Recently, Kristan Wheaton, a professor of intelligence studies at Mercyhurst College, had a post on his Sources and Methods blog about using “infographics” to point out inconsistencies in arguments.  Inspired by a graphic that has been making its way around the blogosphere, a graphic that shows the inconsistency between what the U.S. government tells people to eat and what it actually subsidizes, he decided to create a graph of his own exploring an inconsistency.

The inconsistency that he chose was “one of the most common inconsistencies leveled against the intelligence
community,” namely “that it is both all powerful and incompetent.”  Of this inconsistency, he claims, “It can’t be both (obviously) but how can you capture this inconsistency in a graphic?”  Pasted below is the graph that he created to help explain (?) the inconsistency:

The graph displays the results of a Google search for the phrases “CIA is incompetent” and “CIA is all powerful,” respectively.

There are a few problems.  First, maybe I’m thick today, but I just don’t see the value of the graph in this case.  The graph tells us nothing about the inconsistency of those two positions.  It merely gives us a sense of which of the two positions is more prevalent on the Internet.

Second, if we are to take this as an indicator of which position is more likely to be correct, then are we supposed to go with “CIA is all powerful” because it nets more results in a Google search?  I hope not.

Third, there is a difference between what Wheaton is trying to display here and what the first graphic above displays.  The first is, in effect, comparing words to deeds to show an inconsistency between the two.  Wheaton’s graphic is comparing two statements to one another with no other indicators, either explicit or implied, to allow us to judge the level of inconsistency.  In the first graphic about food recommendations versus subsidies, there are implicit assumptions about indicators and what we would expect to see were the recommendations and subsidies consistent–i.e. the assumption is that more subsidies should go to those foods that are recommended.  (That in itself is a problematic assumption, but I’ll perhaps leave that for another post.)  In Wheaton’s case, we have no such indicators (assumed or otherwise) or values associated with them.  To be more effective, each statement should be compared to data related to indicators of power or incompetence.

Fourth, the most important problem here is that the two statements are not actually inconsistent.  On the surface, they may seem that way.  But there is no necessary and absolute contradiction between “power” and “incompetence.”  One can think of any number of examples of people in power who are/were also more or less incompetent (Nero, perhaps).  Of course, it might be inconsistent to say that an individual or organization is both all powerful and incompetent in the area of gaining and keeping power.  But even still, this overlooks the possibility of contradictions and accidents in life–i.e. sometimes the truly incompetent truly do succeed.  In the CIA example here, it might also be possible that the CIA is incompetent in certain areas, maybe even its main area of intelligence collection and analysis, but is nonetheless very competent in gaining and keeping power.

In short, I don’t see the value in the kind of graphic that Wheaton has used for finding inconsistencies between and among individual statements.  The graphic here and the data behind it (i.e. Google search results) tell us nothing about the supposed inconsistencies between the two statements that he used as an example.  And in fact, no “infographic” is needed to see that the two statements are not mutually exclusive (which is what is implied by “can’t be both”).  Plain old critical thinking worked just fine in this case.

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