Faith-based skepticism on chemical weapons

Faith-based skepticism might seem like a contradiction in terms and thus it never fails to amaze me the frequency with which doubt and blind faith are conjoined in some people’s minds when they think about Syria.

The latest example comes in response to claims that chemical weapons have been used.

If U.S. government officials assert that sarin has been used by Assad forces in Syria, should that claim be viewed with skepticism? Yes.

If a blogger asserts that the claim is bogus because it rests on what he regards as “fake” evidence — a YouTube video showing people foaming at the mouth — then should that blogger’s own assertion also be viewed with skepticism?

For the faith-based skeptic that blogger’s opinion carries enough weight. And with respect to this particular video, if something looks like shaving foam, then it must be shaving foam. ‘Nough said.

But here’s what the White House actually said — note: no reference to video evidence:

Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin. This assessment is based in part on physiological samples. Our standard of evidence must build on these intelligence assessments as we seek to establish credible and corroborated facts. For example, the chain of custody is not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions. We do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the Assad regime.

Note the number of caveats embedded in this statement: limited confidence; that the collection of evidence is still ongoing; that it is unclear where the existing evidence came from; and that it is even unclear whether exposure to chemical weapons necessarily has come from their intentional or authorized use. The strongest assertion — though stated as a belief, not a fact — is that the Assad regime would “very likely” be the source of chemical weapons used in Syria.

Underlining the fact that in the midst of so much hedging, the Obama administration is not willing to make its own determination on whether chemical weapons have in fact being used, the White House says: “we are currently pressing for a comprehensive United Nations investigation that can credibly evaluate the evidence and establish what took place.” And while the U.S. “presses” for such an investigation, if Syria (with a nod and a wink from Russia) stands in the way, be assured that a great deal of hand-wringing will continue in Washington as the administration persists in expressing its concern but lack of certainty around the use of chemical weapons.

As for what “physiological samples” look like and how they can be tested to determine the use of sarin, an explanation provided by Danger Room makes it clear that such an analysis has nothing to do with images appearing on YouTube:

The U.S. military initially tests for evidence of nerve gas exposure by looking for the presence of the enzyme cholinesterase in red blood cells and in plasma. (Sarin messes with the enzyme, which in turn allows a key neurotransmitter to build up in the body, causing rather awful muscle spasms.) The less cholinesterase they find, they more likely there was a nerve gas hit.

The problem is, some pesticides will also depress cholinesterase. So the military employs a second — and sometimes a third — test.

When sarin binds to cholinesterase it loses a fluoride. The pesticides don’t do this. This second test exposes a blood sample to fluoride ions, which partially reconstitutes sarin if it’s there. If that doesn’t work, military technicians can run a third test — considered the gold standard — which isolates from the plasma one form of cholinesterase, and then uses the enzyme pepsin the chew up the cholinesterase into smaller pieces. Sarin binds to some of the these smaller chunks, and liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry should be able to detect it if it’s there up. “You would be sure it’s a nerve agent and not a pesticide,” says a scientist who works with such tests, which are reliable for two to three week after exposure.

Preliminary blood samples are drawn from a pricked finger tip, and placed a field blood analyzer — a gizmo about the size of a scientific calculator that produces varying shades of yellow depending on the cholinesterase level. If the tests are positive, it’s best to tap a vein and draw more blood into a 10 milliliter tube so you can run the more sophisticated exams.

According to the Financial Times, one blood sample was analyzed by American analysts, while the other was examined by Britain’s Defence Science Technology Laboratory.

Exactly when the results came back isn’t clear. But only days ago, the Obama administration was throwing cold water on reports from Israeli and British officials of chemical weapon use in Syria. (“We have not come to the conclusion that there has been that use,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Tuesday.) But that changed Thursday morning, when the White House issued a letter (.pdf) to Senators Carl Levin and John McCain confirming the sarin discovery.

Wherever one stands on the question of intervention, the one thing that should be indisputable at this point is that there are few officials who are rushing to judgement on the issue of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The rush to judgement actually comes from those who insist that all claims regarding use of such weapons by the Assad regime must actually be fake. And that is how faith-based skepticism works: doubt all claims made by Western officials or appearing in Western media while at the same time treating as credible any claim emanating from a purported adversary to Western imperialism.

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