't think that more mundane explanations sufficed. So at best it was speculation or conjecture; it was far from being what I'd refer to as a "theory" (which is to say, something so well established as to be nearly indistinguishable from fact e.g. "The Theory of Relativity").

But the Man Without Qualities did not mean to suggest that Mr. Den Beste had concluded that the French were indeed treacherously involved in illegal dealings with Iraq. But he certainly has been a main player in advancing that theory as a likely explanation. Mr. Den Beste does not care for the term "theory" here, but I think that is solely an epistemological issue. I believe intellectual constructs get labeled as "theories" exactly to distinguish them from "facts" ("Theory of Everything," "Theory of Dark Matter") although the name often sticks after the theory is accepted as fact ("Theory of Relativity," "Theory of Universal Gravitation") - although sometimes the "theories" become "principles" at that point, and the two appellations continue in parallel. Maybe "hypothesis" would be better: Is "Efficient Markets Hypothesis" or "Efficient Markets Theory" better? And I also think he has gone a little beyond presenting the ideas as mere "speculation or conjecture," but I don't consider that a sin. A responsible thesis advisor often suggests that a promising student test a theory. Nothing wrong with that.

In any event, I think theories (or hypotheses or whatever) are often best considered as points in a process of successive approximation: each point in the process should explain more facts in a more elegant and logically simpler fashion than its predecessor. In my opinion, Mr. Den Beste's theories (or whatever) are like that - they explain some facts, but not others - but they might be a good starting point for a successor theory that transcends the limitations of his work.

But I also think that these theories are gaining more currency than justified by the facts they explain or the elegance of the reasoning. Worse, that may be happening because of emotional anti-German and anti-French sentiment - although I consider neither of Messrs. Den Beste or Taranto as advancing such error or of irrational anti-German and anti-French sentiment. Anti-German and anti-French sentiment is growing in intensity, and some (in my opinion) is justified. But such sentiments cannot justify losing one's clarity of thought where that is avoidable, especially in a democratic political context.

But then there is the observable fact that Mr. Den Beste won't refer to me by pseudonym - requiring me to take recourse to bracketed insertions to identify my own reference! How nice is that?

UPDATE: Some things are already getting more overt.

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