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Responsibility to the Future

It's a troubling sign of the modern political culture that being repeatedly and horrifically wrong about important subjects doesn't seem to make one less popular as an advisor. In fields where the subjects of professional analysis are granular and readily quantifiable, making crucial mistakes over and over again is a clear pathway to unemployment. Yet when the subjects are expansive and globally important, such as the politics of war or climate, repeated errors apparently aren't worth notice.

If these mistakes were simply signs of professional buffoonery, they'd be annoying but not worth comment. But these errors in analysis come from people with a great deal of influence over both policy-makers and semi-informed voters. Moreover, they focus on a subject that I follow closely: foresight.

In the era leading up to the current war in Iraq, the United States (as well as other nations) heard a cacophony of assertions about the inevitable results of the war. Some of these assertions were on-target; some were wildly (and tragically) off-base. Sadly, the voices that were most wrong still regularly appear on television news, on the editorial pages, and featured prominently in talk radio. The voices that were the most right, conversely, remain more-or-less invisible in the popular media.

So, following a blog trend, let me just say: What Digby (or, in this case, Tristero) Said.

It's high time that those who were right all along about Iraq have a significant national voice. [...] Whether or not [the high-profile pundits like William Kristol, Ken Pollack, and Tom Friedman] now recognize they were wrong, the fact is that they were when it counted most. Time to listen to those who got it right from the start.

I've written before about the responsibility that ethical futurists have to the future.

...the first duty of an ethical futurist is to act in the interests of the stakeholders yet to come -- those who would suffer harm in the future from choices made in the present. [...] Futurists, as those people who have chosen to become navigators for society -- responsible for watching the path ahead -- have a particular responsibility for safeguard that path, and to ensure that the people making strategic choices about actions and policies have the opportunity to do so wisely.

Implicit in this responsibility is the necessity of admission when one's analysis was wrong. But missing from this is the parallel admonition to the people and organizations that listen to foresight analysis: if your chosen "navigators for society" repeatedly run you into rocks, yet repeatedly deny having done so, you have a particular responsibility to stop listening to them.


These guys will never admit that they're wrong.

They've figured out a way to stay in power, or keep their jobs, or get high ratings, by cultivating the Some of The People You Can Fool All Of The Time.

The Some of The People You Can Fool All Of The Time won't stop listening because it's too painful to change their minds. Their stubborness and aggression is an asset when it comes to staring contests, harassment, listener loyalty, and get out the vote efforts.

I think we're starting to see, on both the political and environment fronts, the People You Can't Fool All Of The Time realizing they've been had.

Is there a way to teach the habit and skill of recognizing bullshit, including self-serving claims that something is bullshit, to young people?

I sure as heck hope so.


Stefan raises a very interesting question, over and above the sad persistence of Bad Advice which we all lament.

No unified group of practitioners of any particular current intellectual discipline all saw through the bullshit around the recent conflict. There were scientists who rationalized the sad excuses for justification, and scientists who saw through them, likewise social scientists, literary types, engineers, and even--dare I mention it?--religious leaders.

So an intellectual skill may not be an adequate response to Stefan's excellent question:

Is there a way to teach the habit and skill of recognizing bullshit, including self-serving claims that something is bullshit, to young people?

The fear and selfishness which drove the rationalization of so much recent bad policy are [so I'm taught] hard-wired components of our current make-up. It is those qualities which enable rationalization, and factual arguments to people who are operating our of fear and greed don't work.

The test has to be what we choose to do in response to fear and selfishness. Once we accept that it exists, we can say "well, it's in my nature, might as well play along", or we can look at it as a chance to refine our intellectual insight, our human empathy, and--yes--our sense that something might be more important than our individual lives, or winning a particular argument.

That's the hard part: growing beyond the fear and greed. Not eliminating it, but embedding it in a wholer, saner pattern of life. The few people I've met who've done that are pretty good at recognizing bullshit and self-serving claims.



Politics of fear and war always open up 'your-future-as-a-black-hole' discussions.

Perhaps a potential solution to this glaring embarassment of 'global American leadership' - is further decentralization of Federal power.

Change is accelerating-we need a president in office for fewer than four years. Four years is too long!!

Also, States and Cities need to exercise more power. If Mayors or Governors had a greater say in whether to send their constituents (their voters, workers, families) to theatres of war- they might be a force against the bad policy of the war.

I saw William Kristol in the hall at Harvard last week. He's been a visiting lecturer at the Kennedy School this semester, teaching a course on leadership. Thought about saying something to him but decided there is nothing I could say, probably nothing anybody could say that would hit him where it hurts.

Another of the wrong prognosticators I've seen at Harvard is Peter Beinart. Beinart has rethought his support for the Iraq invasion but, from what I've seen, not too deeply. Again, my impression there is little one can say that Beinart would actually listen to. He already knows it all.

One common denominator in both these cases is that they are following an established pundit track, Beinart more obviously because he's much younger. It is a path laid out by Walter Lippman and his followers and goes from the oped pages to an editorship through a couple of university fellowships into a column and books and now the Sunday talk shows.

Another common denominator is that both seem to have little practical world experience outside of opinionating. I don't believe either has served in the military, for instance. They are people who know the world through books.

Kristol is particularly interesting to me as my impression of him, gathered when a friend who is taking his course invited me to sit in on one of his lectures, is that he has no physical practice whatsoever. He appears to me to be someone who doesn't do anything with his hands, doesn't play a musical instrument or garden or work wood or paint or play sports. I could be wrong but that is the strong impression I get from him. His life is all in his head. His skill is all and only with words.

On the other hand, Francis Fukuyama who has publicly separated himself from his neocon cohort, to great personal distress, is a furniture-maker specializing in reproductions of Colonial designs. I would say maybe a good sign of a flinger of terminal bullshit would be hands without callouses.

I looked in vain for a link to David Brin's "prediction registry" - http://www.davidbrin.com/predictionsregistry.html.

I see, upon googling, there's also something happening on IssuePedia: http://www.issuepedia.org/index.php/Prediction_Registry

Anyway, the point is, if you're a policymaker, it'd be nice to have a tool to answer the question "does person X have a good track record at actually being right, or is he/she just full of ideological BS?"

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.

Upton Sinclair

It is strange to me that few seem to draw the obvious parallels between the denial and deniers of stratospheric ozone thinning and climate change. The same tactics are used and many of the same organizations and people are involved in both.

We must never forget that there are too many pundits who are blinded either by ideology or money to be intellectually honest about their prognostication.

Twas ever thus. Twill ever be just so.


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