Wednesday, March 8, 2017

How America Lost Faith in Expertise. (Appropriate Formatting)

Yet another piece about things going wrong with an expertise in the US, this time from (yet another) Professor Of National Security Studies from US Naval War College, Tom Nichols. It is very symptomatic that the latest stream of thoughts on expertise originated in the US military community, be it already many times mentioned here Nicholas Gvosdev or Harlan Ullman. Any developed military knows about surrounding world more, even when it is not aware of it, than most so called civilian institutions claiming to be the seat of the expertise. Why it is so--is a separate matter, but there are serious, in the case of US "elites",  reasons to state, as it was stated here many times before--US "elite expertise" is reminiscent of Lieutenant Frank Drebin who returns home and does the routine against imaginary bogeys:

This is the visual representation of current US "expertise" in the modern world. Nichols complains:     

It’s not just that people don’t know a lot about science or politics or geography. They don’t, but that’s an old problem. The bigger concern today is that Americans have reached a point where ignorance—at least regarding what is generally considered established knowledge in public policy—is seen as an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to demonstrate their independence from nefarious elites—and insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong. This isn’t the same thing as the traditional American distaste for intellectuals and know-it-alls. I’m a professor, and I get it: most people don’t like professors. And I’m used to people disagreeing with me on lots of things. Principled, informed arguments are a sign of intellectual health and vitality in a democracy. I’m worried because we no longer have those kinds of arguments, just angry shouting matches.  

While I may or may not agree with the starting point of this argument by Nichols, he answers himself well why current US "expertise" is not in demand:

1. So called US "experts" ARE "elites", or at least they try to sell themselves as such, and Nichols gives a correct definition to those "elites"--nefarious. There is an overwhelming empirical evidence to support such a claim. If I would end up in the chair of some dentist who promised me a good anesthesia during root canal procedure on one of my teeth and, instead, would have my root canal cleaned as is, without any anesthetic, would I trust such a dentist? What if he did this to me on several occasions? How such an "expert" in dentistry could be characterized? Of course, as nefarious or, in layman's lingo, a complete ass-hole worthy of, at best, declaring independence from his services, at worst (or vice-versa)--beating the shit out of him for acts which are not only in full violation of Hippocratic Oath but are completely inhumane. How else can one describe what those US "elites" and "experts" who serve them have done both to the world at large and to the United States herself? Nefarious is a good, however not the most powerful, term, which fits the description of the results of those "elites'" activities; this plus "an unmitigated disaster". There is no surprise then that very many Americans, both under and well-educated, refuse to take this shit anymore. Why would anyone continue to visit a dentist who consistently puts one into excruciating pain for no reason? It is akin to Frank Drebin's excessive acrobatics--useless, however funny under the circumstances of a spoof comedy. People react to pain and so do societies which are still alive. Otherwise the approval rating, as an example, of US Congress, among many other "elite" American institutions, wouldn't have been slightly higher than the approval rating of Al Qaeda.  

2. As per second underlined thesis, it has to be understood that claiming "democracy" for the country which basically is run by oligarchy, or, rather, several oligarchic groups, you know, those same nefarious "elites", is really redundant, not to say tasteless. It is yet to be seen, even despite democratic victory by Donald Trump, where the society which is being constantly spied on and brainwashed by US media, who make Goebbels' propaganda machine tamed in comparison, will evolve. Nothing is settled yet in the fate of a dying Republic, hopefully it will be settled soon with US media and their "expert community" being completely rejected by the majority of Americans. For political "elites" the process could be protracted. There are NO "principled, informed arguments" in the US anymore, a thin veneer of civility and pretense of "expertise" has been torn away and what has been revealed is not exactly a pretty picture. In geopolitics, in economy, in warfare--the outcomes are in the open for everyone to see and judge for themselves. Those disasters are a direct result of a complete lack of those very "principled, informed arguments" which have no place in the country which till recently lived in the state of a perpetual Chalabi Moment and coming to own senses is not an easy task. People do lose a nerve, they do get aggressive and get into the shouting matches (better that than shooting ones) when things do not go as planned and they certainly do not go as planned. The pressure is mounting and the time is running out--hardly a good condition for learning lessons. It seems that Nichols fails to learn his, despite an honest (??) attempt.     

