Notebook, 5 March 2012: Being An Outlier

Prompted by a retweet from J. M. Berger (@intelwire) of a Will McCants (@will_mccants) update, and after reading the CIA paper linked to there, Hunting for Foxes: Capturing the Potential of Outlier Ideas in the Intelligence Community, it’s time to share my thoughts about prediction, both personally and in general.

For me, prediction involves extrapolating the future trend of an immediate event. For instance, when it was reported that NATO intelligence officers were on the ground in Libya, it became evident to me that two things were happening: 1) NATO was actually engaged in acts designed to bring about regime change in Libya, and 2) the process of R2P (which had been cited as a justification for NATO’s intervention in Libya) had just taken a hit, which we would regret later. Maybe a fatal hit. At the time, White House statements had as yet said nothing about removing Gadhafi from power, as well as assurances from the White House that there would be “no boots on the ground” in Libya. Not so plain was the notion that this did not include CIA personnel or contractors, though these people are every bit as American as a private in the Army.

None of this took any genius insight on my part. In undertaking the risk posed by putting people on the ground, as opposed to the no-fly zone upon which discussions of UN Security Council Resolution 1973/2011 were based, it seemed obvious to me that the Obama administration was already pushing the envelop of limitations it had assured everyone were imposed upon itself, and would go farther. The forces in the “cloud” would demand he go farther, in fact.

The “cloud?” Of course. By this is that swirling mass of trends and events which surround events, and in this case, I felt would be driven by the following:

  • The largely unspoken recognition that the fighting had to end quickly. For political, military, fiscal and humanitarian reasons, a long, drawn-out conflict was best avoided. This loomed large over all other considerations.
  • The absence of international rhetorical, political and material support for the Gadhafi regime. Which acted as a negative force, a vacuum sucking events in the direction of regime change.
  • The thought, at the time, that it would be easy. As it turned out, it was a lot harder to oust the Gadhafis than anyone but the biggest outliers, myself included, and we were asked this question specifically at Forecasting World Events, thought.
  • A sense that, if Gadhafi had remained in power, even if the international community and Libyan protesters had succeeded in bringing real reform, the Arab Spring would falter. Tunisia, then Egypt, had built some momentum toward more just governance in the region, and only softly mentioned was the fear that these ongoing movements would falter and an historic opportunity be lost. Call it wishful thinking.

These are the thoughts which, at one moment or other, crossed my mind. Since then, I’ve come to understand that the dynamic of new those connections made over the internet which crossed all national borders would play a significant part in shaping events.

My prediction of NATO’s actions in Libya would have negative consequences elsewhere, and I even thought of Syria when things were just starting to get ugly there, was a no-brainer, a logical progression from the use of R2P as a pretext for regime change. As a supporter of R2P, the emotional content of what I wrote at the time, proceeded from its abuse at the hands of Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy. Ambassador Rice, Secretary Clinton and Samantha Power should certainly known better than to act as they did. No excuses.

All of which played out almost exactly as I foresaw. The question is, why was I not taken seriously? A lot of reasons. More importantly why was Robert Shiller, as described in that paper, Hunting for Foxes, not taken seriously? Why is it that “received wisdom,” even if it is erroneous, prevails over other conclusions? For, unlike myself, Shiller is an expert, had been demonstrably paying attention, and was in possession of insights others lacked. His conclusions had even been given “official” sanction by the leading economist of the day. Yet he wasn’t. He felt the need to soft-peddle his presentation and absolutely nobody should be surprised that the wrong conclusions prevailed—by people in a position to know the facts and who are there in the first place because their positions demand that they try to avoid what eventually unfolded.

There are no easy conclusions which describes these kinds of collective failures of intellect. For my own part, I repeat that operating from a contrarian position, proceeding from a position of distrust and skepticism not only places me in the outlier zone, but helps me be accurate. Received wisdom is only a snapshot of reality, which is dynamic:

“. . . There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.”

—T. S. Eliot, East Coker

Perhaps our “scientific” pursuits, such as economics, would benefit greatly from more emphasis on scholarship and less on mathematical models which describe nothing.

Just saying.


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