CIA unable to underestimate the effect of drone war

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Mark Mazzetti, "A Secret Deal on Drones, Sealed in Blood", NYT 4/6/2013:

"John E. McLaughlin, then the C.I.A.'s deputy director, who the 9/11 commission reported had raised concerns about the C.I.A.'s being in charge of the Predator, said: "You can't underestimate the cultural change that comes with gaining lethal authority."

GeorgeW, who sent in the quotation, added "I wonder if failure to underestimate contributed to the CIA difficulties associated with the drone issue".


Here are a few of the posts over the years where we've discussed various people's (in)ability to over- or underestimate things:

"Multiplex negatio ferblondiat", 7/14/2007
"Weird logic and Bayesian semantics", 7/15/2007
"'Cannot underestimate' = 'must not underestimate'?", 11/6/2008
"Underestimate, overestimate, whatever", 3/23/2011
"(Not) Underestimating the Irish Famine", 9/6/2012
"Overestimating, underestimating, whatever", 2/11/2013

A friend recently told me that she finds Language Log to be invaluable as a cure for insomnia. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, but for those of you who find this off-label prescription to be an effective therapy, let me recommend a long list of fine sleep aids about the more general question of over- and under-negation: "No post too obscure to escape notice".



6 Comments

  1. Mr Punch said,

    April 7, 2013 @ 8:17 am

    In the context of the Global War on Terror, the proper term for "failure to underestimate" is "misunderestimate."

  2. Simon Spero said,

    April 7, 2013 @ 10:42 am

    (1) You can't underestimate the cultural change that comes with gaining lethal authority

    It's possible that can't underestimate is lexicalized, or that the modal operation is deontic ("should not underestimate"). Psycholinguistic evidence for the deontic interpretation can be found in my initial misreading lethal as legal :-).

    It is also possible that there is are implicit end goals in the context of the statement, which underestimation would make unachievable in all possible worlds (an alethic interpretation) – e.g.

    (2) It is necessarily the case that, given the current cultural structure of the company, etc., if you underestimate the cultural change then there is no world reachable from this world in you will efficiently generate appropriate tasking procedures ,etc.

    or, eliminating modality

    (3) If you underestimate the cultural change […] then you will not efficiently generate appropriate tasking procedures, etc.

    GeorgeW's speculation contains the premise that the there was an actual failure to underestimate [the magnitude of cultural changes] – that is to say, the estimations generated where either correct, or were overestimates. I move to have this stricken as inadmissible.

  3. Peter said,

    April 7, 2013 @ 10:54 am

    Is this really a misnegation? It surely has a perfectly reasonable interpretation, taking cannot to mean must not/should not (the "deontic cannot"). Compare an analogous sentence like "You can't ignore the cultural change which comes with gaining lethal authority" — this seems (at least to my ear) quite unexceptional, and ignore has the same polarity here as underestimate.

    As one of the linked posts discusses, many instances of "cannot underestimate" don't fit such a reading; but this one seems to fit it pretty well.

  4. GeorgeW said,

    April 7, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

    @ Simon Spiro: "GeorgeW's speculation contains the premise that the there was an actual failure to underestimate [the magnitude of cultural changes] . . . I move to have this stricken as inadmissible."

    I move that "speculation" be stricken and replaced with "sarcasm."

  5. Simon Spero said,

    April 7, 2013 @ 12:38 pm

    @GeorgeW
    See: Admissible Heuristic

  6. Andy Averill said,

    April 9, 2013 @ 12:04 am

    I dunno, when somebody from the CIA tells me I can't do something, I'm inclined to believe them.

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