July 07, 2006

Mexican Stand-Off: The Dangerous Paralysis of Civilization

It's "deja vu all over again". Apparently the ideological tie that afflicted the US Presidential Election six years ago, and the deadlock that Thomas Mann has been writing about for a number of years, isn't just an American thing. If Europe is becoming less convinced of its cultural bet on appeasement, as a result of recent events, that may simply mean the impasse is spreading. In the US the primary impact of the Hamdan Decision is to defer to congress certain powers of war-making that the founders intended the executive fulfill, because... indecision may be bad all the time, it can be downright catastrophic in the midst of a war. We just can't bring ourselves to the point of lifting the burden of our own "Mexican Stand-Off" from the Executive. So, we pass the buck to congress where they can wrangle and bloviate about things while we twiddle and dance. Like, we really have such a luxury.

At precisely the time in history when we need to be decisive, we're afflicted with paralysis. We've got two approximately equal sides, equally convinced that they're right, and in diametric opposition to one another about critical issues that can impact not only whether we suffer a massive attack, but ultimately whether we lose the conflict outright. And, like I said, it's not just us.

So, what's going on?

Well, here's a possibility. Some years ago, in a fit of condescension, the rapping academic, Cornel West, suggested that the real difference between "conservatives" and "liberals" is not the nature of the important variables, but about how various contingencies are weighted. This may be true. In fact, I tend to think it is. If so, here's the problem: the way both sides conduct analysis doesn't take into account the contingent nature of that weighting, and how it's related to reality. We employ methods of analysis, argumentation, and decision-making that, in essence, mix all the uncertainties and certainties we perceive into a big pot. But the recipes we use to dole out the proportions are different.

In fact, it may be worse than that. If one side believes the odds that a particular ingredient will influence the result is less than 50:50 then that ingredient never makes it into the pot at all. The ingredient in that side's dish gets tossed. And then we promptly forget that we tossed it, and why. We act as though everything's tossed into the pot in proportions that are dictated by some transcendent reality that we understand by virtue of simply being human. It's the way we're made. It used to serve us well as hunter-gatherers, but perhaps no longer.

Removing a single variable from the mix changes the very nature of the dish (worldview) that we're left with. In cooking, such a modest shift between, say, salt and sugar, changes the nature of the dish from savory to dessert. In the realm of foreign policy it changes the nature of the decision from war to diplomacy. And the problem is that some people have a built-in taste for one and not the other. The nature of the problem itself is secondary to how it's depicted. We start out with a preference for dessert, and so it's unlikely that we'll toss in much salt even if dessert is inappropriate for supper.

Ultimately, we end up with solutions that aren't all that closely tied to the problems we're attempting to resolve and people sort themselves into approximately equal camps... because we have no really unbiased way of resolving our uncertainties; especially those that co-blogger A.L.'s recent post identifies with the Rumsfeldian insight that there are "some things we don't know that we don't know". (And that set of unknown unknowns may be quite different for the two camps.)

Well, the point here is that this whole "mixing pot" method of analysis and argumentation may be wrong-headed to begin with. It's actually a short cut that people sort of adopted as the mainstream method some time ago, because it seemed to work well enough for many non-critical and non-complicated disagreements. It's easy, but it may also be inappropriate to a critical-path world.

A physicist named Edward T. Jaynes recently wrote a book about a methodological split in probability theory that I didn't know existed: Probability Theory: The Logic of Science. (h/t: Candace on NRO's PhiBetaCon) To make a long story short, it's a book extolling the virtues of Bayesian probability theory, which is a rather esoteric topic for the layman. But the basic idea of Bayesian probability is pretty simple, and intuitively realistic. It's that once an event happens, or we become certain of it's occurrence, it changes the contextual circumstances for the next choice or option in a critical path series of uncertainties or contingencies. That's kind of a mouthful, for the insight that "what happens matters".

For most of us the choices we thought we had prior to 9/11 changed radically as a result of that attack. But more to the point, we could have decided to look at our future some time prior to 9/11 by factoring in the odds that such an event would, or wouldn't, happen--and then have considered the difference between the two probability-sequenced critical paths. The idea here isn't so much about prevention of the attack, but about contemplation of the world such an event would leave us with. It enables us to make better decisions now, but it also does somethig else. It moves us inexorably in the direction of resolution...

Had we employed such an approach prior to 9/11 we might not be in the sort of near-deadlock we find ourselves in at the moment, where we seem unable to resolve whether the revelation of a secret-but-legal intelligence method places us in greater long term danger. How do we proceed to weight the various uncertainties, each of which will impact uncertainties further out or more distant? If we have no idea then we're more or less doomed to simply decide that there are too many uncertainties to deal with "realistically", and we end up with deadlock. And if instead we bit the bullet, and used some sort of critical path method, we still might not agree. In fact, we probably wouldn't. But at the very least we'd tend to know where the disagreements really lie and so could carefully monitor our uncertainties, adjusting the debate to fit the facts and contingencies as they become resolvable.

So, it's all about resolution. It's all about constructing a set of "lenses" for our poor tired society's eyes that correct for both near and far-sightedness at the same time. The bottom line is that we want our vision to improve, rather than degrade, over time.

So what do we need, at a bare minimum, to accomplish this? Well, I can think of two things that seem critical:

1. A "public intelligence system" that is efficiently self-correcting and transparent. That is, something other than mainstream media, which tends to propagate and justify mistakes rather than updating with chronologically-stamped revisions that facilitate decision-making and strategizing. Our current media has an interest in covering mistakes that are part of the critical path. Plus we need to learn to forgive such mistakes to some degree, in the interest of accurately resolving contingencies, so that we don't continue to debate things that have already been largely decided by events.

For instance: we don't need to keep debating indefinitely whether there were WMD in Iraq, and we can move on to a discussion of the significance of various kinds and stages of WMD that we know were there, or that we might find in the future, or that might have been developed had certain events come to pass. And we can dispense with concepts like "operational relationships" between al Qaeda and Saddam (or now the Mullahs) and can talk about contingent relationships between al Qaeda and other state actors that may or may not develop into "operational relationships" as a result of our actions, or inactions.

2. We also need an academic/research establishment that's more oriented toward this critical path/contingent mode of analysis, and is willing to talk in those terms to the public. Such an establishment would "raise the bar" for discourse, and I have no doubt that many of us in the intelligence consuming public would rise to the challenge. We're not as dumb as we look. If necessary we can employ technologies that help us "grasp" what's being discussed.

In other words at least some of the methodological issues that have distorted our social and hard sciences are endemic as part of the way we, as private individuals, do things. And this "two-dimensional viewpont" is embedded in the way we argue and debate issues. Well, often it's not even two but one-dimensional. This, we can't continue to tolerate, for while we get deeper and deeper into this Mexican Stand-off we're fighting an enemy that just doesn't have the same problem. They don't have the problem of paralysis because they're absolutists. Their minds are made up, and their debate, if it ever happened, is finished.

Posted by Demosophist at July 7, 2006 11:40 AM