The Childish Christine Fair and the Necessity of Advocates

Christine Fair is a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. She holds a PhD from the University of Chicago, has worked for the United Nations, has an extensive publication record, and has been quoted in major news outlets around the world. It is fair to describe her, I think, as a serious public intellectual and a member of the academic and policy elite.

Prof. Fair is therefore extremely useful as a case study in just how childish, unpleasant, biased, and ignorant one can be while retaining significant influence and respectability, as well as a major academic post.

Let’s examine the facts, in order to determine whether my characterization of Prof. Fair is true. First, let’s start with a debate Prof. Fair had on the Al Jazeera television network with civil liberties activist and national security journalist Glenn Greenwald. In the debate, Mr. Greenwald took the position that United States drone strikes in Pakistan cause more harm than good, while Prof. Fair took the opposite position.

The debate did not go well. Personally, I attribute this in large part to Prof. Fair’s insistence on repeatedly interrupting each of the two other participants and refusing to wait until it was her turn to speak, but you should watch it yourself and make an independent evaluation. Let me transcribe a significant excerpt from the debate, so that we may examine and critique it together. It is long, but I think it’s a hell of a lot of (exasperating) fun. [I have tried to capture everything people said, but there was a significant amount of crosstalk.]

HOST: What do the leaked documents published by the Intercept tell us that’s new, that in your view strengthens the case against drones?

GLENN GREENWALD: What they do primarily is confirm what the people who live in the regions where the drones have been killing people have been saying, which is that far more often than not they’re killing people not who are the targets but who are actually innocent. [Our source has indicated that] 9 out of 10 of the people are not the targets. And you’ve heard this from people in Afghanist and and Pakistan continuously, you’ve heard this from researchers and scientists and other people who have studied it, that the reason we’re constantly turning more people into terrorists than we’re actually killing is because the anger and rage from these innocent victims is what causes people to then want to bring violence to the United States.

HOST: Christine Fair, you’ve called drones “the most successful tool the United States and Pakistan have to eliminate dangerous militants, but if 9 out of 10 drones strikes are not getting the people they’re supposed to, how is that successful?

PROF. FAIR: Actually, I’m going to push back on several things Glenn said. Many of the statements he just made are not empirically buttressed, many of the people who write about this actually haven’t been to Pakistan where the drones are actually used, and so you actually have this problem: we don’t know who was targeted and we don’t know who was actually killed. And I’m actually going to argue that this actually isn’t knowable with the tools that have been used thus far. [The conclusion of the journalist who has studied this in the most empirically defensible way is that] according to the locals themselves, about 90% of those killed were militants. So we have a big difference between those who are based in Lahore, the cosmopolitan elites, who view drones as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty and all the legal issues that get raised, but when you talk to the people who live in the proximity of the militants, they actually have a very different story.


HOST: Let Glenn respond.

GLENN GREENWALD: There’s actually a person who lives in the region, [Malala Yousafzai] who happens to be the winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize,

PROF. FAIR: Who doesn’t know anything about FATA.

GLENN GREENWALD: She actually went to the White House…

PROF. FAIR: She knows nothing about FATA.

GLENN GREENWALD: …and spoke with President Obama, and what she said was not “Thank you so much for using drones to kill the militants who put a bullet into my head and are trying to suppress the rights of girls,” what she said in her statement is “I expressed my concern that drones are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. It’s the same conclusion from the NYU-Stanford study, and the lead reporter on the story in The Intercept on drones is Jeremy Scahill who has spent many years in all of the regions in which drones are used, including Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia…

PROF. FAIR: He’s not spent any time in Pakistan. This is fictional nonsense.

GLENN GREENWALD: He made a film that was nominated for an Academy Award. He wrote a 600-page book called Dirty Wars. There is abundant evidence that drones are killing innocent…

PROF. FAIR: No, there’s not.

GLENN GREENWALD: …people, you have to be pathological to deny it at this point.

PROF. FAIR: I guess all Muslim countries and all Muslim polities and all Muslim legal systems are the same to you. I actually bring nuance to this.

