Friday, December 17, 2004

Plausibility (Revised with Update)

Those following the Yushchenko poisoning story will no doubt have seen this from the AP or something like it. Viktor Yushchenko is now "sure" that the current Ukrainian government is responsible for his alleged dioxin poisoning. "It was a project of political murder, prepared by the authorities," Yushchenko told the AP. The following bit of rather mind-numbing prose from the same AP report, however, merits some attention:

Poisoning experts say those who spiked Yushchenko's food may have aimed to kill him or may simply have tried to debilitate him during the election campaign.

What constitutes a lethal dose of dioxin has never been established, because nobody has ever been known to die from it.

It's possible that Yushchenko did not eat all of the poisoned meal and so escaped death by accident, but it's also possible that dioxin was chosen because it is recognized as a crippling poison that normally doesn't kill, scientists say.

All of this is seemingly the AP's manner of dancing around the fact that, as French toxicologist Jean-Francois Narbonne has noted in an AFP report (Hat tip CodeBlueBlog), dioxin would not be the poison of choice for any assassin hoping to see his or her victim dead within, say, a couple of decades. Dioxin is known to make people quite ill and even to increase the risk of developing various potentially fatal illnesses, such as cancer, in the long-run. But, as the AP report rather shame-facedly acknowledges, it has never been known as such and in the short-run to kill anyone. "When you want to kill someone quickly, you use neurotoxins," Narbonne is quoted as saying, "Trying to induce a cancer in 20 years' time is not particularly clever...."

One question that seems not to have occured to those (like the inimitable Nicholas Kristof in yesterday's NYTimes) lending credence to the accusations or insinuations of some Kremlin/Kuchma/Yanukovich "plot" to off or - perhaps it was merely - maim Viktor Yushchenko is: what the devil is this alleged cabal supposed to have gained by doing one or the other? Say that the intent was to kill Yushchenko. Well, the "orange" coalition is not reducible to Viktor Yushchenko alone. All that offing Yushchenko would accomplish is to create a martyr for the "orange" movement and practically guarantee the election of, say, Yushchenko's "Our Ukraine" stablemate Yulia Tymoshenko as president. And what would be the result if the goal was just to maim Yushchenko? Well, exactly the situation that currently obtains: the miraculous transformation of Yushchenko into a martyr who is still alive and thus able to capitalize on his virtual martyrdom for electoral advantage.

The theory of the Kremlin/Kuchma/Yanukovich conspiracy does not pass the test of plausibility. And given that no third party is ever going to know for sure what transpired during Viktor Yushchenko's allegedly fateful September 5th diner with the head of the Ukrainian secret service or, for that matter, during his mysterious hospitalizations at the Rudolfinerhaus, it is the test of plausibility to which we should refer before forming judgments on the highly contentious factual allegations related to the origins of Viktor Yushchenko's illness. Such considerations do not, by the way, militate against the possibility that Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned. But they do militate against the hypothesis that he was poisoned by a Kremlin/Kuchma cabal. I will leave it to others better informed than I on the inner-workings of Ukrainian politics to speculate on who might have had a rationally-comprehensible motive to want to kill or hurt Viktor Yushchenko.

In any event, Viktor Yushchenko and his partners in the "Orange" coalition have a rationally-comprehensible motive for wanting to present his illness as the result of an assassination attempt even if it is not this. And Yushchenko's repeated insistence (see here too) that someone wanted to kill him using a substance that has never been known to kill anyone does not increase his credibility. But apparently the established media is not interested in posing any questions about Viktor Yushchenko's credibility....

UPDATE: The French health-related site e-santé.fr has posted an article on the Yushchenko affair by one Dr. Philippe Presles (originally published in Le Quotidien du Médecin, n°7651, 13 décembre 2004) that notes that the facial lesions from which Vikto Yushchenko suffers resemble those displayed by children exposed to a dioxin cloud as a result of an industrial accident in Seveso Italy in 1976. The Seveso accident has been cited as precedent for Yushchenko's alleged poisoning in various articles in the English-language press. However, Dr. Presles notes: "the dioxin that accumulates in dust or in combustion residues is not a product that can be manufactured. It is not possible to purchase it or to mix it with food..." The ellipses are from Dr. Presles. For what it is worth, Dr. Presles cites Jean-Francois Narbonne to the effect that the hypothesis of poisoning by PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) is scientifically more plausible than that of dioxin-poisoning.