Sunday, July 16, 2017

Free-association word salad is not the same as analysis

I find it remarkable what kinds of pieces are sometimes published by otherwise serious news organisations. Today during breakfast I made the mistake of trying to read something hilariously filed under "analysis" at the ABC website, Are we sleepwalking to World War III?

It starts with the claim that WW3 is coming and that Australia will be invaded:
All certainty will be lost, our economy will be devastated, our land seized, our system of government upended.
It is backed up by what a single former military commander said to the author over lunch:
This isn't mere idle speculation or the rantings of a doomsday cult, this is the warning from a man who has made it his life's work to prepare for just this scenario.
I may be missing something here, but unless there is a bit more at least circumstantial evidence I would still file this warning as mere speculation; that is kind of what the word means.

Then the author randomly quotes out of context Mark Twain ("History doesn't repeat but it does rhyme"), Alexis de Tocqueville as writing that the French Revolution was inevitable, a claim that can very conveniently be made about any historical event after the fact because it is always untestable, and then quickly moves to a historian's work on the beginning of World War I (while spelling the name of that source in two different ways).

In this latter case at least an actual argument can be discerned: Britain and Germany were trade partners and still went to war, so we should not assume that two countries today would stay at peace just because they are trade partners.

The author accelerates his already breathtaking pace to name-check a Harvard scholar and, before that person gets to say anything useful, the Ancient historian Thucydides. He seems to imply that the USA might be forced into starting WW3 to stop the rise of China, as Sparta was forced to start the Peloponnese War when Athens became too powerful. (I read Thucydides years ago, and I seem to remember it was a bit more complicated than that.)

The text descends into gibberish for a bit:
Any clash between the US and China is potentially catastrophic, but as much as we may try to wish it away, right now military strategists in Beijing and Washington are preparing for just an eventuality.
Perhaps: "just such an eventuality"?
Global think tank the Rand Corporation prepared a report in 2015 for the American military, its title could not have been more direct -- War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable.
Yeah, that's the job of strategists and (serious) think tanks.
It concluded that China would suffer greater casualties than the US if war was to break out now. However, it cautioned, that as China's military muscle increased so would the prospect of a prolonged destructive war.
How... what... huh? If I picked a fight with my neighbor now, I could be hurt, BUT (!) if I picked the fight an hour later, the fight could take longer. That doesn't even begin to make sense as a sentence. Even if we try to speculate about what the author may have meant here, for example that China would lose a war now but may have a better chance of winning a few decades in the future, one would have to point out that suffering greater casualties may not be incompatible with winning now either, cf. USSR in WW2. Also, why interrupt the sentence with a comma after the main verb? Did nobody proof-read this?

Having established to his satisfaction that war could happen, the author now moves to the question what precise incident could precipitate WW3 in Asia. Again a historian is cited, and again only so superficially that it is impossible for the reader to judge if what they say can be backed up. The islands of the South China Sea and other islands disputed between China and Japan are mentioned as the most likely causes of war. Okay, so I am not a military strategist, and I appreciate how useful symbolic conflicts can be to fire up nationalism when a government is in domestic trouble, but are these really the kinds of issues where a government would say, hey, let's needlessly blow up our entire economy and get hundreds of thousands killed over a practically worthless heap of rock? (Or sand, as the case may be.)

But of course we have to move on immediately. Cyber warfare! Thucydides! (Again.) Name-checking a Chinese scholar who does think that China and the USA are too economically interdependent to go to war, so at least we have an isolated counterpoint. Then the former military commander from the beginning opines that it would be helpful if politicians would also consider the risks of going to war; I am sure nobody in the history of humanity has ever had that idea before.

The piece ends with the author claiming to be more optimistic than his interview partner, only to end on a very depressing note. He takes this as an opportunity to quote Shakespeare, I presume in case the mention of Twain, de Tocqueville and Thucydides wasn't enough to signal deep erudition.

Now don't get me wrong, I am also rather pessimistic about the future. Overpopulation, resource limits and climate change may well combine to throw the world into a new dark age, with starvation, mass migrations, widespread collapse of most institutional order, and warlords duking it out with the few Byzantine Empire-like islands of stability that are left.

But that is how I would expect a serious analysis of future trends to look like: citing empirical evidence of risk factors like crop failures, water availability or shifting alliances and how they can produce unsolvable dilemmas for all involved. Merely name-checking historians in a meandering, stream-of-consciousness text without any real information or data isn't it.

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