If you want to compare speculation with analysis...

...a good place to start would be with these two recent entries from writers within the Washington Post family, both trying to explain what China is, is not, and might someday be doing about North Korea.

For analysis, you would turn to John Pomfret, who actually knows quite a bit about China (as shown most clearly in his book Chinese Lessons). In an entry last week on his Pomfret's China site, he explained how the nutty regime in North Korea looks from the Chinese perspective, and how much power the Chinese actually have -- and lack.

For speculation -- really, paranoid hysteria -- you would turn to his colleague Anne Applebaum, who has just asserted in Slate that China is encouraging the North Koreans to keep testing nuclear weapons and thereby create an international crisis. She says, after entertaining several explanatory hypotheses:

Personally, I favor another scenario, equally speculative: Perhaps the North Koreans have stepped up their war rhetoric and war preparations because China wants them to do so. I can't prove that this was the case--no one else can prove any of his theories about North Korea, in fact--but I can look at the evidence...

The "evidence" she lists will seem crude to the point of caricature to anyone with any familiarity with China. Even such familiarity as would come reading her colleague Pomfret's work. She ends with the flat-out statement:

North Korea is a puppet state, and the Chinese are the puppeteers. They could end this farce tomorrow. If they haven't done so yet, there must be a reason.

Many of the reasons -- other than deliberate Chinese war-mongering -- are precisely what Pomfret explains.

I'm not generally looking for fights with people, so why bother to mention this? The minor reason is that since the topic is the same and both writers are necessarily working with imperfect information about North Korea, it's a particularly stark illustration of the difference between informed analysis, explaining its steps of logic, and simply spinning out a snappy "hey, this could be interesting!" idea with minimal effort to reality-check.

The major reason is that this is dangerous. This is the kind of cocksure, half-informed assumption of the most threatening and moralistic interpretation of world events that has led to grief in our recent history. Applebaum herself has laudably cautioned against this view when it comes to Iran. A third member of the Post family, the columnist David Ignatius (disclosure: long-time friend of mine) has published a great new novel, The Increment, which among other themes concerns the danger of talking yourself into this view of the world. It's another worthy candidate for Ms. Applebaum's reading list.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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