Experts are often wrong, and the good ones among them are the first to admit it—because their own professional disciplines are based not on some ideal of perfect knowledge and competence but on a constant process of identifying errors and correcting them, which ultimately drives intellectual progress. Yet these days, members of the public search for expert errors and revel in finding them—not to improve understanding but rather to give themselves license to disregard all expert advice they don’t like.  
Part of the problem is that some people think they’re experts when in fact they’re not. We’ve all been trapped at a party where one of the least informed people in the room holds court, confidently lecturing the other guests with a cascade of banalities and misinformation. This sort of experience isn’t just in your imagination. It’s real, and it’s called “the Dunning-Kruger effect,” after the research psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. The essence of the effect is that the less skilled or competent you are, the more confident you are that you’re actually very good at what you do. The psychologists’ central finding: “Not only do [such people] reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.” 

I have to go with Clausewitz yet again--the outcome is "the soundest criterion". There is no escape from this criterion in the real world. From business to medicine, to war--results matter. Cristiano Ronaldo or Michael Jordan are or were paid astronomical sums of money for a single reason--both could deliver a result through their talent, skills, determination. It is what you can actually deliver, not just promise, which matters in life. You are judged by the results and so are nations. Unless, of course, it is this very US "expert community" which is not simply "often wrong" but, for a number of  reasons, is wrong most of the time on the key global issues, no more important of them a foreign policy, which is an unmitigated geopolitical disaster.  I omit here Europe--those are more than just wrong, most of Europe's "expertdom" is completely delusional as is Europe's political class. Since I am Russian, it is only natural to review an utter collapse of the American Russia "expertdom", which couldn't understand what and how hit them. This whole blog, from the inception, is dedicated to this complete academic and a professional failure. It is my academic position today that it is not part of the problem but IS the essence of the problem "that some people think they are experts when they are not". The problem is with the American scholarship. It is also a cultural problem and it is also a problem of "democracy" which sees no difference whatsoever between consumer opinion on diapers and consumer opinion on complex military-political issues. Well educated and truly cultured person will not offer his or her opinion on the issue he or she do not understand or know--and that is the meaning of being genuinely cultured, not some humanities degree from US Ivy League madrassas, which are the embodiment of an academic failure. It is also why cultured people "lose" in the shouting matches with, in our particular case, Russia "experts" who, basically, know shit about the subject and very often go for direct falsifications when presenting their "arguments". Moreover, in scholarly debates it became more important to be more "sophisticated", "know" more facts, many of which often are irrelevant to the case to be made, to be more "informed", than actually know the subject or, what is more important, to know the TRUTH. 

Late Father Robert Tobias stated:

But what is truth. In the West, truth has tended to be identified with the accumulation of non-contradictory data, or verifiable, repeatable, compatible correspondences between appearances, events, data, and concepts. Is it true (a Western mind asking) that in Orthodoxy Truth is not a collection of logical propositions and conceptual conclusions that by virtue of their noncontraditction are correct, i.e. "true", but that Truth is a matter of unbroken relationship, in particular with God...

