The YDD Annex

Because One Blog Is Never Enough

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Buy The Numbers

Or don't. I don't.

Spencer Ackerman has some things to say about Petraeus's methodology, his numbers, possible reasons why those numbers differ from the GAO's, etc.

Ackerman is right to ask the questions about the numbers, but regarding the methodology, there's only one significant fact: it's a secret. That's right. Petraeus tells us, "Two US intelligence agencies recently reviewed our methodology, and they concluded that the data we produce is the most accurate and authoritative in Iraq."

OK. What methodology? Which agencies? Simple questions, right? Hard to argue that that much is a matter of national security. Why shouldn't we get to know the answers?

Government, like warfighting, is not a science in the usual sense of the term. But when they use statistical methods to gather information that supports one or another course of action in a war, the public has a right to know what those methods are, and what numbers are cranked through those methods. In that one sense, government, using statistics, is a science: one should be given enough information to reproduce the results or challenge them. That has always been the nature of science. And writers as far back as Thomas Jefferson have noticed the similarity
, between science and an open society with a representative government, of openness of discussion and the requirement of reproducibility imposed on arguments. In both, you must show your work.

In this case, it's worse than that, though. Not only is Petraeus saying, "trust us," but the government whose position he is advocating... face it, his is a political errand, not a military one... has given us every reason not to trust them.

I urge you:
Do it by the numbers, but don't buy the numbers being sold by the Bush administration through Gen. Petraeus. Are they right? wrong? Who knows! But absent our ability to confirm them independently, they have the same credibility as, say, lumber companies' position papers regarding forest conservation, oil companies' statements about global warming, etc. Purchase your numbers only from a reputable source, and check them yourself if possible.


  • At 9/11/2007 12:03 PM, Anonymous Bryan said…

    There are almost 20 intel shops in the Defense department alone, and I could never remember the names of all of them, only the ones I sent reports to on a regular basis, and then I knew them by what amounts to an e-mail address.

    His numbers don't match anyone else's, and by that I mean the trends in numbers, not the exact numbers.

    Reuters and McClatchy have been reporting numbers from Iraq using the same sources for years. If anything statistically significant showed up, it would be in those numbers, again I'm talking about trends not the raw data. Muslims, like Jews, bury the dead quickly, so you are not going to get accurate counts because there isn't time in events with large death tolls.

    The GAO was working from the military's numbers and they came to different conclusion.

    OT: I have achieved FTP to NFS.

  • At 9/11/2007 12:55 PM, Blogger Steve Bates said…

    Bryan, that sounds like a nightmare for the practitioner, as well as for anyone trying to get honest numbers. Still, your point about the trend... not the absolute numbers... is highly relevant. Presuming the news org's aren't trying to cheat, and I don't think Reuters and McClatchy are, their numbers would show a trend if there were any significant downturn in the casualty numbers.

    OT, so have I managed to FTP, from my laptop. But my desktop had no FTP client other than the command line; I've been using SFTP. When I set out to install the FTP I've used for years, I couldn't find the setup... I probably didn't port it from the old defunct HD. And the product has since gone commercial, not freeware. So I had to find another free FTP client, which I did just about five minutes ago. It wouldn't be my first choice... they need to get SFTP working again at NFS... but I'll do what I have to.

    Now to write a brief post on the YDD, basically saying that I'll be here at the Annex for the rest of Tuesday, then moving back tomorrow. Too much back-and-forth makes my head spin. :)

  • At 9/11/2007 1:35 PM, Anonymous Bryan said…

    We were always aware of Soviet cheating with certain numbers, but it didn't matter because they did it consistently so we could derive the real intelligence, which was the trend. [most bureaucracies use 10% because it doesn't challenge their math skills].

    OT: may I never lose my working copy of CuteFTP or I will have to learn another program and re-enter all of the accounts and passwords.

  • At 9/11/2007 2:30 PM, Blogger Steve Bates said…

    OT, Bryan, CuteFTP is also now a commercial product. I ended up with SmartFTP, which is free for noncommercial use. The interface is a bit, uh, busy... that's the polite version of "overwrought" ... but the feature set is all I need (and more!) and with some configuring, the interface could be made to look sort of like WS_FTP LE that I used for many years.

    I finally figured out that SFTP protocol doesn't work yet on NFS because their SSH support is still down, and SFTP depends on it, I think.


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