How 'Confirmation Bias' Can Lead to War

Last week Commentary reported that Iranian President Ahmadinejad had been "bragging about the slaughter of five Israeli tourists" in Bulgaria and that this bragging "contradicted" the Iranian government's denials of involvement in the Bulgarian bus bombing.

Commentary had gotten this information from The Times of Israel, which reported that Ahmadinejad had "gloated publicly on Thursday over the deaths of Israelis in a terror bombing in Bulgaria, and hinted that Iran was responsible for the attack." The Times of Israel in turn attributed this information to a report in Hebrew on Israel's Channel 2.

TimesIs.JPG Somewhere in this Persian-to-Hebrew-to-English translation, something got lost--or added. Iran may or may not be behind the Bulgarian bombing, but there's no reference to the bombing in Ahmadinejad's speech, and a close appraisal of the speech makes it highly unlikely that Ahmadinejad meant to allude to the bombing.

Nima Shirazi, the blogger who first raised doubts about the Israeli interpretation of Ahmadinejad's remarks, calls the distortion "propaganda." But what seems to me more likely--and, in a way, more unsettling--is that the distortion wasn't intentional, but rather was the result of an essentially unconscious warping that comes naturally to humans.

Specifically, I'm betting that the culprit was "confirmation bias," the tendency of people to see evidence consistent with their pre-existing beliefs (sometimes when it isn't even there) and to ignore or minimize evidence inconsistent with their beliefs. Confirmation bias is at work every day, in Israel and Iran and the United States, often in ways that make war more likely. What follows is the dissection of a single, cautionary case of natural self-deception.

Let's start with the report in the Times of Israel, an English-language website based in Jerusalem. Gabe Fisher of the Times wrote:

Speaking hours after Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had publicly blamed the bombing Wednesday at Bulgaria's Burgas airport on "Hezbollah, directed by Iran," Ahmadinejad described the attack as "a response" to Israeli "blows against Iran."

That's inaccurate, since Ahmadinejad didn't "describe" the attack--or mention it at all--in his speech. But Fisher may not have known that, since he seems to have never seen a complete transcript of Ahmadinejad's speech. The only source he cited was a report on Israel's Channel 2, whose on-air correspondent said that Ahmadinejad "couldn't have provided a clearer announcement than this" of Iranian involvement in the bombing. Maybe Fisher mistook this confident surmise about Ahmadinejad's subtext for a description of Ahmadinejad's text.

A more subtle but perhaps more consequential distortion was a shift in tense that took place in the course of translating Ahmadinejad's remarks. Here is the way Fisher rendered, in English, Channel 2's Hebrew version of the remarks:

"The bitter enemies of the Iranian people and the Islamic Revolution have recruited most of their forces in order to harm us," he said in a speech reported by Israel's Channel 2 TV (Hebrew). "They have indeed succeeded in inflicting blows upon us more than once, but have been rewarded with a far stronger response."

The phrase "have been rewarded with a far stronger response" makes it sound like Ahmadinejad is referring to something in the past--like, say, a bus bombing in Bulgaria that happened the day before. But it turns out that, in the original Persian, this part of the speech didn't refer to the past. Here is the direct Persian-to-English translation provided by Shirazi, which renders the remarks in the future tense: "And if they deliver a blow they will receive a blow [and] usually the blow they receive will be heavier than the blow they have delivered." And, for good measure, here is a second Persian-to-English translation, provided (via email) by Bahman Kalbasi, a BBC correspondent who is a native Persian speaker: "And if anytime they harm us, we will harm them back. And usually the harm we cause is greater than the harm they cause."

Commentary.JPG It's conceivable that Ahmadinejad's actual remarks, though ostensibly focused on the future, could be a cryptic reference to the bus bombing. But the shift in grammatical focus that happened in translation--the shift from future to past--rendered such an interpretation much more plausible. So how did this happen? Was the change made by Channel 2, in the Persian-to-Hebrew phase, or by the Times of Israel, in the Hebrew-to-English phase?

I consulted with Kevin Osterloh, an historian at the Miami University (Ohio) who is an expert on Hebrew. He said that Channel 2's on-air correspondent, in rendering Ahmadinejad's remarks in Hebrew, had put them in the present tense, saying, roughly, "We are sustaining specific blows from the enemy, but... we are also successfully landing blows of our own; sometimes the blows which we land are even more forceful than their blows." Osterloh said this needn't be considered a dramatic departure from the future tense; you might think of it as "present progressive-ish," he said, because "one can use the present tense in a general way to mean 'the way that we are wont to do things,' etc., and this nuance in fact makes more sense within the context of a threat."

OK, so Channel 2's on-air correspondent didn't do the lion's share of the tense shifting. However, the Channel 2 website also ran a printed excerpt from Ahmadinejad's speech, also in Hebrew, which did clearly change the tense of the remarks, moving the action into the past. It's this version of the remarks that the Times of Israel apparently translated from Hebrew to English, and that appeared in Gabe Fisher's story. (Osterloh independently translated the Hebrew to English and came up with a translation closely corresponding to Fisher's. Thus where Fisher wrote that Iran's enemies "have been rewarded with a far stronger response," Osterloh wrote that Iran's enemies "have earned in response a much more forceful counter-blow.")

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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