HOST: Well, Christine, let me put some nuance to you. The British government did polling in Pakistan’s tribal areas a few years ago. This is the British government on CIA drone strikes. They found, in the tribal areas, 59% of the public in 2010 said they were never justified. That went up to 63% in 2011. So the polling doesn’t quite support what you’re saying.

PROF. FAIR: No, no, actually, do you understand how polling… I actually do a lot of polling in Pakistan. What you find is that a lot of people don’t answer the question at all.

HOST: But the ones who do.

PROF. FAIR: Well, you’re missing the science of this. This is called “social desirability bias.” So, I’m going to argue that it’s very difficult to do this well because the person doesn’t know the person doing the survey work. Now, I also want to go back to the NYU report. I’m pro-choice. If Planned Parenthood did a study that talked about the benefits of abortion, we would immediately call the nonsense flag on that report. The NYU/Stanford study was supported, facilitated, in every way, shape, or form, by FFR [Foundation for Fundamental Rights] and Reprieve, which is an advocacy group avowedly against drones. They did not include any of the pro-drone voices.

HOST: The British government, though, are not an adovacy group against drones. So you dismissed the British government.

PROF. FAIR: No, no, what I’m saying, and again the nuance may not be appreciated here. Polling work in conflict areas is very difficult to elicit the truth because the person does not know whether the survey person in question is CIA, ISI, or a miltiant.

HOST: So are you saying we can’t know?

PROF. FAIR: I’m telling you we can’t know, but I want to go to the point of Ababil.

HOST: Very briefly.

PROF. FAIR: It is a very brief point, because this speaks to how some people view the drones which are very different from people like Glenn Greenwald.

HOST: Okay.

PROF. FAIR: You’re familiar with Surah Al-Fil in the Koran, where an army of elephants attacked the Ka’aba…

HOST: I’m worried this isn’t going to be brief.

PROF. FAIR: I’m going to tell you how brief it is. You should know the Koran, I’m presuming. Surah Al-Fil. So, the black swallows who dropped stones to repel the elephant army that was attacking Ka’aba, those who live in proximity to the terrorists, they call drones Ababil. So this is a voice that you folks try to exclude.

HOST: Glenn Greenwald, you’re not being nuanced.

GLENN GREENWALD: This is just rank propaganda at this point.

PROF. FAIR: [interrupting] It’s not rank propaganda!

GLENN GREENWALD: You have this mountain of evidence…

PROF FAIR: [interrupting] You don’t know data!

GLENN GREENWALD: …Are you capable of remaining quiet while other people speak?

HOST: Christine, let Glenn…

PROF. FAIR: [continuing to speak] Are you capable of even being truthful and using data?

HOST: Christine, let Glenn make his point and then I’ll…

GLENN GREENWALD: There is this mountain of evidence, you have…

PROF. FAIR: There’s no mountain of evidence!

HOST: Hold on! Christine, let Glenn make his point.

GLENN GREENWALD: You have the NYU-Stanford study.

PROF. FAIR: Which is not a study, it’s advocacy.

GLENN GREENWALD: You have the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

PROF. FAIR: Advocacy.

GLENN GREENWALD: You have the documents that were just provided to us by this source.

PROF. FAIR: Which is Afghanistan, not Pakistan.

GLENN GREENWALD: You have the statement of the 2014 Nobel Prize Winner…

PROF. FAIR: A 16-year-old girl!

HOST: Hold on, hold on, you’re not letting Glenn make his point.

PROF FAIR: Because he’s a liar. He’s a liar.

HOST: He’s quoting reports! You can respond to the reports when…

PROF. FAIR: These are not evidence, these are advocacy.

I’ll end the excerpt there. The debate continues for another six minutes or so, but needless to say, it doesn’t get any better.

Now, I think it’s possible from that excerpt alone to conclude that Prof. Fair is what I allege her to be: biased, childish, and unprofessional. Some of you may have concluded this when she promised to make a brief point and then began to speak about an army of elephants. Some of you may have concluded it when she shouted “He’s a liar!” over and over as Mr. Greenwald cited reports.

