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September 13, 2004

Argument from ignorance

The Killian memos are blogger crack. I keep saying "just one more hit..."

Here's Mark Kleiman's latest Killian Memos/Bush TANG Summary.

Kleiman agrees that the major typographical objections have been debunked. Then he goes on to say:

2. That the documents might be genuine doesn't show that they are genuine. So far, we don't even know that they could be genuine, in the sense that we don't know that they could have been produced on a machine that Col. Killian's staff would likely have had access to.

This is a classic argument from ignorance. Kleiman admits that we have no particular reason to suspect that the documents are fakes, but he stresses that we don't know that they're not. The take home message is that we should both suspend judgment about the authenticity of the memos and blame CBS. Usually, we assume documents are real if we have no evidence that they are forged. Ironically, the White House got its epistemology right for a change. A hypothetical motive for forgery is not usually grounds to suspect forgery in the absence of corroborating evidence.

3. CBS went with copies of copies of documents, and did so without establishing their provenance in a way that CBS is willing to share with the public. The typogaphical challenge, though it no longer seems like a lay-down, was obvious enough so that someone should have vetted the documents before publication, for example by reproducing them on contemporary equipment. Getting access to such equipment isn't trivial, but it ought to be well within the capability of CBS News. [Emphasis added.]

We still don't know how CBS vetted the documents other than that they were vetted by top questioned document examiners. We don't know what kind of tests the questioned document examiners performed. The names of the other two examiners have not been released. However, it's fair to assume that CBS was willing and able to retain some of the best in the business.

4. Going with such iffy documents seems journalistically questionable, though it's still possible that the source is solid in a way that CBS knows but promised not to tell. If I were running CBS News, I'd have some questions to ask.

If we don't have any reason to believe the documents are forgeries, we've certainly got no complaint against CBS. We can't have our cake and throw it too.

Kleiman is assuming that these documents actually look iffy to trained professionals working from original sources. In effect he is giving credence to the typographical objections he just dismissed.

We can't prove a negative but we can prove that the people behind the charges are unreliable sources. A lot of their outrageous forgery claims have already been flatly refuted. Yet, the people who cried "hoax" aren't catching any flak for ineptitude or irresponsibility even after they've been repeatedly busted. No discredited accusation ever seems to come back to undermine the credibility of the hoaxmongers. They say things like "The kerning proves these memos are hoaxes," or "Times New Roman didn't even exist in the 1970's," or "There was no such thing as a superscript "th" in those days." Even when they're wrong, we keep coming back to acknowledge more of their "legitimate questions."

We do know that all outside experts went with "iffy" documents, namely .pdfs. The willingness of certain outside experts to make blanket claims about the authenticity of documents presented in a degraded medium calls into question their ethics, their motives, and their professional credentials.

Why are we bending over backwards to be charitable towards a camp that has been discredited time after time?


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