Back to Contents Home. Who's Counting? John Allen Paulos July 2, What ever happened to respect for evidence? Vice President Cheney feels that if there's a one percent chance, then act. Strangely, the Bush administration used a contradictory rule regarding global warming. Despite near unanimity among scientists on the fact and causes of global warming, the Bush administration did not act, apparently because the administration felt there was not at least a ninety-nine percent probability.
The Center for Global Affairs, New York University
Go to war? One percent probability required. Address global climate change, a far greater threat to mankind than Iraq was? Greater than ninety-nine percent probability is required. In his heralded new book, "The One Percent Doctrine," Ron Suskind writes that Vice President Dick Cheney forcefully stated that the war on terror empowered the Bush administration to act without the need for evidence or extensive analysis.
Suskind describes the Cheney doctrine as follows: "Even if there's just a 1 percent chance of the unimaginable coming due, act as if it is a certainty. There is a complex interplay between an act's possible consequences, evidence, and the probabilities involved. And sometimes, of course, the probability justifying action of some sort is even less than 1 percent.
Vaccines are routinely given, for example, even for diseases whose risk of being contracted is much less than 1 percent. That being granted, the simplistic doctrine of "if at least 1 percent, then act" is especially frightening in international conflicts, not least because the number of threats misconstrued by someone or other to meet the 1 percent threshold is huge and the consequences of military action are so terrible and irrevocable.
One Percent Rule in Other Contexts.
The Mechanic & the Muse
Imagine what would happen in various everyday situations were the Cheney doctrine to be applied. A young man is in a bar and another man gives him a hard stare. If the young Cheneyite feels threatened and believes the probability to be at least 1 percent that the other man will shoot him, then he has a right to preemptively shoot him in "self-defense.
Or an older woman visits her Cheneyite doctor who, finding that the woman has suffered from a sore throat and fatigue for months, orders that she be put on chemotherapy since the likelihood of cancer is in his opinion at least 1 percent. Further tests, he might argue, would take too long. A Cheneyite gambler would be a casino's dream. And what about a Cheneyite scientist, hard as that may be to conceive?
If this scientist decided that the "evidence" for some crackpot scientific theory suggested to him that its probability were at least 1 percent, the scientist would feel comfortable touting it as a reasonable alternative to established theory. Needless to say, standards for action or decision are generally far more stringent.
For a conventional scientist running a statistical test of a hypothesis the threshold is usually 95 percent, not 1 percent. More precisely, if the scientist runs the test, and obtains, based on the tentative assumption of the hypothesis, an outcome having a probability of less than 5 percent, then he or she generally rejects the hypothesis. And certainly in criminal trials the statistical burden is much greater; it's beyond a reasonable doubt that is, an indeterminate, but very high probability , not 1 percent. In civil cases the probability standard is lower, but still nowhere near 1 percent.
The substitution of mere suspicion for evidence seems to color the thinking of many -- on Iraq as the Suskind book amply documents , on fiscal policy and on science as well. From stem cells to creation science, from illegal wiretaps to war planning, if it feels good and accords with ideology, then it's the right thing to do. Real men don't need evidence or probability. Nor do they need consistency. A companion to the Cheney 1 percent action doctrine if the probability is at least 1 percent, act is the administration's non-action doctrine if the probability is less than 99 percent, then don't act.
This latter doctrine is generally invoked in discussions of global warming, where it seems absolute certainty is required to justify any significant action.
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Ideology determines which of these two inconsistent doctrines to invoke. Of course, these attitudes and variations of these doctrines are very widespread throughout society, and it's sometimes very difficult to decide whether to act or not. In fact, it's an interesting exercise to come up with other situations leading to rules of the form, "if the probability is X percent, then act.
Personality, Ideology and Bush's Terror Wars
A trivial example is provided by elections where X percent is 50 percent, but let me end with a somewhat unusual and counterintuitive example, which involves an idealization of the dating process. But it must be an option. Said it again this morning to Merkel, and still believed it, more strongly than ever. Merkel at least understood this position. No, Merkel understood. Some things were worth fighting for. The British have been working it since last year: a major terror cell in the suburbs of London.
Then, in the past few days, everything changed. Electronic surveillance revealed, finally, the nature of the plot: airliners taking off from Heathrow carrying explosives and headed for the U. East Coast. Talk among the suspects revealed it could involve as many as a dozen planes blowing up over U. Bush has heard this before.
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Patience, patience. The United States, with all its electronic firepower, is having more and more trouble in recent years with the basic spy craft of recruiting spies and getting actionable information from walk-in informants. The big breaks, of course, have come from sources on the inside or nearby, sources that took time to develop, and from informants in communities close to the action. The United States is too anxious and trigger-happy, the Brits complain, taken to picking up some bit of an overheard conversation and then sweeping up suspects.
This required being patient enough to get the actual evidence — usually once a plot had matured — with which to build a viable case in open court. It could take six months or more — who knew? Blair was flying to Washington late tonight. They had a full morning planned for tomorrow, a long meeting and then a joint press conference.
Blair would come through. Bush looks up at the Tiffany grandfather clock in the far corner. Ten past nine. He flips absently through a briefing book with some talking points for the day and forces himself to focus. His feelings, his hunches, have gotten him and his nation into some tight spots. What no one understands, no one but Cheney, is how hard some days are. People are not bending to his rightful desires as they used to.
The Challenge With Anonymice Is Getting a Lot of Them
But in this one area — the secret world of intelligence, of foiling terrorists and their plots — he still has control. Everything unfolds in shadows. The results are what he says they are. Now that they have the terrorists on tape saying their plot is directed at America, he wants it shut down, ASAP. This is what he, and his Republican Party, gets paid for — protecting America — something the voters might benefit from being reminded of.
What could be more important? Through the leaded glass windows of the Oval Office, a limousine and four black SUVs idle in the driveway near the portico — Cheney is gearing up to deliver a speech at the Korean War memorial on the Mall. The July sun is burning off a morning mist. Bush puts on his suit jacket, ready for his day, as the motorcade roars toward the gates. Park policeman moves toward him. The officer is saying something. Usman can see his lips move, shouting. He pulls out his earplugs.
Arab music blares. You need to stop! The gates slowly begin to open. He looks up at the majestic building — he loves looking at it. He takes a route each morning down Sixteenth Street, where the White House is visible from a mile away and grows larger with each passing block. Bush is the most known person in the world — his presence, his face, has become the face of America; his pointing finger, punching the air, an emblem of the way the United States engages with the world.