But I also want to dwell on one of the actual substantive points Prof. Fair made, which is the idea that we should not listen to “advocacy” reports. This was one of Prof. Fair’s central contentions: that the reports of those who oppose drones do not constitute evidence. She says the NYU-Stanford study is “not a study, it’s advocacy” and that all of the reports are “not evidence, these are advocacy.” She says that it is as if we have a report by Planned Parenthood on the salutary effects of abortion. We would call such a report, Prof. Fair says, “nonsense.”

First, for the Planned Parenthood example, note briefly that discarding the report as biased depends on making an assumption: that Planned Parenthood likes abortions and would distort evidence to make abortions seem more beneficial than they are. Though Prof. Fair insists she is pro-choice, this is actually a cynical position that aligns her with the pro-life movement, who believe that Planned Parenthood do not actually care about women’s wellbeing, but about abortions. After all, if Planned Parenthood did (as they would say they did) care about benefits to women rather than about abortion, they would have no reason to describe abortions as being more beneficial than they are. I note this only because  this point (that Planned Parenthood would have a bias) seems easy to accept, but actually depends on a highly contestable underlying assumption, which is that Planned Parenthood are not the disinterested women’s healthcare providers they say they are. (I should note my own bias: I once worked as a telephone receptionist for a Planned Parenthood office. My own opinion, based on limited exposure and data, is they do in fact care about women rather than simply about performing as many abortions as possible.)

Second, I think it is worth dwelling on this question of “advocacy,” because I think that even among those who find Prof. Fair’s characterizations to be mistaken, many accept the general principle that we should disregard biased evidence. I think this view is wholly mistaken. If the principle is accepted, the question for debate is “Is the NYU-Stanford study an advocacy study or a neutral one?” If this is the question, Prof. Fair would likely prevail. But this is not the question. The question is, rather, “Is the NYU-Stanford study correct?” If you assume, as Prof. Fair does, that advocacy never constitutes evidence, then the two questions are essentially one and the same (or rather, by determining that the report is advocacy, we preclude answering the second question using the report). But this is a false assumption, because advocates often produce essential evidence.

I have made this point before, on the issue of whether we should pay any attention to reports on gun violence by gun control organizations. My point was then, as it is now, that biased sources are not inherently discreditable. They certainly require scrutiny and skepticism. We would want to know their methodology. But they may nevertheless offer useful evidence.

One of the reasons it’s important to acknowledge this is that we will inevitably have to use biased sources. Why? Because often the only reason a group will be motivated to go out and study an issue is because it cares about it. The groups willing to invest resources in going out to collect the testimonies of people affected by drone strikes are inevitably going to disproportionately be those who are concerned about drone strikes. Objectivity is extremely elusive, or even nonexistent, and so the challenge is not to find the one source that is bias-free, but to learn how to scrutinize biased sources in order to arrive at the truth.

It may partially be my legal background that gives me this perspective. When an attorney writes a brief, it is biased in favor of the side they are representing; the evidence will be presented in the way most favorable to that side. But that doesn’t mean one can write off the arguments and evidence in a brief by saying “Well, that’s just advocacy.” Often, the arguments will be correct and the evidence sound, and the task of an ostensibly neutral evaluator (like a judge) is to look at the cases presented by both self-interested sides and try to decide who is correct about what.

Thus Prof. Fair has said nothing by saying that each report is “advocacy,” and has said something false when she says this means it is “not evidence.” Advocates are likely to twist the facts, but proving someone isn’t an advocate isn’t proof that they have twisted the facts.

Realizing that Prof. Fair did not seem to understand this, I decided to point it out to her. After the show, she took to Twitter to grouse about how Al Jazeera had not let her make her points. She also reiterated her Planned Parenthood point, at which point my duty to intellectual integrity compelled me to step in. A transcript of our exchange is below.

(I have cleaned up the text slightly, because both of us were forced to use some awkward grammatical contortions thanks to the unfortunate limitations of the Twitter medium. I have also had to rearrange some things, because Twitter conversations tend not to flow linearly; I’ve woven them into a conversation as best as possible, trying to do the justice to Prof. Fair’s opinions that she refuses to do to others.)

Things began thusly:

CF: It’s like Planned Parenthood doing a report on how abortion makes women happy.

NR: You should stop using this Planned Parenthood example. It’s fallacious to suggest a report by Planned Parenthood is inherently false.

