Not Implying Even Correlation

Post hoc ergo propter hoc – correlation does not imply causation. A correlation between two variables does not necessarily imply that one causes the other – two things just happened at the same time. That your team wins every time you wear that funky old flannel shirt doesn’t mean that funky old shirt causes your team to win – but you wear it anyway. It couldn’t hurt and it feels good to embrace this particular logical fallacy. People do, however, make that mistake all the time, thinking the one thing caused the other, and that might be a function of pattern-recognition – a key human skill necessary to survive, in an evolutionary sense – gone wild. We all have to make sense of the world around us or we’ll get killed, metaphorically or literally, but imagining what’s just not there is kind of stupid.

This sort of thing seems to happen on news days when there are at least two big stories. They must be related. On Thursday, July 17, 2014, someone shot down a big airliner over the eastern part of Ukraine, killing all three hundred aboard quite instantly, and there’s little doubt that was done with a Russian surface-to-air missile fired by the Ukrainian rebels that Russia has been arming heavily, hoping they might overthrow the current pro-western Ukrainian government and make the whole place part of Russia again – unless the missile was fired by the Russians themselves. This happened one day after the Obama administration announced severe new economic sanctions on Russia for arming those very rebels so heavily. Did the one cause the other, or did some trigger-happy asshole just shoot at whatever was moving along way up there in the sky? Causation is the issue here. Nothing is clear yet. And then, within an hour or two, Israel launched a major ground operation in Gaza, a massive invasion actually – it was shock-and-awe time there now – which will not sit well with the international community. Did they think no one would notice, because everyone was looking away, looking at the crisis in the Ukraine? That seems unlikely, although it’s best to do the unthinkable when no one is looking, when they’re busy with other matters – but Israel was going to do this anyway. They just lucked out. Everyone was looking elsewhere. Correlation really does not imply causation – this sort of massive invasion with a modern army, with coordinated support from a large navy and a nifty high-tech air force, takes careful planning and logistical preparation, and has to be kept to a tight schedule. This was the day, whatever happened a thousand miles north. It was a coincidence.

That’s hard for some to accept. One element of this was hard for the master of pattern-recognition of the American right to accept:

Rush Limbaugh is always quick to label news a convenient distraction from the real issue at hand, and the Malaysian Airlines passenger jet crash on Thursday was no exception.

“I don’t want appear to be callous here, folks, but you talk about an opportunity to abandon the Obama news at the border?” Limbaugh said on his radio show Thursday. “And, no, I’m not suggesting anything other than how the media operates.”

He wanted to be clear that he wasn’t saying that Obama ordered the Malaysian Airlines plane shot down, by our guys, not the Russians or their rebels, so people would have something else to talk about and stop hammering him for letting all those diseased little kids from Central America, who might be small Islamic terrorists, into the country. Limbaugh will leave that to others, although he does think it’s a curious coincidence that Obama ordered those new sanctions and this happened the very next day. But whatever – he’s just miffed that the stupid mainstream media will talk about this now, and only this. He sees a pattern here. It’s always something. The mainstream media will always find a way to ignore the big story – Obama is much more awful than anyone even imagined. Hell, Obama probably called up Netanyahu too, and told him to invade Gaza that very day, and then called CNN to give them a heads-up, just to make sure no one would be talking about the invasion of the United State by Obama’s Toddlers of Terror – but no, Limbaugh did go there. He just thinks something is fishy here, some correlation, and perhaps causation. He became a wealthy and amazingly influential fellow by saying there’s something fishy here, and over there, and over there too. There’s a lot of money in that.

There’s just one problem with that. Not only does correlation not imply causation, sometimes, or maybe more often than not, there’s no correlation in the first place. People screw up more than they conspire. What seems sneaky and nefarious is almost always nothing more than incompetence, and that may be the case with the downing of that Malaysian Airlines plane. Read what was revealed by the end of the day – the flight left Amsterdam for Kuala Lumpur and was clearly shot down over eastern Ukraine just before it would have passed into Russian airspace, shot down by what had to be an advanced surface-to-air missile, as it was way up there at over thirty thousand feet – and there’s no doubt about that. Our satellites picked up the targeting radar lighting up and detected the launch, but then it gets tricky. There’s an intercept of a rebel commander telling his Russian overseer that his folks finally shot down a big Ukrainian military transport plane, so thanks for the missiles – no wait – checking things – lots of civilian bodies here in the fields – the plane’s markings are all wrong – wait, still checking things – OH SHIT!

This appears to be a screw-up, a monumental one. Now the rebels and Russia are denying everything. What missiles? There are no missiles. No one fired anything at anything. Maybe the Ukrainians shot that plane down to make us look bad. Maybe it was mechanical failure. Then Vladimir Putin offered a real classic – “The country over whose airspace this happened bears responsibility for the terrible tragedy.”

