Friday, March 06, 2009

Sunday Reflections for March 8, 2009: "Listening to experts"

Last week President Obama announced his withdrawal timetable for Iraq. All American combat forces will be gone by August 2010, but up to 50,000 could remain through 2011 in advisory and other non-combat roles. Then the US military mission in Iraq will be over.

“Don’t bet on it.” That has been the message of Tom Ricks, prize winning foreign affairs correspondent for the Washington Post. He is traveling the country and giving interviews to promote his new book, The Gamble, which tells about the war in Iraq after the change in tactics under Gen. David Petraeus. Previously Ricks had written one of the most well-regarded books on the first phase of the Iraq war, called Fiasco.

this past week on NPR, Ricks said that he knows of no one in Bagdad who believes the President’s withdrawal timetable will be met. He isn’t against American disengagement—far from it. Rather, he is saying that shaking ourselves loose of Iraq is going to be much more difficult than President Obama, or most Americans, realize.

In Ricks’ view, the American invasion of Iraq was the worst foreign policy decision in the country’s history. And now Obama faces the most difficult foreign policy mess of any new President. If the US were to unilaterally withdraw its forces, he is convinced a genocidal slaughter would ensue. And he is sure we will not allow that to happen.

But however long we stay (and Ricks thinks the conflict is at best half-over), the outcome is not going to be much to our liking. After all is said and done, he believes Iraq is “not going to be a democracy, it's going to have a surprising level of violence, it's probably going to be an ally of Iran, and it's probably going to be ruled by some sort of dictator, some sort of little Saddam.” Despite the President’s best efforts and intentions, “I think Iraq is going to change Obama more than Obama changes Iraq."

And so after years of repeating the mantra “no more Vietnams”, in Ricks view this is exactly what we have accomplished: a war we cannot win and which we dare not lose. His final harsh judgment: “George Bush’s mistakes are something we’re going to be paying for for decades.”

One can’t help wondering about the connections between the “fiasco” of the Iraq war and the fiasco of the nation’s (and the world’s) economy. There is, of course, no one bad guy to blame. Yet it is true that both of these messes have been presided over by a very small and elite group of our nation’s leaders, our “best and brightest” political, military and economic experts. In both of these instances (as well as others, such as global warming), when serious questions were raised about policies and practices, they were dismissed and the country was told, “Trust us—we know what we’re doing.” Clearly they didn’t, but why did we believe them?

Joel Lovell writes a monthly financial advice column for GQ magazine. In an
Op Ed in last Sunday’s Washington Post, he confessed to having a heretical thought when he finished his last column: “There's a good chance that what I just wrote is precisely the wrong advice." He goes on in amazement to identify the countless financial advisers who gave “precisely the wrong advice” over the past year and more, and who still keep giving advice—and who people still listen to!

As Lovell recognizes, the issue is larger than just finance. He wonders why Americans seem so desperate to be told what to do. That certainly appears to be the case, given the number of gurus and advisors on TV and radio, on the lecture circuit, and filling the self-help shelves of book stores. After so many experts have fallen flat on their faces, Lovell says their kind of self-assured directive talk just doesn’t fly anymore: “The advice I trust the most now comes wrapped in doubt. Here's what I'd do, and this is why I think it's right, but I'm not sure.”

Lovell’s attitude fits with some recent studies on the accuracy of predictions and prognostication. It seems there is an almost inverse correlation between the confidence of the person making the prediction and their accuracy. The key factor seems to be that the more the person is psychologically invested in being right, the more likely they are to be wrong. Once such people make a judgment it becomes very difficult for them to recognize new information that may contradict them. They are blinded to new evidence that would suggest they should change their original conclusion.

I think it would be a big mistake to take away from our experiences of recent years that we need to stop listening to experts. What does need to change is how we judge who the experts worth listening to are. Because an opinion or decision is expressed with blustery self-confidence does not make it reliable or right, nor does wrapping it in a political or ideological label.

Our thirst for self-confident advisors may reflect a rise in our own self-doubt. Technology overwhelms us with its complexity. Post-modern life can leaves us questioning our most basic assumptions. But what we often fail to distinguish is the difference between our need for an expert’s information and our desire for a purported expert’s self-assurance.

Ultimately, genuine self-confidence is not the result of having information, talent, or bluster. Rather it comes from a spiritual awareness that life is a gift to which everyone is entitled and it is not a game with winners and losers. We don’t know everything we want to know. We make mistakes. But that’s okay—and it’s true for everyone, everywhere.

And so, paradoxically, self-confidence is born out of an honest and realistic humility. If we have that, when someone tries to boll us over asserting, “This is a war we have to fight” or “This is an investment you have to make” or “Trust me; I know I’m right”, we can respond, “Well, that may be true. But let’s hear what others have to say.” For the biggest lie of the fake experts is that we don’t need, or have the time, to listen to anyone else.

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