Cranks or Soothsayers?
Why aren't the right experts listened to at the right time? The last few years have not been kind to most foreign-policy specialists. In early 2003, there were some skeptics about the prospect of Operation Iraqi Freedom, but the foreign-policy community by and large supported the invasion. That did not work out according to plan. Even many opponents of the war believed that Saddam Hussein had a WMD program-except that he didn't. Many of these selfsame experts were extremely dubious about the potential of the surge strategy to reverse America's fortunes in Iraq-and, again, things worked out differently.
In the wake of the global financial crisis, economists have been taking it on the chin as well. Some concerns might have been voiced about the increase in macroeconomic imbalances over the past decade; others were aware that housing sector was inflated. Very few, however, predicted the kind of financial meltdown and global contraction that we are currently experiencing.
When the experts do get it right, no one pays attention. There are plenty of available answers for this odd phenomenon. Partisan politics can make it easy to discredit experts who cut against the conventional wisdom. Political economy is an imperfect social science at best-expert predictions can be overrated.
In looking at the people who have been proven right in recent years, there is another possibility-what if the people who actually were right also happened to be a**holes?
Lest you think this sounds harsh, consider Michael Lewis' excellent Portfolio essay on how the subprime-mortgage market bubble expanded and popped. One of Lewis' heroes is Steve Eisman, a hedge-fund analyst. In Lewis' account, Eisman derisively laughs in the face of the CEO of Moody's, mocking that firm's ratings of mortgage bonds. Later, at the speech of another CEO, he stood up in the audience and told him that he had grossly underestimated the default risk on his mortgages. He then said, "Excuse me, I need to take this call," as his cell phone went off. Eisman was right-but he was also unbelievably obnoxious about it.
This is a familiar theme when it comes to prescient predictors. Scott Ritter loudly and repeatedly insisted that Saddam Hussein did not have any WMD program in the run-up to the second Gulf War. It is impossible, however, to read this November 2002 New York Times Magazine story about Ritter without concluding that Ritter is a raving egomaniac.
Irving Janis famously argued in Groupthink that small decision-making groups would crowd out and isolate independent thinkers in the interest of maintaining group cohesion. This can play out at the societal level as well. When a community wants to believe that a premise is true, then it is quite easy to paint the person insisting that the emperor has no clothes as a bitter, perverted or obnoxious individual.
Of course, just because someone is obnoxious does not mean they are right (and vice versa). For every malcontent who happens to be right, there is someone else holding a sheaf of yellowed newspaper proving that the Trilateral Commission really does run the world. There is no recipe, no magic formula for distinguishing the cranks from the soothsayers. Indeed, Philip Tetlock's research in Expert Political Judgment suggests that "hedgehogs"-the people who are able to make the big counterintuitive prediction-are also more likely to be wrong about everything else.
The best anyone can do is to heed John Stuart Mill's warnings about accepting "dead dogma" as truth. And try not to filter out uncomfortable arguments-no matter how obnoxious the speaker.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and a senior editor at The National Interest. His next book, Avoiding Trivia: The Role of Strategic Planning in American Foreign Policy, will be published by Brookings Institution Press in April.