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Do Experts Know Better?

April 14th, 2010 9 comments

My friend Steve likes to proclaim the value of casual intuition — based on one’s day-to-day observations over the course of life — and downplay the value of expertise, analysis, and data in making good judgments. Among other things, he defends Sarah Palin and other less-thinkerly politicians on these grounds.

He also points to Robert McNamara — the king of data analysis — as having failed utterly in his judgments on Vietnam. This putting aside the facts that 1. Steve’s casual intuition would have led him to exactly the same policies (if not worse), and 2. McNamara’s data was not the driving force behind the big decisions and judgments on Vietnam. They were at best excuses, self-justifications, rationalizations, or simple thumb-twiddling. McNamara actually manufactured a system that delivered systematically false data.

Also: systematic, in-depth knowledge — rooted in research, analysis, and frequently, data — is obviously not sufficient to guarantee good judgment. But it is arguably necessary. Or at least, it (greatly?) improves the odds of making good judgments. If the Bush administration, for instance, had had some basic knowledge of the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni…

One of the key books on this field is Philip Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment. He argues — based on analysis of 82,000 predictions by 284 experts — that political experts perform only slightly better than random dart throws. It’s a pretty damning condemnation of experts.

But as Bryan Caplan has pointed out, there are two fatal flaws in Tetlock’s argument:

1. He only examines questions that are highly controversial among experts. (If 50% believe each way, 50% will inevitably be wrong.) Tetlock explicitly ignores the “dumb” questions that seem to the experts to have obvious answers, but which everyday folks might consider controversial.

2. He doesn’t compare the the experts to the average person on the street. The only such comparison in the book is between experts and Berkeley undergrads — who are darned high on the elite/expert spectrum, in absolute terms. And even in that comparison, the experts win in a landslide. The undergrads aren’t even as good as chimps or dartboards.

This suggests that if you looked at those “obvious” questions — which are often not at all obvious to non-experts — and compared casual to expert opinion, you’d see experts being right far more of the time. As they say in the biz, “more research needed.”

Tetlock does reveal another fact, however, that serves to seriously undermine one’s confidence in the intuitionally inspired beliefs of Sarah and similar: among the experts, “foxes” — those who in Nicholas Kristof’s words are “are more cautious, more centrist, more likely to adjust their views, more pragmatic, more prone to self-doubt, more inclined to see complexity and nuance” — resoundingly beat out the “hedgehogs” — those who “have a focused worldview, an ideological leaning, strong convictions.”

Is this also true of everyday folks? Based on my many years of decidedly non-systematic observation, I would suggest that it is.

Update: Chris’ comment,

This worked well enough back when virtually all information of note was controlled by experts.  Now they’re forced to compete with everyone, which has the nasty side effect of forcing people to become steadily more extreme and loud just to be heard.

Reminds me of another takeaway from Tetlock’s research. Again quoting Kristoff because he summarizes it well:

the only consistent predictor [of accuracy] was fame — and it was an inverse relationship. The more famous experts did worse than unknown ones. That had to do with a fault in the media. Talent bookers for television shows and reporters tended to call up experts who provided strong, coherent points of view, who saw things in blacks and whites.

In other words, the loudest, most simplistic, and most dogmatic “experts” — the extreme hedgehogs — 1. are the least accurate, and 2. get the biggest megaphone.

Incarceration and Unemployment: U.S. and Europe

April 4th, 2010 7 comments

Ever since Bryan offered this bet on future unemployment rates in the U.S. and Europe, I’ve been wondering: how do incarceration rates affect those numbers?

Europe has consistently higher unemployment than the U.S., but the U.S. has far and away the highest incarceration rate in the world — .75% of the population. (World Prison Population List [PDF], compiled since 1992 by Roy Walmsley of the International Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College, London.)

Only Russia comes even close, at .63%. (Canada: .12%. Australia: .13%. China .18%. Germany .09%.) Our rate is four to eight times that of most other countries.

Prisoners aren’t part of the unemployment calculation. They’re not counted as part of the work force, and they’re not counted as unemployed. There are various arguments about whether that makes sense (feel free to comment), but if we include them in the calculations, what do unemployment rates look like? In particular, Bryan’s bet makes me curious: How does U.S. unemployment compare to the EU15?*

Here are the numbers for 2008. Calculations based on labor force and unemployment figures from Eurostat.

Percent of (total work force + incarcerated population)

Incarceration Unemployment Total
EU15 0.2% 7.1% 7.3%
U.S. 1.5% 5.8% 7.3%

In 2008, all of the difference between EU15 and U.S. unemployment rates is accounted for by the prison population. The cynical view would say that we just imprison our unemployed, which doesn’t strike me as the most economically efficient arrangement. (Here putting aside any foolish notions of Christian charity or the like.)

I would have liked to do a fever graph comparing unemployment rate, incarceration rate, and combined rate over the years, but the data’s only available in fairly intractable country-by-country form, and I didn’t have time or energy for all the cutting and pasting. (I wrote to Mr. Walmsley and he was nice enough to reply, but he was unable to provide the data in a more usable form.)

Note: Eyeballing the data, I do not think incarceration accounts for the (significantly larger) differences in previous years. (I would suggest that the additional difference is mostly the result of labor-market and other market rigidities imposed by unions and government regulation — not the result of redistribution. But that’s another post.)

Perhaps one of my gentle readers might have the time and inclination to compile those years? Or, write to Roy Walmsley and ask him to provide a simple table of the data that only he has: prison population by country and year. All the other data, at least for OECD countries, is easily available.

* Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom.

True Conservative Values, and Torture

April 25th, 2009 Comments off

In my earlier post I didn’t give Jim Manzi sufficient credit.

