December 15, 2015 § 4 Comments
It is strange the associations that spring to mind when we watch a theatre of the absurd. I was following the “shall we or shan’t we bomb ISIS” debate in the British House of Commons as honourable members positioned and postured, each seeking to be better reflected in the limelight, when the Duke of Windsor popped into my mind. Perhaps the House in full flow, democracy at its best and all that, crossing party lines, debating monumental issues was reminiscent of the great debates of the 1930s.
But why the Duke of Windsor, a man now best remembered for his abdication, his unlikely infatuation with an American divorcee, his somewhat more likely fascination with Adolf Hitler and the flamboyant knotting of a neck-tie? It was none of those things that brought the Duke of Windsor to mind. Instead it was one of the few noteworthy things he said prior to his abdication. While visiting the South Wales valleys as Prince of Wales and confronted by the despair and dereliction of towns and lives blighted by the Great Depression, he turned to his companions and said “Something must be done.” At the time this was seen as, on the one hand, an inappropriate political utterance by the heir to the throne. On the other hand, it was seen as a sign of compassion and empathy from someone who hitherto had displayed little sympathy for his humbler subjects. In retrospect “something must be done” contained neither political nuance nor compassion. Instead it was an inane reactive sound bite from a man so far outside his comfort zone that he may just has well have found himself crashed-landed in the highlands of New Guinea…without a butler.
And so it was with a House of Commons faced with an apparently intractable and infinitely complex conflagration spreading across the Levant. However well dressed up, the whole debate was little more than posturing politicians floundering in a quagmire of their own making while struggling to reach an illusory life raft labelled SOMETHING MUST BE DONE.
Both the Commons debate itself and the process leading up to it was a truly titanic struggle. And of course there were more agendas running than there are lemmings having a lope on a particularly melancholic day in the Norwegian tundra. It wasn’t just about bombing ISIS, it was, for example, as much about whether or not it strengthened Cameron in the forthcoming EU referendum or legitimised Corbyn’s increasingly tenuous hold on the Labour Party leadership. The real struggle however was not between any of these things, or indeed whether or not to bomb Syria. Instead, the primary battle was between the subjective and objective elements of the debate. I found myself caught up in the same battle. Even without going into the moral aspects of it, the rational side of me looked at the evidence and concluded that you really had to be crazy to believe that bombing Syria would make the UK safer, help to resolve the crisis in the Levant, or contribute to the demise of ISIS. Indeed, all the evidence seemed to point in the other direction and suggest that any bombing would only exacerbate the situation. And yet, and yet, the subjective part of me was tugged in the other direction. The awful tragedy of the Paris killings, the incomprehensible savagery of ISIS and the catastrophic and heartbreaking fleeing of millions of refugees kept making me ask: “surely SOMETHING MUST BE DONE”. Why was it that in the face of all the evidence the emotional me fleetingly wondered whether bombing Syria may not be a bad idea. I’m not (often) unreasonable and try to be objective so why was I so torn? I decided to turn to a much wiser man and reached for my tattered copy of Thinking, fast and slow by the master of decision making, the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. To describe Kahneman as wise is a gross understatement (he even played a blinder on Desert Island Discs) and Thinking, fast and slow is a wonderful book not only in the way that it sums up his life’s work but also as a touching and warm tribute to his late colleague Amos Tversky.
Kahneman has spent his life examining the way we make decisions both individually and collectively. In particular the book explores the way that our intuitive self (system 1) interacts with our objective self (system 2) in the decision making process, with both selves being a function of separate but interconnected parts of our brain. While both selves have valid and important roles in decision making, Kahneman demonstrates that our intuitive self (fast, system 1) invariably conspires to override our objective self (slow, system 2) and leads us to make decisions based not on the evidence or long term efficacy but on short term emotional constructs. Flicking through the book I randomly came across a few examples that demonstrate how this distortion was writ large throughout the debate on bombing Syria.