Right – it’s not his fault, or the rebels’ fault, if those guys in Kiev can’t keep their own skies safe – and their skies would be safe if they just stopped fighting the rebels, who only want as much of the Ukraine as possible to rejoin Russia. That’s why those three hundred hapless tourists are dead. Peter Feaver in Foreign Policy says this is a game-changer:

But in which direction the game is changed depends on whether this was (a) an accident by Ukrainian forces, or (b) an accident by Russian or pro-Russian forces, or (c) an intentional act, in which case pro-Russian rebels would be most likely culprits (since it is hard to come up with a reason why Ukraine or Russia would intend something like this). Accidents like this happen… but when they do they change the game politically.

Play out the possibilities:

If Ukraine is at fault, then Obama’s options of response are more limited: mainly reinvigorating efforts at negotiation. If Russia or pro-Russian forces are at fault, we will likely see much greater pressure to ratchet up sanctions even more significantly than has happened thus far, albeit in conjunction with reinvigorated efforts along the diplomatic track. Moreover, if Russia or pro-Russian forces are at fault, this puts Putin on the defensive to the point where a meaningful retreat is plausible – not a retreat from Crimea, which appears to be lost, but a retreat on Eastern Ukrainian pressure points – provided that Obama does in fact re-engage at a level commensurate with the stakes.

Julia Ioffe uses livelier prose:

Make no mistake: this is a really, really, really big deal. This is the first downing of a civilian jetliner in this conflict and, if it was the rebels who brought it down, all kinds of ugly things follow. For one thing, what seemed to be gelling into a frozen local conflict has now broken into a new phase, one that directly threatens European security. The plane, let’s recall, was flying from Amsterdam.

For another, U.S. officials have long been saying that there’s only one place that rebels can get this kind of heavy, sophisticated weaponry: Russia. This is why a fresh round of sanctions was announced yesterday. Now, the U.S. and a long-reluctant Europe may be forced to do more and implement less surgical and more painful sanctions.

This also seems to prove that Russia has lost control of the rebels, who have been complaining for some time of being abandoned by President Vladimir Putin.

Putin certainly didn’t plan for that to happen. There was no plan here. We do this and the other guys will have to do that, and then this other thing? That’s not how things work in the real world, no matter what Rush Limbaugh thinks. More often than not, screw-ups happen, no matter what your plan, and then you have to deal with what may look to others like a subtle plan, when it’s just chaos, which leads Andrew Sullivan to say this:

If the plane was downed by the Russian separatists – as seems pretty obvious from the smoking gun audio – then Putin has just found out how reckless grandstanding can come back and bite you back in the posterior. It will change a huge amount in the fraught politics between Putin’s neo-fascist Russia and Europe. The new Tsar will soon have a choice: to keep lying and become an international pariah, or to back down and get a grip. I suspect he’ll keep lying … and quietly back down.

That happens when an awful random event meets any clever plan. There’s denial, followed by quiet backing down, and it’s possible that this will happen to Israel in Gaza. As CNN reports, even their plan is a little hazy:

Deadly clashes broke out after Israeli tanks drove into Gaza and launched a ground operation that escalates the conflict with Hamas.

The incursion Thursday night follows 10 days of Israeli bombardment of Gaza that has killed more than 200 people. Israel launched the aerial offensive last week, saying it aimed to halt the firing of Hamas rockets from Gaza into Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon ordered the ground operation to destroy tunnels dug from Gaza into Israeli territory, according to a statement.

Thirteen Hamas militants used a tunnel earlier Thursday to launch an attempted attack in Sufa, near an Israeli kibbutz, but were stopped by Israeli soldiers, the Israel Defense Forces said.

The IDF said it had sent a “large” force into Gaza that includes infantry, tanks, artillery, combat engineers and intelligence units, with aerial and naval support. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Mark Regev, Netanyahu’s spokesman, whether Israel planned to occupy Gaza for a long time.

Regev didn’t answer directly, but said Israel’s goals are to “diminish” the Hamas military force and to show that it cannot attack Israel with impunity.

This is a major invasion with one minor objective – destroy those tunnels – and one vague general objective – to “diminish” the Hamas military force and show them who the boss is here, now, and forever, but not to take over the place and run it forever – all to keep Israel safe. The first is overkill and the second impossible. That’s pretty much what we tried in Iraq. That didn’t go well.

Slate’s Fred Kaplan puts it this way:

From a purely tactical and short-term view, this makes sense. From a strategic and medium-to-long-term view, it’s crazy.

The short-term outlook has a certain clarity. Hamas militants are firing rockets into Israel. There’s no dealing with Gaza’s government, since its leaders are Hamas militants. Retaliating with air strikes doesn’t finish the job and leads to horrible errors. So, let the tanks roll.

But let’s say an invasion crushes Hamas, a feasible outcome if the Israeli army were let loose. Then what? Either the Israelis have to re-occupy Gaza, with all the burdens and dangers that entails – the cost of cleaning up and providing services, the constant danger of gunfire and worse from local rebels (whose ranks will now include the fathers, brothers, and cousins of those killed), and the everyday demoralization afflicting the oppressed and the oppressors. Or the Israelis move in, and then get out, leaving a hellhole fertile for plowing by militias, including ISIS-style Islamists, far more dangerous than Hamas.

