Friday, January 05, 2007

The Mystery of Dumb Smart Guys

Malcolm Gladwell, "Open Secrets," The New Yorker:

The national-security expert Gregory Treverton has famously made a distinction between puzzles and mysteries. Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. We can’t find him because we don’t have enough information. The key to the puzzle will probably come from someone close to bin Laden, and until we can find that source bin Laden will remain at large.

The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn’t a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much. The C.I.A. had a position on what a post-invasion Iraq would look like, and so did the Pentagon and the State Department and Colin Powell and Dick Cheney and any number of political scientists and journalists and think-tank fellows. For that matter, so did every cabdriver in Baghdad.

If things go wrong with a puzzle, identifying the culprit is easy: it’s the person who withheld information. Mysteries, though, are a lot murkier: sometimes the information we’ve been given is inadequate, and sometimes we aren’t very smart about making sense of what we’ve been given, and sometimes the question itself cannot be answered. Puzzles come to satisfying conclusions. Mysteries often don’t.

A good article -- Malcolm Gladwell doing his thing. He discusses the Enron financial implosion at length, as an example of a mystery. There were thousands upon thousands of pages of disclosure documents that Enron produced in the late 90s; the signs of their downfall were not lacking.

Now: Richard Dawkins, Comment Is Free blog at the Guardian:

But I want to add another and less obvious reason why we should not have executed Saddam Hussein. His mind would have been a unique resource for historical, political and psychological research: a resource that is now forever unavailable to scholars...

[H]is execution represents a wanton and vandalistic destruction of important research data....

What were the formative influences on [mass murderers]? Was it something in their childhood that turned them bad? In their genes? In their testosterone levels? Could the danger have been nipped in the bud by an alert psychiatrist before it was too late? How would Hitler, or Saddam Hussein have responded to a different style of education? We don't have a clear answer to these questions. We need to do the research.

... It is in the nature of research on ruthless national dictators that the sample size is small. Wasn't the judicial destruction of one of the very few research subjects we had - and a prime specimen at that - an act of vandalism?

Right. Small sample size of genocidal dictators. What a shame. Maybe it's not too late, though, to preserve Saddam's brain in a jar of formaldehyde, the way the Soviets did with Lenin...

(For the record, I thought the execution of Saddam Hussein was a travesty as well, but the lost opportunity to have him fill out questionnaires did not occur to me.)

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