Streetproofing Guide to Misinformation

Date:    Tue, 25 Sep 2001 08:44:45 +0200
From:    Kenneth Bush <kbush@IPROLINK.CH>
Subject: Streetproofing Guide to the Analysis of 11 September

Geneva/
/ 24 Sept 01

Streetproofing Guide to the Analysis of 11 September

 "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it
means what I choose it to mean.  Neither more nor less."
 "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many
different things."
 "The questions is," said Humpty Dumpty, "who is to be master.  That is
all."

 -- Lewis Carol, Through the Looking Glass


Just as parents street-proof their children before allowing them to wander
into the streets to play, so should we prepare ourselves as we wander into
the writing and rambling of commentators on the post-11-September world.  If
children should be wary about accepting candy from strangers, we should be
no less cautious about accepting the simplistic assertions and
unsubstantiated generalizations offered by neoconservatives and political
"realists" who believe erroneously that the world, in essence, is no
different now than it was during the Peloponnesian War -- and that
militarized violence can redress social, economic and political ills, rather
than exacerbate them.  Not only are they offering up dubious candies,
they've got the car door open and are leaning out to offer us a ride.  Don't
get in.  Their descriptions of the world are inaccurate.  Their
prescriptions impoverish our political imagination and fail to respond to
both the challenges and opportunities presented to us in a post-11-September
World.  And most dangerously, they are promoting a recipe for ensuring that
the world will be a meaner, more precarious, place.

The discussion below introduces a simple set of questions that may be used
as analytical filters to guide a critical reading of "explanations" of, and
responses to,  11-September.  Ultimately, the discussion seeks to
street-proof readers by introducing some basic analytical tools with which
to assess the merit, general integrity, and trust-worthiness of arguments.

History is not "just one damn thing after another"; that is, we are not
simply propelled by external forces, willy nilly.  Occasionally, there are
conjunctures in human history when our potential to affect wide spread and
lasting constructive change increases.  Unfortunately, we often only see
these conjunctures in retrospect.  It behooves us to ask whether we are in
such a position today.

CRITICAL TOOLS

There are a number "filters" that may help us to critically assess the
strength of arguments and the quality of reasoning applied to the
explanation or understanding of a specific issue, event, or decision.  In
most cases, some of these filters are employed intuitively in our reading
and thinking.  But by identifying them explicitly, they may be more
effectively applied to the systematic assessment of arguments.  For an
argument to withstand independent, critical, assessment, it must be able to
respond to the following questions to the readers' satisfaction: 1) So
what?;  2) Can you prove it?;  and 3) Now what?  Each question suggests a
host of further sub-questions which help us both to defuse and dismantle
shaky arguments, and to construct well-reasoned ones.

So What?

Arguments, like theories, are "always for someone and for some purpose."
The question, "so what?" invites us to put an argument into the broader
context of the political world and competing ideas:

 What is being figured out, settled, or solved?  What is the author/speaker/
spokesperson attempting to understand?  What does it matter?  Who cares?
Whose interests are served, protected, advanced, or compromised by the
argument?  What is the article/statement doing?  Why is it doing it?  What
are the implications and consequences of the argument?  What are the
implications of the author's/speaker's/ spokesperson's argument?  Does the
argument make sense?    Are the assumption, preconceptions, or
presuppositions underpinning the argument transparent and reasonable?

Can you Prove It?

This question invites us to consider the degree to which an argument
substantiates its analysis or recommendations empirically or logically.
When we begin to seek evidence supporting an argument, we are better able to
distinguish the empirical from the ideological:

 What empirical evidence or detail is offered to substantiate the argument?
How accurate is the data, information, or evidence?  What are its sources?
How can we check validity?  Are specific examples given?  Are they
appropriate?  Are details missing?  Are the complexities of the issues
understood?  How does the the argument present causes and effects?  Does
this make sense?  Is the argument reasonable?  Do inferences and
interpretations lead directly to the stated "conclusions," given the
evidence?  What (whose) point of view is taken? Could things be otherwise?
Are alternative and competing understandings or arguments recognized,
addressed, and presented fairly?  What is missing from the argument?

Now What?

Of each of the three sets of questions posed here, this one tends to be the
most neglected, particularly in the academic setting:

 Does the argument give us an idea of where we might go from here, for
example, in terms of ideas, theories, policies or concrete actions?  Does it
make the leap from critique to the development of a practical plan of
action?  Does it provide alternative courses of action to change negative
structures or processes, or to nurture or construct new ones?
________________________________

Kenneth D. Bush, Ph.D.

*  Research Fellow, Centre for Foreign Policy Studies, Dalhousie University
e-mail: kbush@iprolink.ch