April 17, 2009

Stirring the soul

Politics must be based on rational analysis instead of instinctive character assessments.

The climax of the visit by a delegation of U.S. legislators to Havana earlier this month came when Fidel Castro looked directly into the eyes of Representative Laura Richardson (D–CA) and assured her that he wants President Obama to succeed. Apparently, the eyes said it all. “[Fidel Castro] really wants President Obama to succeed” in his foreign policy goals, Richardson later told reporters. But “as it happened,” wrote Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post, “Castro quickly demonstrated that he didn’t even wish the delegation well, let alone the current occupant of the White House. After the meeting, Castro issued a statement claiming that one of his visitors had said the United States should ‘apologize’ to Cuba, and that another visitor had said U.S. society is still ‘racist.’ Members of the delegation denied that any such exchanges had taken place....” If this sounds familiar, it should. President Bush has long been the butt of jokes for his claim in 2001 that he “got a sense” of then–Russian president Vladimir Putin’s soul while looking into his eyes and thus “found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.” Some time later, after getting fed up with Putin’s tyranny and support of rogue regimes, former Pentagon adviser Richard Perle noted, “When you gaze into souls, it’s something you should update periodically, because souls can change.”I would take this criticism one step further and declare an outright moratorium on political soul-gazing. How many more misjudgments will we need to witness before government officials stop thinking with their retinas? Conversations with foreign officials should never be considered a decisive source of intelligence, if only because officials can easily lie.This obvious point is conveniently tossed out the window in far too many foreign-policy analyses. To take one particularly egregious example, journalist Seymour Hersh and some of the American diplomats he has interviewed have become convinced that Syria is serious about peace with Israel, merely because Syrian officials told them so. That peace is not in the interest of the Syrian ruling family because its main source of opposition is the passionately anti-Israel Muslim Brotherhood completely escapes their attention. These “experts” ignore common sense because it is in their self-interest to do so. Their continued relevance depends on the fiction that a simple situation is actually complex, and that only through a combination of endless diplomatic dancing and their own clairvoyance can it be properly understood.So don’t hold your breath waiting for the end of the kind of thinking that led seven otherwise sane politicians to believe that a red-carpet tour of a hostile country led by officials of that country is a good way to get a sense of the place. Too many careers and too many egos depend on the conceit that some people have a special knowledge that enables them to grasp a situation better than anyone else possibly could. In fact, expertise is highly overrated. In one meticulous study of predictions made by 284 experts on a variety of subjects, Berkeley psychologist Philip Tetlock discovered that “[i]t made virtually no difference whether participants had doctorates, whether they were economists, political scientists, journalists, or historians, whether they had policy experience or access to classified information, or whether they had logged many or few years of experience.” In another study, rodents outperformed Yale undergraduates in understanding the best way to get food dropped in a maze.This counterintuitive possibility should be obvious to anyone who observes learning in children. With no special tools or knowledge at all, they can master new languages in a fraction of the time that the most brilliant adults can. This is because, ironically, adults think too much. Too much information actually makes them dumb.Such knowledge should instill caution in those who think that because President Obama is uniquely intelligent, his leadership will be uniquely wise. It should also instill humility in professors who think that because they know more, they necessarily know better.

Nathan Bloom is a fourth-year in the College majoring in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.