The Media's IAEA Logic Fail

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I have long held the suspicion that US politicians and major media have developed a powerful alternative logic that they don't wish to share with the rest of us. It's a logic that allows one to do such wondrous things as prove a large-scope negative and infer a universally quantified statement from an existentially quantified one. Really, it's quite selfish of them to keep so significant a discovery to themselves.

Unfortunately, as long as the powers that be reserve the calculus for their own purposes, I cannot, in my commitment to diligence, recognize its controversial claims.

One of the coolest tricks of this secret logic—which, remember, we must restrain ourselves from adopting—is its allowance of inferences from possibility to certainty. This happens anytime an individual or organization asserts an unproven allegation as a fact. We saw such creative reasoning in the run-up to the war in Iraq—politicians and media alike asserting, as if it were fact, that Saddam Hussein's regime was developing weapons of mass destruction. Evidence supporting these claims was, as we later discovered, quite lacking; and it was only on a possibility, scantily supported, that opinion leaders based their assertions. Because these claims were asserted, and the act of asserting is normally reserved for those statements that we have good reason to believe to be true, many Americans readily believed them. And because they believed these claims, they supported—or, at the very least, did not oppose—US action against Iraq. The result of these fallacious assertions was irrevocable: trillions of dollars wasted, hundreds of thousands killed or maimed. Thus is the power of asserting.

For the last few years, we have seen the same sort of inventive logic in regard to Iran: people asserting, without the proper evidence, that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. Oftentimes the assertion is subtle: instead of referring to Iran's nuclear program, they may refer to “Iran's nuclear weapons program.” For example:

Washington Post, 11/13/2011: “Senior Obama administration officials defended the White House’s policy to contain Iran’s nuclear weapons program Saturday night, arguing that the United States has built an international coalition whose sanctions have left the Iranians more politically isolated than ever.”

But those who make this reference do not know that Iran has a nuclear weapons program, and so they have no business referring to it as if it were a known fact that it exists.

Ever since the latest IAEA report on Iran's nuclear program was released last month, this activity has ramped up considerably. As illustrated in the graphic at the beginning of this piece, a significantly qualified conclusion has been illicitly turned into a confirmation of previous allegations by a plethora of news outlets—not to mention the politicians and other pundits whom they quote. Contrary to their claims, the new IAEA report does not say that there is sufficient evidence to indicate that Iran currently has a nuclear weapons program—only that “There are … indications that some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device continued after 2003, and that some may still be ongoing.” (Emphasis is mine.) My head is sent spinning by this hedge. Indication is not proof, some is not all (nor most nor many), relevant is not singular, and may is not is. And people are taking this report as confirmation that Iran is definitely pursing nuclear weapons?

Barring the event in which the powers that be come forward to reveal their new logic and explain why they believe that an inference from unproven premises to a certain conclusion is licensed, I am calling a logic fail. And you should, too. To that end, I invite you to write to the Washington Post, whose website features a photo gallery headlined, “Iran's quest for a nuclear weapon,” and call them out for their egregious violation of their duty to assert only that which is sufficiently supported by evidence.

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