What we don't know, and why

There's a lot we don't know, but ignorance is no obstacle to strong convictions. Ignorance comes to us easily, in part because lots of things are unknowable, in part because we're lazy and it's so much easier to avoid the hard labor of thinking and in part because some information is very annoying, and we'd rather ignore it.

Take, for example, the recent explosion at the Iranian military base at Parchin, long identified — by a plethora of experts including the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency — as a place where the Iranians are developing nuclear technology for their atomic bombs. Most every article on the subject contains a line indicating uncertainty. Was it an accident or saborage?

We don't know. We do know that the Parchin base is very well protected, and we know that the Iranian regime leaders have not permitted U.N. inspectors to examine the place. We also know — from overhead photography released by the Israelis — that the explosion was very big, and destroyed several buildings well inside the base.

But accidents do happen. Sometimes in funny places.

The official Iranian explanation, not surprisingly, is "accident." Most of the "insiders" whisper, "Israel did it." I don't have a guess, but if it was sabotage, I would bet on the internal Iranian opposition, and I wouldn't reject out of hand the idea that they got some help from Israel or the United States.

But we don't know, and the only reason for guessing "what happened" is to make a rhetorical point about something else. As Omri Ceren tells us, "Fox News reported the same day that the blast — whether it was an accident or deliberately triggered — in any case 'cleared up one thing ... the nuclear weapons program Tehran has long denied is real.'" Which I don't get. How would the explosion confirm any such thing?

This is one of those cases where analysts are committed to the view that there's a secret nuclear project in Parchin, and they really don't want to think more deeply about the matter. Others pooh-pooh the idea that there's an effective opposition inside Iran (which raises complicated policy options), so they like the notion that Israel did it.

But we don't know. We will probably know in some weeks or months, but those who spin in the "news cycle" aren't patient.

Then there's the battle between the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Kurds over the city of Kobani. Lots of people, including Turkey's President Ceyep Erdogan, have authoritatively predicted that ISIS will win, and have spelled out the likely gruesome consequences. Bloomberg's editors, on the other hand, say that the "Islamic State Isn't Winning."

We are deluged with reports from Kobani, so we're not short on information, but I dare say that those expecting an ISIS victory are a bit surprised they haven't taken control of the town by now (and the occasional bombing raid doesn't seem sufficient to explain it). To these confident prophets, I say, "Remember Stalingrad?" The defeat of Hitler's army was surprising, but then life is full of surprises, and war is notoriously foggy and surprising. The Kurds are tough fighters, and although they are famously outgunned, courage and tenacity count for a lot. I remember one sunny day in the early 1980s when the French ambassador fed a number of us and begged us to exert our presumed influence to save then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from an expected slaughter by the ferocious Iranians. I suggested that the Iraqis were likely to fight harder in defense of their own territory than they had in their invasion of Iran, and so it proved. Might the Peshmerga in Kobani somehow prevail?

Hell yes. Maybe it's unlikely, but ... we don't know. Indeed, it's unknowable.

My favorite case in point comes from my late friend and mentor, the great historian George Mosse. He did groundbreaking work on mass movements, especially fascists and Nazis, and yet, years later, he confessed to a major error:

"If someone had come to me in 1914 and said that one country would attempt to exterminate the Jews, I would have said, 'no one can be surprised at the depths to which the French can sink.'"

Even the greatest thinkers couldn't see Germany, 1932, coming at the outset of the First World War.

If we were more modest about our ability to understand the world, I think we'd do a real service to our readers and to the policy crowd. All I want from reporters is information, I don't want them to tell me "what it means." Most of the time they don't know, can't know or don't really want to know, but they do want to influence our view of the world. I can manage that by myself, and I rather think my readers can, too.

This piece has been corrected from a previous version.

Ledeen, the author of more than 30 books, is the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He was special adviser to former Secretary of State Alexander Haig and a consultant to the national security adviser during the Reagan administration.