I was reading the news today, and was again struck for the umpteenth time by the ease with which people slip into what I now like to call the Wikipedia approach to reality – a phenomenon that I’m sure psychologists have defined in a much more sophisticated way as some form of cognitive bias or another. Take a look at this CNN report regarding a new B’Tselem report on casualties during the Gaza conflict (on which see more from our blog here, here, here, and here):
A human rights group says more than half of the Palestinians killed during Israel’s three-week offensive against Hamas in Gaza earlier this year were civilians, contradicting an Israeli military claim.
Israel had said that more than 60 percent of those killed in the military campaign were “terror operatives.”
The Israeli human rights organization B’tselem released figures Wednesday, saying that, of the 1387 killed, 773 “did not take part in the hostilities” and, that of those, 320 minors were killed.
Israel says it launched the military operation in late December and early January in Gaza to stop Hamas and other militant groups from firing rockets into the southern parts of the country.
The accounting, which B’tselem says was based on “months of meticulous investigation and cross checks with numerous sources,” is at odds with official numbers released by Israel.
In March, the Israeli military spokesman’s office said that 1,166 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza operation, also known as Operation Cast Lead, and that 709 of them were “identified as Hamas terror operatives, amongst them several from various other terror organizations.”
The rest included 162 names that had “not yet been attributed to any organization,” according to the military. Israel said 295 Palestinians who were uninvolved in the fighting were killed, among them 89 children younger than 16.
At the time, the military said it was releasing the findings to counter false information from various Palestinian sources, and to remove doubt about the number of Palestinians killed in the operation.
B’tselem said it was it was unable to compare its list of names with that compiled by the Israeli military, which has declined to release the list of those Palestinians its says were killed in the fighting or the methodology used to compile the names.
In a written statement, the Israeli military said the B’tselem report “is not based on fact or on accurate statistics” and that the group “does not have the tools, nor the intelligence capabilities with which it can within a necessary degree of confidence know the causes of death or the affiliations of these casualties.”
Since the end of Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli government has consistently said that it went to great lengths to minimize civilian deaths and has blamed civilian deaths on Hamas, which it alleges used Gaza’s civilians as human shields to launch attacks against Israel.
The Israel Defense Forces said in April that its forces “operated in accordance with international law” during the operation, but there were a few incidents in which “intelligence or operational errors” occurred.
According to a statement posted on IDF’s Web site in April, Israeli investigations “revealed a very small number of incidents in which intelligence or operational errors took place during the fighting. These unfortunate incidents were unavoidable and occur in all combat situations, in particular of the type which Hamas forced on the IDF, by choosing to fight from within the civilian population.”
This is but one of many examples of how competing realities can be constructed regarding any politically controversial issue. In principle, there is only one true, empirically verifiable account of how many people died during the Gaza conflict, and how many of these people were innocent civilians. But this one true reality is equally non-ascertainable. The two sides in the conflict or their immediate allies can thus easily produce their own versions of reality. Two empirically verifiable items of information – the total number of people killed, and the ratio of civilians – are easily distorted, depending on the broader narrative of each side.
For the Israeli side, the number of civilians killed, and particularly the number of children killed, the most innocent civilians of them all, is small and fits into the overall picture of the Gaza conflict as a defensive operation conducted in accordance with international law, with some possible mistakes or isolated incidents. For the Palestinian side, more civilians were killed than combatants, and this fits the broader view of the conflict as a punitive operation by Israel, a part of the broader Israeli oppression of Palestinians. As we have seen, the report by B’Tselem, an Israeli NGO, is closer to the Palestinian version.
Now, it is perfectly possible for one to believe as a general matter that Israel fights the good fight against Palestinian terrorism, but that nonetheless the Gaza operation had numerous instances of excessive use of force. Or, one could also believe that Palestinians are as a general matter oppressed by Israel, but that this particular operation in Gaza was as a whole conducted in accordance with the rules of the law of armed conflict. But very few people will take either route. Rather, most people who individually care about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have for one reason or another already chosen ‘their’ side to the conflict, and their consequent bias will lead them to accept the factual account which is closer to their own preconceptions. Thus, those who believe in the ‘right of Israel to defend itself’ will also believe that the Gaza operation was entirely kosher, while those who think that the Israeli occupation of Palestine is a form of apartheid etc. will also believe that the whole point of the Gaza operation was to brutalize Palestinian civilians.