When we are posed a question that is too difficult to answer we reframe it into a simpler question that is easier to answer. For example, the Commons was faced with the question of what to do with an anarchic situation in the Middle East which appeared to be increasingly spinning out of control. Far too difficult to answer so it was reframed into, on the one hand “How do we show support for the French?” and on the other hand “How do we demonstrate that we will keep people safe?” Neither of these actually makes the world a safer place but still, SOMETHING HAS BEEN DONE.
The substitution of one complex question for a less demanding one is an example of how we look at, define and explain the world through heuristics. A heuristic is a simple cognitive, psychological, social or indeed neurological procedure or framework that helps us to find functional, if often imperfect, answers to difficult questions. We see the world through templates which are not just a function of our experience but also of our emotional state. Importantly, heuristics also disguise “our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance”. (p 201) The way in which both ignorance and evidence was ignored during the Commons debate demonstrated remarkable political skill.
Kahneman discusses Bayesian statistics to highlight that the best indicator of a future outcome for a present action is the evidence of the outcomes from similar past behaviours. He demonstrates that with everything from investment decisions to the projected value of fine wines, future performance is best predicted by the base rate of past performance and that algorithms rather than expert knowledge or claims that this time it’s different, are far more accurate at predicting outcomes. What Kahneman is pretty much doing is agreeing with Einstein when he said that insanity is when you keep doing the same thing over and over again and yet somehow expect different outcomes.
There are few better examples of the tendency of Western nations towards insanity than their periodic direct and indirect interventions in the Middle East since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. From T E Lawrence, to Orde Wingate (throwing in the charge of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba for good luck) on through Persia, Suez, The Lebanon, Iraq, Libya and so on. Is there anywhere in the Middle East the West can point to and claim a success?
So too the notion that air strikes will be effective in establishing a peaceful, stable and open- minded region. A couple of years ago The Onion published a spoof story called: Experts Point To Long, Glorious History Of Successful U.S. Bombing Campaigns (August 27, 2013) The article outlined what is described as the impeccable campaigns of bombing over the last sixty years, beginning with the 1954 bombing in Guatemala by the US. The story was so plausible it could have been picked up by a Republican candidate for the US presidency. Plausible that is until you went through every bombing and realised that each and every one ended in abject failure and served only to stiffen the resolve of those attacked and reinforce their alienation and hatred of the attackers.
The belief that a history of persistent failure will somehow result in different outcomes runs to the bizarre. The other day I read a perfectly serious article in a UK broadsheet newspaper. Without any sense of irony the article claimed that for UK intervention to be effective it would have to learn from the Russians. They apparently are about to shift their tactics in Syria and move from using fixed wing aircraft. Instead they will begin to use helicopter gunships which they claim are more accurate. Again without irony, the article said the Russians were going to adopt the tried and tested tactics they had learned from their war in Afghanistan! Well, we all know how well that turned out for them and the rest of the world.
Surely we should know better yet we continue to queue at the false font of hoped for magical outcomes. I watched Hilary Benn’s speech in support of bombing and have to say I was moved by his rhetoric. Who better to speak in favour of DOING SOMETHING than the son of the late, and increasingly respected, old anti-war horse, Tony Benn. Yes, I was moved as he waved the familiar old symbols (availability heuristics), the fight against fascism, the international brigades and so on but fortunately rationality kicked in. Subjectivity always flourishes best with incomplete histories and Benn’s were decidedly circumscribed. Benn forgets that it wasn’t just communist party members but many other socialists who were fooled by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Equally for all his lauding of the International Brigades he ignores the fact that by many estimates far more foreigners volunteered to fight for Franco than they ever did for the Spanish republic. Perhaps more importantly Benn conveniently forgets that thirteen years ago he voted for the invasion of Iraq. Again, look how well that turned out.