Either way, what’s the point?

They can have their own Iraq by doing what they’re doing – we should know – and Kaplan sees the core problem as this:

The Israeli government seems to have forgotten how to think strategically; at the very least, they have a self-destructive tendency to overplay their hands. For instance, in 2006, when Hezbollah made incursions into Israel from southern Lebanon, the entire Arab League condemned the action – an unprecedented act – and Egypt offered to host a summit where the League would consider actions. But then, Israel escalated the conflict, retaliating with massive, disproportionate air strikes, turning Hezbollah into local heroes and, more seriously, alienating the neighboring Arab states. Egypt called off the summit; the chance for a genuine strategic pivot was blown.

Now they’re blowing it again. Until this conflict with Gaza, Israel had been enjoying a level of security it hadn’t seen in many years. Terrorist attacks from the West Bank are all but nonexistent. Its enemies to the north – Syria, Hezbollah, and a gaggle of Islamist terrorist movements – are embroiled in their own wars with one another. Egypt is once again in the firm grip of a military government committed to putting down the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies (including Hamas). Iran has – at least for now – frozen its nuclear program, as a result of negotiations led by the Obama administration. And speaking of the beleaguered President Obama, the Iron Dome anti-missile shield, whose production he greatly accelerated, has shot down the few dozen – out of several hundred – Hamas rockets that would have exploded in Israeli cities.

Kaplan doesn’t make the connection, but once, long ago, there were those telling Bush, and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Rice, that Saddam Hussein wasn’t that big a threat and we were rather safe, or at least safe from his foolishness. And what would we do next if we ousted him? It wasn’t just the French who were saying that. A bit of a cowboy, Bush, and his posse, didn’t believe that. It just happened to be true, for what it’s worth, and this is a parallel situation:

Hamas is hardly blameless in this conflict, and the Israelis can’t be blamed for doing everything they can to stop a terrorist regime on their doorstep from firing rockets into their territory.

But it’s interesting that some of the most senior former Israeli intelligence officials have urged Israeli leaders to choose peace talks over war. In the stunning 2013 documentary The Gatekeepers, six former commanders of Shin Bet, Israel’s Secret Service, speak on camera, on the record, making just such a plea. They are hardly peaceniks. One of Shin Bet’s main missions is to infiltrate the Palestinian territories and root out terrorist cells. It was, and is, brutal work, and none of the commanders makes any apologies for it. But those who infiltrate a society often learn how it works: its culture, values, fears, and motives. They don’t condone or sympathize with what the terrorists do, but they understand its linkage to living under occupation – and they’ve concluded that this condition must end, unless Israel wants to face endless war.

Israel doesn’t want that, they’ve only chosen that, even if they don’t seem to realize they have. This happened to us more than ten years ago, but back then we didn’t have what Israel could have:

The Israeli leaders need an outsider to broaden their view, and that outsider can only be the United States. Exhausted as Kerry must be in his travels, and belabored as Obama must feel in his entire relationship with Netanyahu (and much else going on in the world), both need to immerse themselves in this crisis, work with Egypt to impose or cajole a cease-fire, then get Israel to realize its momentary strategic advantage and the need to seize the moment before it passes. That has to involve renewed negotiations for a two-state solution (even if the talks go nowhere), coupled with a freeze on settlements (in part to show good faith, in part because it’s the right thing to do), and a lavish program of aid and investment in the West Bank (to make it a showcase for Gazans seeking an alternative to their rulers who want only war).

It’s a large package, but the alternative is to watch Israel roll its tanks all the way into Gaza – and to lose a lot more than it might gain.

As Americans might say – been there, done that, got the t-shirt, so maybe we should send Netanyahu that t-shirt. On the other hand, in the New Republic, Yishai Schwartz argues that Israel just doesn’t have any other options:

Israel could have continued its aerial and artillery exchanges with Hamas, but this campaign did not appear to be damaging either the will or the capability of Hamas. It could have loosened its rules of engagement and struck Hamas more effectively – but doing so would have inflicted unconscionably disproportionate civilian damage. It could have capitulated to Hamas’s ultimatums to release hundreds of security prisoners and reopened Gaza to shipments of arms- and tunnel-making materials. Apart from the moral implications of such a concession, doing so would simply have strengthened Hamas and ensured additional fighting. An extended cease-fire would be ideal. But so far, Egyptian attempts to broker such a cease-fire seem to have fallen on deaf ears. So Netanyahu was left with a choice that wasn’t really much of a choice.

Planning, based on careful consideration of correlation and possible causation goes out the window. Do stuff. See what happens. And then there’s what just happened in the skies over Ukraine. Sometimes people just screw up, big time, and it becomes necessary to fake it. Either way, drawing on all your pattern-recognition skills does no good. None of this is related to any of this in any way. Don’t tell Rush Limbaugh, but most of the news is like that – no correlation, much less causation. Everything happens for a reason? It could be that that’s just not so, or that the reason is never what we want it to be.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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