Weekly Standard Wankathon

Michael Goldfarb wrote “this post”:http://www.weeklystandard.com/weblogs/TWSFP/2007/01/the_nuclear_connection.asp about the _Telegraph’s_ “North Korea/Iran nonsense.”:http://www.totalwonkerr.net/1333/wankery-department-of He said nice things about Jeffrey and me, but I think he’s being kind of dishonest. Or he may just fail to understand what we wrote.

The main problem is that he implies that Jeffrey and I were skeptical about the story (true) but have since deemed it more plausible (false). He also claims (falsely) that additional evidence has made the claim more plausible. [Here’s Jeffrey’s “original post”:http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/1375/super-villain-team-up on the subject.]

Lest there be any ambiguity, allow me to clarify: I still think that the _Telegraph_ piece is bullshit.

Anyway, Goldfarb wrote:

The report was met with some skepticism–the estimable Dr. Jeffrey Lewis went so far as to call Coughlin a “super-hack.” Paul Kerr, another well-respected expert, also mocked the report, pointing out that the Iranian program is designed around the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) as weapons fuel, while the North Koreans used plutonium for the core of their weapon.

Now we have a report from Bill Gertz alleging intense cooperation on ICBM missile development between the two remaining members of the axis of evil. Also, Paul Kerr has changed his tune after consulting with a number of physicists who explained that the Iranians could still learn a great deal from the North Korean test, despite the use of HEU instead of plutonium. Lewis, too, seems less certain that such collaboration is unlikely.

First, the “Gertz piece”:http://washingtontimes.com/national/20070130-122437-6559r.htm he refers to is about missile, not nuclear, cooperation.

Second, I’m not sure where Goldfarb gets the idea that either Jeffrey or I have changed our minds regarding the _Telegraph_ article. For one thing, Jeffrey only wrote one post on the subject. The post that Goldfarb identifies as Jeffrey’s second is actually a “cross-post”:http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/1377/what-can-you-learn-from-a-weapon-test that I put up at ACW.

Furthermore, he cites “this post”:http://www.totalwonkerr.net/1334/does-data-from-a-pu-weapon-test-help-an-heu-weapons-program as evidence that I have “changed my tune.” But that post only indicates that Iran could perhaps benefit more from North Korean test data than I had previously suspected. That doesn’t mean that North Korea is actually providing such data.

Third, this sentence is just inaccurate:

bq. In Kerr’s opinion, the only way to significantly shorten that estimate [the IC’s 5-10 year estimate] was if the North Koreans sold weapons-grade fuel, presumably plutonium, to the Iranians.

I never wrote that, though it is true that supplying fissile material to Iran would shorten that timeline, as could several other forms of assistance. I would also note that the Coughlin piece says nothing about a Pu-transfer to Iran.

Last, Goldfarb failed to mention my other arguments for disregarding Coughlin’s article. You can “read them”:http://www.totalwonkerr.net/1333/wankery-department-of for yourself.


Goldfarb “responded.”:http://www.weeklystandard.com/Weblogs/TWSFP/TWSFPView.asp#1236 I’m glad he made clear where our opinions end and his begin.

Personally, I find this sentence to be troubling, for obvious reasons:

bq. We must assume the worst about these two regimes, and any evidence that confirms those assumptions ought to be treated as serious, rather than dismissed out of hand.

Whatever. Absence of evidence is absence of evidence. “Some guy wrote it in the paper” is not evidence.

3 thoughts on “Weekly Standard Wankathon

  1. Robot Economist

    Here’s a question for Goldfarb: “What happens when assuming the worst leads you to select policies that you wouldn’t have select otherwise?”

    I hate to be a negative Nancy here, but it seems like assuming the worst about Saddam Hussein back in 2003 didn’t really lead the U.S. to an ‘optimal’ policy choice…

  2. mike

    Not that I pretend to be an expert in this stuff, but I hope he wasn’t referring to what I blogged on 1/24

    What does not fit is the information from a ‘European defense official’ speculating that Iran could do an underground test as early as year end. The best public information indicates Iran has no stockpile of weapons grade uranium or plutonium at this time nor the ability to quickly make enough for even one bomb test. Thus the only other explanation is he believes the Norks have struck some kind of grand bargain with Iran and have transferred at least 8Kg, if not more, of their plutonium stock. Given the current estimates (prior to the failed test) were that NK had only 20-50Kg of bomb grade material, we find this idea a stretch. Any transfer of this kind would be of a functional warhead – neither side would wish to waste the small amount available on an indigenous Iranian design. Lastly, the Nork plutonium is inferior and believed to have high quantities of Pu240 making it a risky and less desirable source.

  3. Andy

    “We must assume the worst about these two regimes, and any evidence that confirms those assumptions ought to be treated as serious, rather than dismissed out of hand.”

    That quote really sums up so much of the poor analytical reasoning that takes place among so-called “experts.” You’d think they never heard of confirmation bias – well maybe they actually haven’t, who knows.

    Of course the problem with assuming the worst based on contradictory or insufficient evidence, as Golfarb suggests, creates a nice feedback loop that ensures preconceived bias is enforced, particularly when evidence that supports the worst-case is emphasized. Why bother with evidence at all in such a case since the “analytical” conclusion is pretty much pre-determined?

    PS: How do I to work in these comments?


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