When So-Called Experts Deceive Themselves

What happens when experts are surprised in their own area of expertise? The Toronto Sun suggests the Canadian Broadcasting Company was shocked at the way one of their polls turned out.

The poll probes the attitude of Afghans towards Canadian troops ... Only 15% of Afghans wanted Canadian troops to leave immediately; the greater proportion of 80% wanted them to remain until the Taliban was crushed.

Among those admitting surprise in a CBC interview at the favorable opinion towards our soldiers was Janice Gross Stein, professor of conflict management in the University of Toronto's political science department and co-author of The Unexpected War: Canada on Kandahar. ...

The only ones not surprised at the poll were ... wait for it -- Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan and, possibly, members of the Harper government who have been to Afghanistan and tested the mood of the country.

How is it possible for area experts to miss important facts in their own areas of expertise? Pauline Kael's reaction to the news that Richard Nixon had been re-elected President of the United States by a landslide may provide a clue.

Kael said in 1972, "I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don't know. They're outside my ken. But sometimes when I'm in a theater I can feel them." Without those feelings in the theater she may never have suspected that Nixon had taken 49 out of 50 states in the election. A filter this powerful screens out data. The signal never makes it to the processor.

Real information is thrown away when it is regarded as noise. Although it seems implausible, we can miss things sitting right in front of us. Aviation Week and Space Technology tells the story of how even radar can be fooled. USAF analysts gaming various situations found scenarios where a Russian Su-30 fighter could become invisible to an F-15's pulse doppler radar.

The scenario in which the Su-30 "always" beats the F-15 involves the Sukhoi taking a shot with a BVR missile (like the AA-12 Adder) and then "turning into the clutter notch of the F-15's radar," the Air Force official said. Getting into the clutter notch where the Doppler radar is ineffective involves making a descending, right-angle turn to drop below the approaching F-15 while reducing the Su-30's relative forward speed close to zero

If the maneuver is flown correctly, the Su-30 is invisible to the F-15's Doppler radar--which depends on movement of its targets--until the U.S. fighter gets to within range of the AA-11 Archer infrared missile.

The reason the Doppler radar could not see the 33 ton supersonic Russian fighter was simply because it was moving at the same course and speed as the F-15. Similarly, when lies fly in formation with our prejudices, we never see them.

Author David Arbel recently tried to explain how every Western intellgence agency came to miss the impending collapse of the Soviet Union. As the book description at Amazon says:

In the second half of 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. It was an event of major historic and global dimensions, yet this strategic transformation of international relations took the entire world totally by suprise ... During the 1980s Western intelligence services spent about $40 billion every year, most of it to monitor the Soviet Union and its satellites. Yet all of them, without exception, were taken by surprise when the red empire crumbled. The American CIA, Britain's MI-6, Germany's BND and the French DGSE all failed to comprehend that the Soviet Union was approaching the end of its imperial existence. A handful of honest intelligence professionals who identified the signs of weakness and distress were shunted aside.

A review of Arbel's book summarizes the basic cause thus: the signs of Soviet collapse were dismissed because they were "anomalous" information. The signals did not fit what the analysts expected to see. Therefore the signals must have been wrong. They were discarded. This deadly circularity meant that even the professional Kremlin-watchers were unaware that the state they were watching was crumbling before their very eyes. Instead they kept selecting the information that reinforced their preconceptions. The review of Arbel's book continues:

Senior political officials ordered the intelligence system to turn out a product that conformed to their preexisting worldviews ... in a particularly depressing and again familiar refrain, Arbel and Edelist recount the rise of CIA officials like Robert Gates, who provided analysis that the decision-makers wanted to hear. The result was an intelligence system incapable of delivering new or fresh analysis.

And while the MSM can easily see how this process of "seeing what you want to see" may have corrupted the Administration's intelligence estimates of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction programs in Iraq, they are probably less aware they are vulnerable to the same structural vulnerabilities.

The New Republic was recently criticized for publishing stories filed by a secret correspondent in Iraq which turned out to be false. He later repudiated the stories himself. Why did they not detect the fraud even after critics noted implausibilities in the story? One reason could be that the information fed to editors conformed to what they wanted to hear. Scott Beauchamp regaled the New Republic editors with tales of Americans running over dogs with armored fighting vehicles, making fun of disfigured people and of the hopelessness that was Iraq. They lapped it up. No suspicions were aroused because the stories were not anomalous with respect to their mental models. But it was the mental models themselves that were anomalous with respect to the true situation on the ground.

We see with our minds. Our eyes simply provide the visual data. Selective blindness is a natural human failing. No one is above it.

Richard Fernandez is PJM Sydney editor; he also writes at the Belmont Club.