Bad history clouds our future

Wholly apart from the damaging effects of belief in things that are not accurate, how much should we worry that people really get bad history?

From the Associated Press on August 6, via Editor & Publisher:

NEW YORK Do you believe in Iraqi “WMD”? Did Saddam Hussein’s government have weapons of mass destruction in 2003?

Half of America apparently still thinks so, a new poll finds, and experts see a raft of reasons why: a drumbeat of voices from talk radio to die-hard bloggers to the Oval Office, a surprise headline here or there, a rallying around a partisan flag, and a growing need for people, in their own minds, to justify the war in Iraq.

People tend to become “independent of reality” in these circumstances, says opinion analyst Steven Kull. [emphasis added by this blog – E.D.]
The reality in this case is that after a 16-month, $900-million-plus investigation, the U.S. weapons hunters known as the Iraq Survey Group declared that Iraq had dismantled its chemical, biological and nuclear arms programs in 1991 under U.N. oversight. That finding in 2004 reaffirmed the work of U.N. inspectors who in 2002-03 found no trace of banned arsenals in Iraq.

Despite this, a Harris Poll released July 21 found that a full 50 percent of U.S. respondents — up from 36 percent last year — said they believe Iraq did have the forbidden arms when U.S. troops invaded in March 2003, an attack whose stated purpose was elimination of supposed WMD. Other polls also have found an enduring American faith in the WMD story.

This is a case where “enduring faith” can lead to bad policy, or disastrous policy.

The article notes that a recent news story could have skewed the poll. A report requested by two Republicans, a senator and a representative, both running for re-election, detailed the Pentagon’s information about weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) found in Iraq. There were 500 pieces catalogued, very old, left over from Gulf War I in the early 1990s. There was no evidence of new weapons, nor of a program to make new weapons such as that used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Some properly analyzed the report, and some spun the news:

“These are not stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction,” said Scott Ritter, the ex-Marine who was a U.N. inspector in the 1990s. “They weren’t deliberately withheld from inspectors by the Iraqis.”

Conservative commentator Deroy Murdock, who trumpeted Hoekstra’s announcement in his syndicated column, complained in an interview that the press “didn’t give the story the play it deserved.” But in some quarters it was headlined.

“Our top story tonight, the nation abuzz today …” was how Fox News led its report on the old, stray shells. Talk-radio hosts and their callers seized on it. Feedback to blogs grew intense. “Americans are waking up from a distorted reality,” read one posting.

(Deroy Murdock interned in Sen. Orrin Hatch’s office near the end of my tenure there. I want to be clear that he did not work for my office in any capacity.)

I’ve seen the line attributed to Will Rogers, and someday I’d like to get a firm handle on the source; but regardless who said it, it’s worth repeating, and pondering:

It ain’t what we don’t know that hurts us. It’s what we know, that ain’t true.

“Independent of reality,” in other words.

Quote update: As well as I have been able to document, the quote is not Will Rogers, but “Josh Billings,” the pen name of Henry Wheeler Shaw (1818-1885). And what Shaw actually said was, “It is better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so. (Proverb, 1874). There is also this: “Better know nothing than half-know many things.” (Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, pt. IV, 64)

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