From Now On

The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 12|No 10|June|2003
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Evidence, Intelligence and Presumption

by Jamie McKenzie

(about author)

© 2003, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.

School research is meant as a prelude to adult research and decision-making. We introduce students to the concept of evidence. Before they act, they research, they collect evidence, they review intelligence reports, and they make statements and choices based on knowing what is real.

Some day they may stand before the world at the United Nations and make a case for war against a rogue nation. As Secretary of State they will point to intelligence alleging violations. We hope they will have checked into the veracity of those documents before using them as evidence. We hope they will toss some papers into the air, as Secretary Powell is reported to have done below.

U.S. News and World Report - Nation & World 6/9/03
Truth and consequences
New questions about U.S. intelligence regarding Iraq's weapons of mass terror

By Bruce B. Auster, Mark Mazzetti and Edward T. Pound

"For six hours that Saturday, the men and women of the Bush administration argued about what Secretary of State Colin Powell should--and should not--say at the United Nations Security Council four days later. Not all the secret intelligence about Saddam Hussein's misdeeds, they found, stood up to close scrutiny. At one point during the rehearsal, Powell tossed several pages in the air. "I'm not reading this," he declared. "This is bulls- - -."

The text of his final remarks to the United Nations is available from the Department of State at

Some day they may stand before the nation and explain that we are going to war because a nation possesses weapons of mass destruction and has been buying enriched uranium from an African nation. We hope that they will possess evidence that these weapons exist before they commit us to war. We hope they will not fall prey to hearsay or the unsubstantiated claims of unreliable witnesses. We hope they will not rely upon forged documents - later discredited.

The New Yorker
Why did the Administration endorse a forgery about Iraq’s nuclear program?
Issue of 2003-03-31
President Bush cited the uranium deal, along with the aluminum tubes, in his State of the Union Message, on January 28th, while crediting Britain as the source of the information: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Then the story fell apart. On March 7th, Mohamed ElBaradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in Vienna, told the U.N. Security Council that the documents involving the Niger-Iraq uranium sale were fakes. “The I.A.E.A. has concluded, with the concurrence of outside experts, that these documents . . . are in fact not authentic,” ElBaradei said.

The text of Hersh's article may be found at

Some day they may rush the beginning of a war because an evil dictator may supposedly be lurking in a bunker that could be destroyed with a timely assault from the sky. We hope the leader is actually there. We hope the bunker exists. We hope that policy and action is based on intelligence that is reliable, trustworthy and related to facts and reality. We hope the leader will not engage in wishful thinking.

What Bunker?

CBS News - At Saddam's Bombed Palace | May 29, 2003

No one has searched Dora Farms more carefully than Tim Madere, a U.S. Army colonel assigned the task of searching sensitive sites.

Madere says no bodies have been found here.

The Air Force dropped four 2,000-pound bombs on the site because intelligence said there was a bunker complex hidden beneath the buildings. But Madere has yet to find it.

The text of the CBS report may be found at

We expect that these future leaders will build a case for action that is rational, coherent and consistent. We would hate to see them shifting reasons and explanations as each week's claim fails to pass scrutiny.

"Last week we were fighting because they had WMDs (weapons of mass destruction)."

"We couldn't find any, so the real reason we're fighting is because this country poses an imminent threat of using nuclear weapons against us."

"The documents that led us to worry about nuclear weapons were forgeries, so the real reason for fighting is that this leader is a very bad man who has killed many people."

"Why aren't we fighting to stop all the bad dictators who kill their people in other countries? Maybe we will . . . We'll think it over and get back to you next week."

"What are we going to do about the slaughter of innocent people in the Congo? We'll think it over and get back to you next week. Maybe we should let our friends, the French, handle that one."

Of course, many of our students will grow up to be voters rather than political leaders. We hope that these voters will expect their leaders to make decisions based on facts and evidence rather than presumptions. We hope they will hold their President, their Secretary of State and their Secretary of Defense to standards of evidence that are worthy of a great nation.

We hope our students will not cheer a rush to judgment or a rush to revenge simply because it feels good to punish folks who are far away. We hope they will not put our troops in harm's way for a hodgepodge of shifting reasons, many of which do not stand up to scrutiny. We hope they will demand answers to questions like how many civilians were killed. We expect they will argue against sanitizing war reporting or embedding reporters.

If we do our jobs well as teachers, we will clarify the difference between presumption, pretext and evidence. We will raise students to value carefully constructed rationales for action.

Modern Intelligence?

Picking through trash - looking for treasures? Truth? The news? The facts?

Sometimes it seems as if modern intelligence techniques are unreliable, especially when dealing with threats from other cultures that make it hard for us to infiltrate with agents we can trust.

We change the national alert color because of increased "chatter." We bomb targets because informers swear to their value. We make national policy based on information that is suspect.

Later, if the facts do not support the original argument, we simply change arguments to fit the latest theories.

Hunches are not facts. But much of modern intelligence is a matter of hunches, suppositions, suspicions and speculations.

"Some Iraq Analysts Felt Pressure
From Cheney Visits"

The Washington Post
By Walter Pincus and Dana Priest

Vice President Cheney and his most senior aide made multiple trips to the CIA over the past year to question analysts studying Iraq's weapons programs and alleged links to al Qaeda, creating an environment in which some analysts felt they were being pressured to make their assessments fit with the Bush administration's policy objectives, according to senior intelligence officials.

