Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Road to Perdition

Two factors that are normally considered in evaluating the outcome of a contemplated action are encapsulated in the notion of an expected value. An expected value is calculated from two independent components: the probability of an outcome and the 'payoff' of that outcome, where a 'payoff' can be negative: that is, a loss. But into the mathematics comes the human factor, expressed in our risk/return profile. People can choose between two mathematically equal expected values depending on their degree of risk aversion. For example, in making a wager, one might be willing to accept a large risk of losing a small amount and but be unwilling to take a small risk of losing a very large amount, even though they may have the same expected value. That's why few people are willing to play Russian roulette even for large sums of money.

In relation to the Newsweek Koran story fiasco, the existence of a wartime situation distorts the editorial process to the degree that it increases the consequences of a mistake. The probability of making an editorial mistake may be the same as it was ten years ago, given the same standards of news confirmation, but the consequences of an error may have drastically increased in a post-September 11 world where news is disseminated to distant combat zones in the blink of an eye. Newspapers are not alone in facing drastically changed payoff profiles for traditionally accepted practices. By the standards of World War 2 the modern US military has objectively reduced the probability of civilian casualties, prisoner abuse, etc to a degree that General Eisenhower or MacArthur would never have dreamed possible. Unfortunately, the political consequences of those events have grown to such an extent that their increase dominates the reduction in probability in the final product -- the expected value.

All of this is common sense, but it is easy to forget when one is blamed for doing what has always been done. The consequential difference between Woodward's 'Deep Throat' and Isikoff's 'anonymous source' is not necessarily the character or competence of one over the other; nor even the veracity of their informants. It's the thirty years between their stories: it's the fact that there's a war on. In the world of probability times payoff, good intentions are not a factor. Whether one means well or acts maliciously is irrelevant to changing the practical outcome of an event. Thus, the US military has learned it is not enough not to desire reducing collateral damage, it is important to create systems and procedures to achieve this. The small diameter bomb, special targeting software to reduce the footprint of blasts, training, and many other programs costing billions are a more serous proof that avoiding civilian casualties is a priority than any number of heartfelt declarations, however sincere. Because if the size of the payoff has grown, one had better damn well lower the probability to keep the expected value constant.

So when Newsweek went to press with the Koran story on the basis of an anonymous informant and no confirmation (other one denial from an official and the absence of a denial from another) it was not really doing anything untraditional, but it had failed to take into account the changed nature of the world. The US Air Force could well have argued that sending massed formations of heavy bombers to carpet-bomb the Muslim world was not any different from what Curtis Le May and Air Marshall Arthur Harris did during the 'Good War'; but that would have been absurd. The amazing thing is how long it took to understand how the times had changed for the Press as well. That may be in part because the Press is spared the immediate and terrible feedback of combat, to which the military is continuously subjected. The military effort to reduce collateral damage is driven largely by self-interest: the need to avoid unnecessary hostility from civilians in combat zones and to maintain political acceptability for its assigned missions. The requirements of survival have forced the military to evolve. But the Press in holding itself above responsibility has escaped into a kind of Lost World which is even now being shaken by a cataclysm.