assessing political commentary

One of the facets of the response to President Obama’s announcement of a draw-down of troops in Afghanistan is the observation that the troop withdrawal will be completed two months before voters decide whether to reelect President Obama to a second term. “Is the timing of this draw-down political? Is it simply to have something that people can feel good about as they go to the voting booths?”

No matter what television or radio station you hear it on, the phrasing of this question is inherently biased. Or rather, to be precise: the phrasing of this question takes advantage of well-known biases in the way that the human mind works.

It is well-known—among psychologists, politicians, publicists, and media personalities alike—that the human mind is built to look for patterns: so much so that it often “finds” patterns where there are none. When asked an overt question about whether a pattern exists, the human mind will not weigh the evidence for and against to come to a logical assessment of objective probability. Instead, the human mind is accommodating and optimistic: it actively searches for a way to understand the pattern as meaningful, and if it finds one it will believe! It will also (left to its own devices) stop thinking. In other words: it will not take the time to punch holes in the theory that it has just created, or search for alternative explanations.

So when a political pundit asks the question “Does the decision to draw down the troops 2 months before the election look like a political decision?” it doesn’t matter if it is a well-meaning liberal pundit on MSNBC, a critical conservative pundit on Fox News, or a pretending-to-be-neutral pundit on CNN, the result is the same: The majority of the audience will think to themselves, “IF I were trying to influence the election, WOULD I time the troop draw-down to be 2 months before it? Sure…. yeah, that sounds plausible!”

And suddenly, that person feels that the decision is suspicious. Because that’s how the human mind works.


However, if you want to truly be an objective viewer and assessor of political punditry, I’m afraid you have to do a little more work. You have to overcome that happy-go-lucky “I’ll believe any theory that sounds ok” tendency of the human mind.

This is what you need to do:

Ask yourself: “What time-line for draw-down of the troops could the President have chosen that would NOT have seemed political?”

Can you answer that question? If he had chosen 3 months, would that have been better? Or is 3 months still close enough that it would be “political”? How about 4 months? Is there really any limit? What about in the other direction: suppose the draw-down was announced to be a month after the election? That would be worse! Then people would think it was effectively a “campaign promise” that he could change his mind about once he was elected! It looks even more political.

Ultimately, there simply isn’t a time-line available for which you CAN’T say, “Oh, that seems like it could be a political decision!”

That’s how you assess this kind of criticism. When a pundit says, “Does X look suspicious?” you have to ask: How could things have been different, that would make it NOT look suspicious?

And if you can concoct some story that makes it seem suspicious no matter what, then guess what? There’s no “there” there. It’s not a pattern.