HEARSAY AND CONJECTURE ARE *KINDS* OF EVIDENCE

Posted in Ed vs. Cognitive Biases on November 19th, 2009 by Ed

In early 2008 I wrote the following in the wake of the spree-killing-of-the-week at Northern Illinois University that left six dead and eighteen wounded (such an insignificant number on the contemporary scale of random American gun violence that, admit it, you've already forgotten about it):

Nearly every news item about the NIU gunman has quoted the DeKalb police chief, who noted that friends thought The Gunman’s behavior became “erratic” in the weeks leading up to the shooting. Pure hindsight bias, of course. Let’s say that instead of going on a killing spree, he simply went about his normal day. If you asked all of his friends today “Have there been any changes in This Guy’s behavior?” they would be highly unlikely to note anything or offer any serious concerns. However, knowing that he seemingly came unhinged and shot 20-some people, small (or perhaps even imagined) deviations in his behavior are impregnated with meaning. Every email, every phone call that didn’t get returned, and every day he showed up to work 3 minutes late suddenly becomes a “sign,” obvious harbingers of what was to come.

Hindsight bias is the kind of thing freshman psych majors learn but the media simply can't grasp. So I am unsurprised to say the least that we see much of the same "logic" throughout the reporting on the Fort Hood shooting. The shooter is clearly an individual who had a lot of issues and as we learn more, it may turn out that he threw up some red flags that should have earned the attention of his superiors. For the moment, though, we're getting a steady dose of ominously remembered conversations – and worse yet, second- and third-hand conversations – from a media anxious to hitch a ride on the USS Conjecture. Take this example of Pulitzer Prize-caliber journalism on CNN:

Nidal Hasan's family describes him as a good American, but several people who knew Hasan in his years at this Maryland military university say the high-ranking Army officer expressed extremist Islamic views. One says Hasan openly pledged allegiance not to the United States but to the Quran, and when asked of the constitution was a brilliant document simply responded no, not particularly.

 Our sources asked not to be identified because of the ongoing investigation, and the investigators wouldn't comment on the details they offered.

Whatever "expressed extremist Islamic views" means, to hear the Anonymous Sources Who Knew Him over the last week he appears to have been doing it 24-7. Could that be because a group not known for their sympathy toward and understanding of Islam is suddenly remembering everything about his religion as an expression of extremist fervor? Take for example the claim that he "openly pledged allegiance not to the United States but to the Quran." Here is the actual exchange:

"Is your allegiance to Sharia law or the United States?" students once challenged Hasan, the source said. "Sharia law," Hasan responded, according to the source.

Hmm. Is that a sign of extremism? What do you think the average buzz-cut, Bible-thumping, stereotypical military type would say if he was asked, "Which is more important, God or the United States? If you had to choose just one, would you obey the Ten Commandments or the UCMJ?" If we asked Catholics whether the Vatican is more important to them than the Obama administration, what might the response be? There are literally millions of Christian fundamentalists in this country who openly profess God before country, Bible before written law. My point here is not to debate the right-or-wrong of that. My point is simply that, in context, "God before Caesar" is not an uncommon sentiment among stridently religious people inside or outside of the military. Such a sentiment would only be a red flag in hindsight after the individual did something terrible. Or is Muslim, apparently, since I doubt the military higher-ups receive many urgent warnings about people in their ranks expressing a dangerous devotion to Christianity.

Bless you, Anonymous Sources, for conveniently providing the sound bites for the compelling "We should have known all along" narrative so preferred among the media in these situations.