Underpants, lies, and statistics

I don’t regularly watch “South Park,” but I do recognize that the creators are brilliant — and have presented some remarkable insights into human nature. I think my current favorite example of this is the “underpants gnomes,” a group of gnomes who stole underpants from sleeping children. This was part of their grand plan for making their fortune, as summed up in their business plan:

1. Collect Underpants
2. ?
3. Profit!

This has become, to many, a shorthand for describing situations where people leap from 1 to 3 without ever managing to make a connection between the two, but somehow are innately convinced that the two are intimately intertwined.

A classic example is this one, from Wizbang Blue. In this case, the underpants gnomes’ business plan is translated as follows:

1. Newsweek Survey shows 41% of Americans believe Saddam was involved in the 9/11 attacks.
2. ?
3. Bush Lied!!!!!

The missing connection is showing just when Bush ever actually said Saddam was involved in 9/11.

There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that Saddam was not involved in the 9/11 attacks. While he certainly rejoiced in them, and I am convinced that he did have connections with Al Qaeda prior to the attacks, I do not think that he had any foreknowledge. Al Qaeda was very careful of its security leading up to the attacks, and kept that information on a “need to know” basis — of which Saddam had no such need.

Further, Saddam was desperate to get out from under the military and economic sanctions at the time of the attacks. Those attacks threw everything into chaos, putting his plots to end them on hold indefinitely.

In fact, had Saddam known of the plot, he would have been tempted to reveal it, scoring PR points in his push to end the sanctions. Whether or not he would have, we’ll never know — but Al Qaeda certainly must have recognized the possibility and not informed him about their plan.

My most solid evidence, however, is the lack of an actual quote, an actual sound clip, an actual video of Bush tying Saddam to the 9/11 attacks. Yes, linking Saddam to terrorism in general (an indisputable fact), linking Saddam to Al Qaeda (not indisputable, but convincing enough for me), and stressing the importance of Iraq in the overall global strategy (again not indisputable, but clear to me), but never linking Saddam to 9/11.

But simply debunking the fantasy isn’t enough. I feel like I should propose my own theory to explain it. It’s not the greatest one, I admit, but it’s a bit more substantial than the one cited above.

1) People, as a rule, are growing more and more distrustful of the mainstream media.
2) The mainstream media keeps hyping the “people wrongly believe Saddam was involved in 9/11” polls.
3) Some people start thinking that “if the mainstream media is so desperately debunking this, maybe there’s something to it after all” and start wondering if Saddam really was involved in the attacks.

It’s plausible. After all, the people pushing the “Saddam was involved in 9/11” polls are the same ones who reported that a Koran was flushed down the toilet at Guantanamo (Newsweek), who hyped the fraudulent Texas Air National Guard memos (CBS), and spent years covering up Saddam’s brutalities (CNN), just to name three examples. I know that when these people sink all that energy into pushing one theory, my instinctive response is skepticism.

That’s my second thought.

My first thought is related to my long-established disdain for polling in general. Far too often, these are used as a substitute for thinking for oneself, subsuming one’s own judgment for what is presented as “public opinion.” And these polls are far too easily manipulated to render whatever results the one who commissions the polls wishes.

Either way, I view these surveys the same way I do weather reports from Ranjipoor or stories about Paris Hilton: they might be vaguely interesting to some people, but boring and utterly irrelevant to me.

And I simply can’t understand why people get so fascinated with any of them.

The operation was a success, but the patient died
The Senate Votes for Cloture on the Immigration Bill