It is a profound observation, even for me--a man who can hardly be called religious. For some people it is God of scriptures, for others--it is an order of universe, a justice, for others--it is a beauty, morality and ethics but there is always a unifying super-factor of these relations which make the world so complex. As of lately (decades), in the US the whole notion of the Truth as knowable was rejected completely. Truth became the matter of expedient "interpretations" instead of  the objective to be attained through study and learning. But not only through academic endeavors; without culture, without understanding it and applying it to otherwise purely scientific method of study it all goes to waste. Not the "culture" of a refined living where  the more expensive is the Scotch the more "cultured" one is considered, but the culture of a behavior, shaped by factors way more significant than the value of real estate one possesses or the car one drives. Understanding this culture is sorely missing today. Nowhere it manifests itself more than in the field of the so called humanities where causality is sacrificed on the altar of a desirable result which is always dictated by the political and ideological agenda. The very notion of intellectualism as a state of understanding phenomena and making correct conclusions about them, that is stating the TRUTH, is being substituted with the  sophistry and outright demagoguery, which passes for a scholarly work, as long as it makes "sophisticated", not correct, truthful conclusions. 

Enough to review American field of geopolitics (or whatever passes for it today) in the last 70 years. No serious academic work of a global significance, with partial exception of  Huntington's seminal work, which can be judged as truthful in any meaningful way, came out of the United States. From Fukuyama, to Brzezinski, to Kissinger to altogether a delirious propaganda trash such as Dinesh Sousa's or Fareed Zacharia's "works"--American "intellectual" or "elite" class has paraded itself as at best "under-performing" and intellectually bland, at worst--intellectually impotent. Nowhere it manifests itself more than in this class'  failure to understand the nature and application of the military power, especially in the real historic context. It remains simply beyond the grasp of these "intellectuals" and "experts". Since we are talking about Russia here, the inability of all those "experts" to have any foresight of what may come out of US (and EU's) instigating a neo-nazi coup in Ukraine was stupefying, nor could they interpret properly, all in the open, Russia's steps in economy, military and other fields after aggression against Serbia and then, after "democratically" (again, coup) elected Saakashvili's military adventurism in South Ossetia. The real wowser here, however, is not even a dangerous inability to see the world for what it is, that is to see it in realistic, true light--the real wowser will be the real history of the Cold War 1.0 which only now is beginning to have an impact with the world reaching the era of a fast and global information (and knowledge) exchange with the ascendance of the broadband internet. When real history, not ever changing "ranges of interpretations", of the Cold War will be presented, with all correct accents, the picture which will emerge (and it is emerging as I type it) will not be commendable to the most (not all, I underscore it) American Cold War "experts", to put it mildly. It will be an indictment.   

Nichols makes an important, however generalized, point:

As a result, unable to see their own biases, most people simply drive one another crazy arguing rather than accept answers that contradict what they already think about the subject—and shoot the messenger, to boot. 

What he describes here (granted that we all are biased to some degree) when applied to most modern American "expertdom" is more than just a bias--it is a failure of a scholarship. Yes, real experts ARE experts not just because they understand a lot (that is a requirement), but because they are able to control their biases. This IS NOT the case with American "experts"; overwhelming majority of these so called experts operate on the premise of an American exceptionalism, if not outright narcissism. This IS NOT a mindset which leads to Truth, quite to the contrary--it is the path to academic ruin which does have very serious consequences. We observe those dangerous consequences today all around us: from unprecedented creeping coup against democratically elected American President to an unmitigated geopolitical disaster--all of that bearing the seal of "approval" or being instigated by the so called US "expertdom" with all of its numerous think-tanks and media. Here, Nichols delivers the most potent segment in his piece:

Other forms of expert failure are more worrisome. Experts can go wrong, for example, when they try to stretch their expertise from one area to another. This is less a failure of expertise than a sort of minor fraud—somebody claiming the general mantle of authority even though he or she is not a real expert in the specific area under discussion—and it is frequent and pernicious and can undermine the credibility of an entire field. (I recognize that I myself risk that transgression. But my observations and conclusions are informed not only by my experience of being an expert in my own area but also by the work of scholars who study the role of expertise in society and by discussions I have had with many other experts in a variety of fields.) And finally, there is the rarest but most dangerous category: outright deception and malfeasance, in which experts intentionally falsify their results or rent out their professional authority to the highest bidder.   

