Thursday, June 8, 2017

No Comment

A lot of noise is being made these days about what Jim Comey did and did not say publicly.  Almost all of that noise is logically fallacious.  Comey tried to explain the matter using what he called the "slippery slope" analogy, but no one was listening.  He should have been more forceful.

The answer to the question "Why couldn't he simply say that Trump was not under investigation?" is simply this: "What would he have said if Trump were under investigation?"

If a reporter asks the FBI whether X is under investigation, there is only one suitable answer:  "No comment." Every other answer is wrong, because any other answer means that there are at least two possible answers: "No Comment" and [the other answer].  And, if that other possible answer is "No," "No Comment" must imply "yes"; otherwise, the "No" answer would have no reason to exist.

Already, we are seeing the fall-out of the possibility of "No" being an answer.  Comey testified
(i) that when he last spoke to President Trump, he told Trump that the FBI was not investigating him, and 
(ii) that his statement to Trump was true.  
Items (i) and (ii) are entirely separate things.  Item (i) is an action Comey swears he took in private.  Item (ii) is a public statement about an investigation that Comey swears is true.  It would be practically impossible for Comey to deny item (ii) without raising the possibility that he was lying to Trump, but that's why he should not have added item (ii).  Indeed, if asked whether what he told Trump was true, he should have answered "I can't comment publicly on whether an investigation was ongoing."  That sounds bizarre, and it would likely be treated as bizarre by the bozos who make hay out of things that sound bizarre.  But Comey could logically have said this:
"I can testify publicly to what was said by President Trump and me and to what I have done in connection with the matter.  Neither of those things requires me to make a public statement as to the truth of what I told President Trump, and, because there can be only one such statement - "No comment" - I am making that statement.  You should not infer anything from my statement, as it is the only one I am able to make, and so it carries no information with it, as if I did not hear it being asked.
Information theorists will see the heart of the matter quickly.  Information is anything that reduces the degrees of freedom in a system.  That's a high-sounding, generalized way of saying that if there are two possibilities (yes and no), and a statement about those possibilities causes there to be one possibility ("YES!!"), then that statement carries information.  If the statement does not reduce the number of possibilities ("No comment"), it carries no information, and nothing can be inferred from it.  For that description of things to be valid, however, it is essential that "No Comment" be the only possible answer.  Otherwise, there are more than one possible answers, so giving either one of them reduces the degrees of freedom in the system of answers and carries information.  Thus, there must be only one possible answer to the question if that answer is to deliver no information.

Comey's slippery slope argument says that if the FBI says it is not investigating X, it must also say that it is not investigating anyone else about whom it is asked, unless, of course, it is investigating that person.  So, if the answer isn't "no," it will be read as "yes," even if it is spelled "No comment," and there goes the FBI's ability to investigate someone without publicly saying so.

This is a big deal.  It explains everything about why officials don't say things publicly even when it is clear that they know the answer and may even be clear to everyone what the answer is.  Any deviation from "No comment" makes any subsequent "No comment" more meaningful than it needs to be.

Thus, Comey testified that, in connection with the matter of Secy. Clinton's emails, he was permitted to say, to Congress and in press briefings - it's not clear why - that the FBI had opened a "matter," but not an "investigation."  That bothered Comey, who said "We're the Federal Bureau of Investigation," so it makes no sense for us to open anything but and investigation.  But A.G. Lynch's justification for ordering him to call it a matter was that the FBI does not comment on whether it has opened an investigation.  But, by creating an alternative statement to "No comment," A.G. Lynch had made "matter" mean something other than "No comment," and the only reasonable thing it could be made to mean, when opened by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was, duh, an investigation.  Again, Comey should have been directed not to say anything about the matter, other than "No comment." And now it looks like the A.G. was trying to provide cover for Mrs. Clinton, when, perhaps, she was trying, unsuccessfully, to adhere to a policy without understanding its most important instrument: "No comment."

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