To view the entire article, go to

In previous articles, FNO has explored the challenge of teaching students to seek verity and avoid MentalSoftness.


Prime Indicators of MentalSoftness™

Fondness for clichés and clichéd thinking - simple statements that are time worn, familiar and likely to carry surface appeal.
Reliance upon maxims - truisms, platitudes, banalities and hackneyed sayings - to handle demanding, complex situations requiring deep thought and careful consideration.
Appetite for bromides - the quick fix, the easy answer, the sugar coated pill, the great escape, the short cut, the template, the cheat sheet.
Preference for platitudes, near truths, slogans, jingles, catch phrases and buzzwords.
Vulnerability to propaganda, demagoguery and mass movements based on appeals to emotions, fears and prejudice.
Impatience with thorough and dispassionate analysis.
Eagerness to join some crowd or other - wear, do and think what is fashionable, cool, hip, fab, or the opposite or whatever . . .
Hunger for vivid and dramatic packaging.
Fascination with the story, the play, the drama, the show, the episode and the epic rather than the idea, the question, the argument, the premise, the logic or the substance. We're not talking good stories or story lines here. We're talking pulp fiction.
Fascination with cults, personalities, celebrities, chat, gossip, hype, speculation, buzz and blather.
MentalSoftness™ is a term coined by Jamie McKenzie in May, 2000. (See FNO, May, 2000, "Beyond Information Power.").

Icons are courtesy of Jay Boersma's site (http://www.ECNet.Net/users/gas52r0/Jay/home.html).

The Sins of Presumption - Guilty Until Proven Innocent

For a nation built on the notion that we are innocent until proven guilty, a sudden shift to presumption rather than proof is ominous.

Imagine a Grand Jury proceeding with presumption of guilt the prevailing norm.

The prosecution is sure the boy friend killed his live-in sweetheart and is asking for a conviction on first degree murder with the death penalty.

Judge: In looking over your case against John Doe, I can see no factual evidence tying him to the murder of Miss Sweet. In fact, there is no body yet, no murder weapon found, no motive for murder and nothing to show that Mr. Doe killed this woman.

Prosecutor: Exactly, your Honor. That is how we know he did the murder. If he were truly innocent, there would be crumbs of evidence here and there hinting at his possible involvement, but the total lack of evidence is proof positive that he had WMDs (weapons that missed detection) and simply destroyed everything that would allow us to prove his guilt. His apartment smells of more bleach than any bachelor's pad in the history of humankind.

You want to know how we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that this is our man?

1. We could find no one else who so clearly fits the profile of a girl friend killer.
2. Neighbors claim they sometimes yelled at each other.
3. They were known to party late and play Hip-Hop music.
4. He is a card carrying member of the ACLU.
5. She went to church but he didn't.
6. He has been accused by previous girl friends of verbal abuse.
7. He recently took out a large life insurance policy on her life.
8. He didn't have an alibi for the night she disappeared.
9. Some of his co-workers claim that he is a bad character.
10. He once owned antique swords.
11. He once travelled to Baghdad.

Judge: Is that the best you can do? This is pretty slim stuff.

Prosecutor: We gave him a chance to prove he was innocent and he just wept and moaned. He claims his girl friend was scatterbrained and is off on a lark some place. He has been unable to prove his innocence and said he was home that night watching TV - some reality TV program. He even passed a lie detector test.

Judge: If he passed a lie detector test, how can you proceed against him?

Prosecutor: Everyone knows those tests are unreliable and easily faked. His willingness to cooperate is a sure sign of guilt and his passing the test only shows how clever and evil a man he is.

Judge: You've convinced me that this man should be put on trial for killing his girl friend. We will all sleep better knowing that he is behind bars unable to attack other women with the kind of vicious, clever light touch he has employed in this case.

Defence Attorney: Your Honor, we have important news.

Judge: What news could possibly alter this rush to judgment?

Defence Attorney: Miss Sweet has been located, alive and well, living in Barcelona.

Prosecutor: A likely story, Judge. Until we see the body alive and kicking, we must rush forward and finish the good work we have started here. If Miss Sweet is alive, let her show her face and prove that she is not dead. We all know that she is dead, horribly murdered and incapable of making an appearance here. Her absence is proof positive of her murder. If the defence wants these charges dropped and this man set free, let them produce this woman in the flesh.

If we act on slim evidence or we allow our leaders to act on slim evidence, we are guilty of the sin of presumption.

The presumptive phrases have been emerging with disturbing frequency.

"You can be sure that . . . "

In a strange reversal, the lack of evidence has become a kind of evidence.

"The very fact that we have found no weapons of mass destruction proves that they existed all along."

"We know he had huge supplies because we could not find them."

"He hid them. That's how we know he had them."

How do we know when we know something (for real)?

What standards should we set for evidence before condemning a man or woman to death?

What standards should we set for evidence before going to war?

What is the difference between presumption and evidence?

Can we support a national shift to a presumption of guilt?

Should students be allowed to get away with mere presumption when writing school research reports?

Can we support a policy that combines preemptive strikes with presumptive intelligence?

In times of terror, why are tough questions sometimes portrayed as unpatriotic?

Back to June Cover

Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie .

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