Why "can undermine the credibility"? It WAS already undermined. I don't know if Mr. Nichols is aware of it but when dealing with US "expertise" in geopolitical or military fields very little credibility is given not only to US geopolitical doctrine-mongering but to the very process of academic training of all those "experts" is put in doubt by (periodically) idle amateurs like me to a serious professionals, i.e. real experts. "Western" system of public education, starting from the high school and well into the undergraduate and graduate degrees' programs is simply not that good, especially when it deals with vague faux-applied "sciences" such as Political pseudo Science, Economy, Russian or any other "studies", History, including military one--fields where deception, falsification, biases, lies dominate. Of course, the case could be made that very many of those "experts" or "academics" do know the Truth but ignore or hide it for a larger political ends. True, this often was the case during Cold War, it is most likely not the case today--very many of those "experts" did buy their own narrative and that is dangerous. But then again, I warned about it from the very first days of this blog. One can live in the make-believe world for only so long. 

My personal experience with communication with a number of Ph.Ds from these fields left me often speechless. No more so when I had a discussion with one of the College History Professor with Ph.D from Princeton in no less than... Russian/Soviet-American Relations. He was convinced that Western Allies could drive Red Army back to the Soviet border (Patton's wet dream, anyone?)  in 1945 based on a single myth that Allied Air Forces were simply superior. He was stunned, however, when I had to point to a simple historic fact that Red Air Force by 1945 was the largest and most experienced tactical-operational air force in the world. I suggested him to read Von Hardesty's good book as a primer. Needless to say, that the guy didn't know the Russian language that well--a good summary of the most American (that is not "Russian", mostly Jewish, emigre "scholars") "experts" in USSR/Russia. Yet, today, as never before, cross-discipline expertise is a must not just desirable. It is preposterous when some humanities or "political science" "educated" expert, who didn't spend a day in uniform, passes judgements on a host of a complex tactical, operational or technological issues. I also had a personal experience with such "experts" and not in US only, I spent some good chunk of time exposing outright lies of one... Russian "naval expert", who graduated the Institute of Culture with degree, if my memory doesn't fail me, in screenwriting or something like that. But then again, in US late Tom Clancy--a major in English and an insurance agent--is still hailed as an "expert". Reading his "literature" or even watching The Hunt For Red October, despite two of my favorite actors in it, Sean Connery and Sam Neil, are a cringe-worthy experiences, because most of it, in layman's lingo, is a BS.  

Nichols concludes his piece with this:

Meanwhile, Americans have developed increasingly unrealistic expectations of what their political and economic systems can provide, and this sense of entitlement fuels continual disappointment and anger. When people are told that ending poverty or preventing terrorism or stimulating economic growth is a lot harder than it looks, they roll their eyes. Unable to comprehend all the complexity around them, they choose instead to comprehend almost none of it and then sullenly blame elites for seizing control of their lives.   

I have other news for Nichols, many Americans developed those unrealistic expectations not just by themselves. Those expectations, compounded with traditional American exceptionalism, were greatly encouraged by the American "expert" community which found it to be very expedient to further the cause of an American exceptionalism by means of fraud, incompetence, lies and manipulation. Doing so, this very "experdom" itself became the prisoner of own illusions and  a false narrative. Americans are correct in blaming their so called "elites" for a decades of criminal wars, instability, deindustrialization of the country, economic collapse and almost getting into the hot war with Russia--these were "elites" and "experts" who made those decisions. It is an American "expertdom" and "elites" who are unable to "comprehend all the complexity around them" and for that they bear a lion share of responsibility and blame for what is happening now both globally and domestically. I mentioned not for once, that the so called American "elites" betrayed Americans. The only way of the United States out of present day pitiful state will be only with removal of most of current "elites" and "experts" who served them for so long. Thus America's losing the faith in this kind of expertise is a good thing. The removal may happen only with Donald Trump claiming the victory in his epic battle with these "elites" in order to finally tell them what he was elected for: "You Are Fired!"

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