It is the case that sometimes, as humans, we should just do what’s right, independent of how rational it is. What defines us as humans isn’t opposable thumbs but our compassion, morality and belief in fairness. Those things, rather than the words we speak or write are the true language of humanity. Yet what also makes us human is our capacity for rationality, to bring all parts of our experience and brain into play. Expressions of morality without recourse to what works and what doesn’t are meaningless. If we believe in the morality of a fair, settled and just peace in the Middle East, so too must we show the patience, intelligence and resilience to truly build that peace rather than respond to an intuition that in urging us to DO SOMETHING almost certainly ensures that we will make things worse. Not that we should ignore our intuition, instead we should value its power by harnessing it with our rationality.
Intuition, whether it is instinctive, that is congenital, or imbedded learning from either experience or training, is powerful because it provides an evolutionary edge. The capacity to immediately, apparently without thought, respond to imminent danger aids short-term survival. A sometimes quoted example is that of pre-historic man wandering the African savannah 100,000 years ago. It’s dusk and the man is somewhat distracted by the idea that perhaps it’s time to head north and apply to join the European Union. He heads along a darkening track and in the dust ahead he spots a slim convoluted shape. He doesn’t stand there stroking his chin wondering whether it is a stick or a snake. Instead, instinct kicks in and without thinking he drops the nearest large rock on the snake/stick. He moves on, his chances of survival enhanced by an instinctive act. He spots some familiar figures under a distant Baobab tree, walks over to it, grabs the nearest female…and procreates. The man survives as does the species but does it evolve? Not just by dropping rocks it won’t.
Move forward a few millennia and the man’s distant ancestor is still wandering the dusty bush paths but he has started to spot that very few of the things he drops his rocks on wriggle and when he stops to do something truly novel…think about what he is dropping rocks on…he realises that most of the shapes are pieces of trees brushed onto the path by passing animals. He stops dropping rocks on the sticks and instead gathers them up and uses them to build a humpy under the Baobab tree. He keeps collecting the sticks in a pile and one day they catch fire. It’s now warm and safe in the humpy, he turns to the female who seems to be sharing his humpy …and procreates.
Move on a few more millennia and to be on the safe side the man’s descendant still carries a rock but rarely drops it on anything other than a snake. He is starting to think more and wonders about the strange grasses that have sprung up around the camp. He sometimes chews on the stalks and realises that it makes him less hungry and if he chews enough he doesn’t need to go out and hunt dangerous animals. The problem is the stalks do not last long, they get eaten by plagues of rats and mice. He notices that when there are a lot of snakes near the camp there are fewer rats and mice. He stops dropping rocks on snakes and the grasses flourish. He learns to harvest and plant and when he goes back to his hut at dusk the woman who shares the fields and the hut with him always smiles at him as she cracks open a gourd of maize beer to celebrate his return…and they procreate and procreate. Soon the village becomes more crowded, the family more extended and they start to move north…
Sitting on the sidelines pointing one’s finger in derision at the foolishness of others is one of the most pleasurable of human endeavours. Yet the decision of the House of Commons to bomb Syria was not an exercise in foolishness, instead it was a reflection of the fundamental humanity of the men and women making the decision. Political decision making is fraught with great complexity and bounded by both the most intractable and the most subtle of parameters. I won’t name names (although I’m sure with time and sufficient thought I could come up with some) but many politicians deserve considerable respect for their integrity, compassion and diligence. The recent, albeit incomplete and flawed, Paris accords on climate change are a monument to what can be achieved by political vision, thoughtfulness, resilience, cooperation and sheer hard work (and it has to be said that in the midst of all the other things that are going on for them, the management of the process by the French was magnificent). The Paris accords show the power of objective decision making. A rational, thoughtful process that incorporates the subjectivity of the individual participants yet still focuses on objective future outcomes. In contrast the decision to bomb Syria reflects the power of subjective decision making. Whatever conceits surrounded it and whatever the eventual outcome, the decision making itself resembled little more than a befuddled Duke of Windsor blundering around shouting SOMETHING MUST BE DONE before dropping a rock on something he instinctively believes to be a snake.