To this, Prof. Fair replied with a long flurry of tweets. I would ask you to note the contrast between the (tempered, qualified) statements she makes in her below reply and the (absolute) statements she made previously.

CF: Someone misses the point…entirely. A report sponsored by Planned Parenthood would garner loads of scrutiny due to the conflict of interest. The Stanford/NYU report should, too. The parallel is precise. If Planned Parenthood only did a report that featured the salutary effects of abortion, we’d be skeptical. When Reprieve sponsors a report that only produces results that accord with their agenda, we should be equally dubious. Planned Parenthood and Reprieve could sponsor competent research. However, both would have to take great care to deal with transparency, conflict of interest, data integrity, and research methods. I am unabashedly pro choice and a supporter of PP. [But] my point is about conflict of interest and scrutiny.

NR: I understand your point perfectly. But you repeatedly dismissed every report by an advocacy group saying it wasn’t evidence. Yet this is false. As you now indicate, backpedaling from your televised statements, such reports simply need extra scrutiny. What you did on television was not to scrutinize methods but shout “advocacy” over and over as if that settles it.

CF: Yeah, I guess you don’t understand the difference between research and advocacy-driven legal briefs depicting one side? I am not backpedaling. In fact, I was the one who said drones are likely over-eaching the AUMF. Listening skills, processing data, evaluating critically advocacy-sponsored reports: not the forte of GeeGee* Lemmings. That report sponsored by Reprieve was appalling in every facet of execution. If you can’t figure that out…

NR: Of course it depicts one side. But it doesn’t discredit it. The Heritage Foundation, Demos, and the American Enterprise Institute all produce useful research. Just like a legal brief is not automatically wrong because it comes from one side.

CF: And you know what? Credible research doesn’t do that. That’s called advocacy. That report masquerades as research. Did you read my piece on this? It doesn’t seem like it because you are saying things that are not really true.

NR: It doesn’t matter if you made non-fallacious arguments elsewhere. The argument you made in the debate was fallacious. You used the argument “Those reports aren’t evidence, they’re advocacy.” It’s incorrect, because advocates often find evidence.

CF: Which kazoo are you playing in GeeGee’s Kazoo Orchestra?

NR: Okay, so this isn’t argument. This shows you’re just not serious. I can’t believe a professor is operating at this level.** I mean, really. Kazoo orchestra? I’m making a sober point about the use of advocacy reports and you’re talking about kazoos.

CF: What is not serious is that you don’t understand data and don’t want to. Thanks Dog [sic] you write children’s books.

NR: This isn’t about the underlying data. This is about what you said on TV, writing off reports as “advocacy.”

CF: I guess law school didn’t teach you about evidence and research and selection bias and all that good stuff? FFS [colloquial acronym meaning “For Fuck’s Sake”]

NR: Of course. It’s precisely my point that the evidence must be evaluated rather than who is presenting it. On television, you wrote off arguments because of who was making them rather than what they said.

CF: That report, as I tried to explain on Al Jazeera and as I have explained elsewhere, is not credible. You also don’t understand grammar. I said “Those reports.” The use of “those” implies a referent. You need schooling.

NR: What you’re saying makes no sense, and the personal nastiness is really an unfortunate trait for an intellectual.

End of exchange! Now, your opinion might differ, but to me this discussion was encouraging. I often worry that I am not smart enough, or mature enough, to succeed in adult life. But I think the example of Prof. Christine Fair shows that, at least at Georgetown University, literally anyone can be a respected professor, and that it is perfectly acceptable to be as petulant, oblivious, duplicitous, or ignorant as one likes. Thank you, Prof. Fair, for giving courage to all of the world’s slow-witted four-year-olds, who can now rest assured that they are but a Twitter account away from finding a cushy post in the foreign policy punditry establishment.

*NOTE: “GeeGee” is the term Prof. Fair uses for Glenn Greenwald. Around the same time of our conversation, Ms. Fair also tweeted: “‘GeeGee and His Lemmings’ would be a great name for a Kazoo Orchestra. ‘Osama and the Talibanjos’ could be the warm-up act.” 

**This was a lie. I could quite easily believe a professor was operating at this level.