NYT Article: Save Expertise from the Experts
I have an article in The New York Times today, drawing on my previous post “Tetlock and the Taliban.” See also my interview with Robin Hanson, and collection of Afghanistan content for some background.
Much has been written about what the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan means for the future of that country and America’s global standing. But the failures of the war reveal a need for deeper introspection into what has gone wrong with American democracy and its institutions — including the story of failed expertise.
In 2006, Generals James Mattis and David Petraeus convened a conference to develop a “counterinsurgency doctrine” (because the topic had been neglected in broader military doctrine and national security policies since the Vietnam War). A document followed, Army Field Manual 3-24, based on academic gatherings, articles and books devoted to the topic. A few years later, President Barack Obama faced intense pressure from the foreign policy establishment and members of the military to send a “surge” of money and troops to Afghanistan. The emerging paradigm of “counterinsurgency theory” had given this campaign a seemingly solid intellectual basis. It could help the push, in the words of then-Vice President Joe Biden, to “box in” an inexperienced president and send more troops, as happened in 2009.
This is just one chapter in a larger story. At many points in the war, the coalition had access to the insights of people who had graduated from the world’s best universities and brought highly specialized knowledge to issues (state building, counterterrorism) that the United States was facing in Afghanistan. The last president of the American-backed government, Ashraf Ghani, has a Ph.D. from Columbia and was even a co-author of a book titled “Fixing Failed States.” But for all their credentials, they were not able to stop a swift Taliban takeover of the country.
What Afghanistan shows is that we need a new definition of expertise, one that relies more on proven track records and healthy cognitive habits, and less on credentials and the narrow forms of knowledge that are too often rewarded. In an era of populism and declining trust in institutions, such a project is necessary to put expertise on a stronger footing.
Read the whole thing here.
The other problem with experts is that they are amplified by their audience, who often want even more extreme measures than what the experts actually recommend. This is certainly the case for any ME conflict, but it's increasingly the case for COVID. The Boston Globe regularly features Dr. Ashish Jha of Brown, from which he issues his ironclad COVID recommendations/predictions. Basically, he seems to wait for whatever Fauci's opinion is and then be slightly more conservative. When Fauci says to wait 2 months to go back to the office, Dr. Jha says it can't hurt to wait 3 months (ad infinitum for the last 18 months). Still, the actual behavior of the Globe's target audience goes way beyond anything Jha would recommend. Recently, I was at a youth sporting event in a very wealthy suburb. Despite being outside, there were a dozen or so parents wearing masks for hours on end along young children. Jha has said multiple times that there's virtually no risk of outdoor transmission. Only someone like Jha would have the credibilty to tell these people they are f'cking insane. If they heard mild pushback from anyone else, they'd just see them as the (ficticious) horse-paste guzzling yahoos in MAGAstan. The seriously bad effects of the wrong kinds of experts are only possible in a society with underlying pathological issues. In the instance of COVID, the pathological issue is safety-ism. Additionally, everything being a culture war yields these inverted, bizarro-world incentives. On one hand, we have fully vaccinated 38 year old amature triathletes wearing 3 masks outside. On the other, we have 71 year old morbidly obese diabetics with hyper-tension who can't wait to get on a fully packed cruise ship like it's 2019.
Rich, where can I find your podcast interview with Diana Fleischman?