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Robert J. Elisberg

Robert J. Elisberg

Posted: March 15, 2006 04:44 PM

Math So Fuzzy It Could Be a Muppet


This week, to mark the three-year anniversary of the war in Iraq (gifts optional), President Bush made a heartening, oft-reported remark about roadside bombs which have killed 900 Americans. "Today, nearly half of IEDs in Iraq are found and disabled before they can be detonated."

Clearly, that is wonderfully encouraging news. Unfortunately, there is just one small problem with it.

Since this refers solely to the number of roadside bombs that have been found - how can you possibly know that it's half of anything?? After all, the other bombs (the ones you haven't found) haven't been found yet. It's literally impossible to know; that's how the whole "unfound" concept works. Indeed, if we're being honest here (a leap of faith, I admit), it's possible you've only found 3% of the IEDs, and the country may still be blanketed with the other 97% of the bombs.

One has to give the President some credit here, though, for restraint. Considering that his fuzzy math is dealing with non-existent IEDs, he could just as easily said that we'd found and disabled 83% of them. How does anyone know we haven't?! And as long as we're dealing with fictional mathematics, why not say we'd found 130% of the roadside bombs? Sure, you can only have 100% of anything, but this is fake math, so anything goes.

This kind of White House fuzzy math is reminiscent of the famous exchange Condoleezza Rice had with Wolf Blitzer in October, 2004, when she claimed that "75 percent of the al Qaeda known leadership" had been broken - later acknowledging that the number of known leadership was anywhere between "the tens to hundreds."

Now, on the positive side, capturing 75% of 20 Al Qaeda known leaders is missing only five. (True, one of those five you've missed is the Big Enchilada himself, Osama Bin Laden, but we're only talking fake math here, so facts shouldn't intrude.) On the other hand, if there are 900 Al Qaeda known leaders, then capturing 75% of them means you let 223 of them slip through your fingers. However, there's good news in this. Yes, okay, Osama Bin Laden is still one of those known leaders not captured, but now he's only one out 223, which means he makes up a paltry .4%.

Keep in mind that these numbers are of known Al Qaeda leadership. They don't take into consideration that the number of unknown leaders might be in the thousands. Or, as Ms. Rice might put it, somewhere between the thousands and hundreds of thousands.

And by the way, if they are the known leadership, why didn't Ms. Rice actually know how many there were?

(Fuzzy math is a regular problem with the Administration. In May, 2004, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz testified before a House committee that there had been around 500 American deaths in Iraq. The actual number was 724. However, a Pentagon spokesman noted that Wolfowitz got right 69% of all known dead.)

The wonderful thing about fuzzy math is that it sounds valid. When the President explains his percentage of fake numbers, it's only reality that is inaccurate. You can make up anything - which is precisely what he did elsewhere in his comments. "The terrorists are losing on field of battle," the President said, "so they are fighting this war in the pictures we see on television and the newspapers we see every day."

You see? What difference does reality make? Those bombings and deaths you actually see with your own eyes on television and in newspapers...they don't count! Because they are on television and in newspapers! Only the things you can't see are what is real. This is part of what's known in White House circles as the Faith-Based War Program.

That's why the White House created a fake journalist, "Jeff Gannon;" paid real journalist Armstrong Williams to write fake commentaries; and syndicated fake TV news stories from Administration fake-reporter Karen Ryan. Because the only news you can believe is the fake kind. It's part of the Faith-Based News Program.

Faith-Based Mathematics is merely the next logical step. Just as long as it seems like the numbers should add up, that's all that matters.

And 60% of all known people who haven't been polled agree.