Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

The revelation that the CIA had destroyed taped interrogation sessions during which Al Qaeda detainees has brought back into the forefront the public consciousness.  Today, the debate surrounding the operative has decomposed to a he said/she said battle between the CIA and the FBI.

But hidden within this ongoing battle over the viability of the detainee as well as that of varying torture techniques we find a greater argumentative fallacy that goes beyond merely this Bush endorsed CIA stance.

Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc.

“After this, therefore because of this.”  In other words, because a thing is followed by another, it causes the other.  It’s a gross distortion of the logical “if… then” formula that provides a kind of empty logic to what are largely coincidental circumstances.  Thus post hoc ergo propter hoc is not the stuff of rational thinking, but instead of rationalizations, superstitions, and urban legends.

For instance, since the 1940’s some believe that the last home game of the Washington Redskins prior to the presidential elections would foretell the victor on election day.  If the Redskins won, then the party that controlled the White House would keep the White House, and vice versa.  While this was true since the 1940’s, there was no actual rational or scientific backing behind it.  It was all merely a string of coincidences; a string, might I add, that fell apart in the 2004 presidential election when the Redskins lost to Green Bay, but President Bush won reelection.

In the case of Zubaydah, what we find are plenty of discrepancies between the FBI and the CIA account, but there is at least one thing that they both agree upon; that Zubaydah was delivering information prior to the CIA taking custody of him and subjecting him to torture.

Michael Otterman recounts Zubaydah’s tale in his excellent book, American TortureContrary to the CIA using honed SERE techniques, the FBI interrogators employed rapport building.  Instead of coercion, the interrogator would find common ground with Zubaydah, and initially engaged him in talks that had little to nothing to do with terrorism.  It was through building a personal connection with the detainee that the FBI interrogators were able to extract useful information from him.  And then the CIA snatched him from FBI custody.  Reportedly, Zubaydah even eased the FBI interrogator, acknowledging that it wasn’t his fault.

And here lies the rub.  Whether the CIA received useful information or not is in contention, but there is not contention regarding the fact that the FBI’s technique worked.  That the CIA may have extracted more information after torture falls heavily under the jurisdiction of post hoc ergo propter hoc because unlike the “if then” logical approach, the CIA did not challenge their own assertions.

I find it interesting, at this juncture, that many of the conservative movement who are aligned with the champions of the CIA stance are also those aligned with the social conservatives who seem to hold such a great disdain for the scientific method.  The cornerstone to science, the scientific method, and even the Socratic method, is self doubt and constant questioning.  It is not good enough in these circles to make an observation, and from that point declare the immediate conclusions law.

Thus, if we were to approach the dispute logically, we would be forced to ask questions such as, was the torture necessary?  Would Zubaydah have delivered as much critical evidence if not more, or if you doubt the CIA narrative, any, had he the rapport building approach been continued?  And was that information reportedly received by Zubaydah under duress truly worth all of the substantial negative costs that engaging in torture comes with?

Shorter: it is not a valid and logical argument that torture works given the fact that the detainee presented information before and after torture.

But as I mentioned in the opener, this is not the boundary of where the Bush administration, its surrogates, and its proponents employs post hoc ergo propter hoc.  We see it in wide use when it comes to the President’s anti-terrorism program in post 9/11 America.

The party line would have us believe that of course the president’s anti-terrorism policies work because we haven’t been hit since 9/11.  However, taking a closer look, we find that there are considerable flaws in this argument.  For one, you are now comparing six years to over two hundred years of American history.  Also, in order for the facts to even back up the observation, one would have to significantly narrow the standards.  Terrorist attacks could only count if they occurred on American soil.  One can’t even rightfully make the statement if we only narrowed it down to American lives, or America interests for our close allies such as England and Germany and Spain have all suffered from terrorist attacks since 9/11.  Also, considering that the president insists on calling those we fight in Iraq terrorists, it is safe to say that we have lost American lives to terrorism in the form of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice during the Iraqi occupation.

Finally, the major flaw of claiming the success of the president’s anti-terrorism policies is that it discounts other methods, much like the claim that torture works in the face of the FBI rapport building techniques being successful.

As it stands, both the 9/11 argument, and the CIA side of the Zubaydah story can be concluded to be little more than consequence.  It is not necessarily that they work, but that they were employed and a desirable effect occurred afterwards.  Meanwhile, these same people seem only to eager to plug their finger in their ears while alternative methods are offered and could be just as effective if not more.

This would be all well and good except, this isn’t trying to predict presidential elections based on a football game, and when the chain of coincidences breaks, I fear the consequences would be far worse than being disappointed on election day. 

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