This is of course nothing new. My only point is that this mental process has nothing to do with knowing the facts, but with believing the facts as presented by others. Indeed, it is essentially not different from believing in Jesus, Buddha, or what have you. The overwhelming majority of us were actually not there in Gaza to see what was going on with our own eyes, nor have we counted the bodies. Because we do not really know what went on, we have to believe somebody who (supposedly) does, yet at the same time we as a species undoubtedly have the tendency to believe what we want to hear. And those who actually were there or who did count the bodies frequently have a vested interest in lying to us, or in first lying to themselves and then to us.
The actual, ‘true’ reality hence becomes unknowable. Another similar example would be the various casualty counts during the Bosnian conflict – for instance, the narrative constructed by Bosniak/Bosnian Muslim politicians that 200,000 Bosniaks were killed during the war, or the Bosnian Serb narrative about the 3,200 Serb civilians killed in the Srebrenica area during the conflict, which is being used to relativize the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims as a quite ‘natural’ instance of revenge (see more here). Or, to go a bit further into history, one of the most effective methods used to inflame ethnic nationalism in the former Yugoslavia was to manipulate the number of Serbs killed by Croatian fascists in the Jasenovac camp during World War II. Hence Serbian nationalists to this day tend to exaggerate the number of victims, while Croat nationalists tend to downplay it. These conflicting versions of reality become embedded in public discourse and generally accepted as an absolute truth, particularly when they are very effectively imparted on the succeeding generations through school textbooks.
For instance, I invite readers linguistically able to do so to read the entries on Jasenovac in the Serbian, Croatian, and English versions of Wikipedia, and to compare the general tenor of articles as well as the factual specifics. Wikipedia famously works so that while everyone can edit an entry, a consensus eventually builds that produces a definitive account. Edit wars on controversial topics are frequent, and have to be moderated by outsiders without a vested interest in the topic. But in part because language can be such an effective barrier to outside intervention, Wikipedia demonstrates how easy it is to construct alternative versions of reality, that are of course much more extreme outside Wikipedia itself, which is by design meant to be as impartial as possible.
We all depend on most of our ‘knowledge’ outside our area of immediate expertise on the accounts by others that we believe possess such expertise. In other words, just like the law, the human perception of reality is an authority-driven process – most of us believe that the Earth revolves around the Sun, or that man landed on the Moon, or that Earth is more than 5,000 years old, or in the theory of evolution, not because we have independently evaluated the evidence and conducted the necessary observations, but because we believe what our schoolteachers told us. But when it comes to politically or ideologically charged questions, authorities must be treated with skepticism. If we truly wish to assess a particular situation rationally and dispassionately, we should only believe those authorities who have the least reason to lie to us, and even then we should always keep an open mind.
Thus, for instance, the account on the number of casualties during the Bosnian war that I choose to believe in is the one which goes against the dominant narratives of both the Bosniak and the Serbian side. But do I know how many people died in Bosnia – no, I do not. I equally have no idea how many civilians died in Gaza – and neither do most people who so fervently claim that they do. It is particularly in those situations, like Gaza, when the access to information is basically monopolized by entities who have every reason to misrepresent it (viz. Israel and Hamas), that the only rational response is to profess ignorance. UN investigators and tribunals, human rights NGOs and the like are of course more credible than either of the warring parties, but they are not themselves free from any political agenda, nor are they free from doubts, justified or unjustified, as to their impartiality (see here and here). And if we must ultimately choose whom to trust, let us at least admit openly that those whom we are because of our own biases inclined to believe the most in a dispute are usually those who should be trusted the least. That, I think, would be the necessary first step towards rationality.