He argues that a systematic government policy of torture (as distinguished from the torturous acts that Americans have engaged in over the centuries) is 1. a radical break with American tradition, and 2. because of 1, is quite possibly (I would say definitely) damaging to American strategic interests.

Here’s the money quote, which I endorse wholeheartedly:

I am looking to tradition, settled practice and the wisdom of our forebears for guidance in a difficult situation. Among other things, this strikes me as the obviously conservative approach.

“The Commander-in-Chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture.”

April 25th, 2009 Comments off

“The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account.”

—Major General Antonio Taguba, USA (Ret.)

Read the Report.

The Strategic Value of Torture

April 23rd, 2009 Comments off

Jim Manzi discusses torture here. I find the discussion uncomfortably cold-blooded, but it has the accompanying virtue of clear-headedness and cutting to the crux (unlike those from his compatriot Johah Goldberg at The Corner). The important (extra-moral) question is not torture’s tactical value, but whether it achieves America’s strategic goals.

That’s a damned good question–it’s actually the question that BushCo didn’t get, and it’s the question that Obama has put front and center in his rethinking of America’s foreign policy (diplomacy, military, trade, the whole ball of wax).

What Manzi doesn’t consider in this piece is the crucial question that accompanies his: what are America’s strategic goals, and how are they effected by the Bush torture regime? In particular, how are those goals affected over the decades as our children come of age and take their places in the world?

Here are some possible strategic goals (again reluctantly putting aside for the moment the fundamental moral repugnancy of torture):

  • To prevent foreign terrorist acts against Americans–on American soil and/or abroad.
  • To protect the American homeland from military invasion.
  • To reduce armed conflict worldwide.
  • To increase American power and influence over other countries–the ability to convince our friends and coerce our enemies (and vice versa).
  • To increase access to American trading parters abroad.
  • To make it safe for Americans to travel the world or live abroad.

On the last item, the BushCo crowd and their most vocal love-it-don’t-ever-leave-it supporters don’t really like the idea of travelling abroad. (Do you think Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft and company are planning any world tours?)  They don’t seem to understand why anyone would want to.

Personally, I put that item quite high on the list–not only for its inherent goodness (I want my girls to have that international mobility in their lives–to be welcomed far and wide [think: Jackie Kennedy]), but because it’s a bellwether for all the other goals.

So, judging by that single goal for a moment: If torture results in killing or capturing a few dozen terrorists, how does that weigh against millions or hundreds of millions who come to hate us (or like us a hell of a lot less) as a result?

That question is aptly applied to the other strategic goals as well. I’m encouraged to see that the Obama administration seems to be doing exactly that, and that pundits who have previously ignored or dismissed the issue (i.e. “soft power” pooh-poohing) are now actually considering it.

More Popular than Republicans: China, Venezuela, and Legalized Marijuana

April 22nd, 2009 Comments off

Demilitarize U.S. Foreign Policy: Mullen Agrees with Gates (and Me)

January 13th, 2009 Comments off

AFP: US forces chief urges less military use in foreign policy.

The top US military officer cautioned against ever growing militarization of US foreign policy, urging greater support for civilian approaches to the world’s problems.

“We must be just as bold in providing options when they don’t involve our participation or our leadership, or, even when those options aren’t popular — especially when they are not popular,” he said.

“I believe we should be more willing to break this cycle, and say when armed forces may not always be the best choice to take the lead,” Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said late Monday.

Gates Saying All the Right Things

December 7th, 2008 2 comments

I first read Robert Gates’ book several years ago, and re-read chunks of it last month. He’s a seriously sensible guy. (He even managed to come through Reaganville/Iran-Contraland with his integrity mostly intact.) I’ve been touting him for SecDef for more than a year—ever since he started clamoring for more money and resources at State. (Do Pentagon chiefs ever do that?)

And he’s still banging his spoon on the high chair–here, in the current issue of Foreign Affairs:

What is dubbed the war on terror is, in grim reality, a prolonged, worldwide irregular campaign — a struggle between the forces of violent extremism and those of moderation. Direct military force will continue to play a role in the long-term effort against terrorists and other extremists. But over the long term, the United States cannot kill or capture its way to victory. Where possible, what the military calls kinetic operations should be subordinated to measures aimed at promoting better governance, economic programs that spur development, and efforts to address the grievances among the discontented, from whom the terrorists recruit. It will take the patient accumulation of quiet successes over a long time to discredit and defeat extremist movements and their ideologies.

I really like the bolded line, which is a direct quote from Petraus’s congressional testimony.

I wish certain people had realized that six years ago.

As for killing and capturing (still necessary, of course), am I crazy, or do the (increasing) attacks in Mumbai, Kabul, and Islamabad offer Obama/Clinton an amazing opportunity to bring those three countries together with the U.S., putting aside squabbles, to collectively crush the crazies? All four governments are being directly, physically threatened by the same people.

Key question there: can the Pakistani civilian leaders remove the crucial impediment–the crazies in their military and intelligence arms? Can Clinton make the case that they have to, for the sake of their own existence?

Update 12/8: 1. Yes, the Pakistanis are trying. 2. It’s nice to see that Robert Kaplan and maybe even Barack Obama are having similar thoughts:

The existence of terrorist outfits like Lashkar-e-Taiba that have links
with the Pakistani security apparatus but are outside the control of
Pakistan’s own civilian authorities is the very definition of chaos. … We need a second special negotiator for the Middle East, a skilled
diplomat shuttling regularly among New Delhi, Islamabad and Kabul
.
(There has been some speculation, in fact, that Barack Obama is
considering Richard Holbrooke, the former United Nations ambassador,
for just such a job.)