Friday, July 08, 2011

Middle-East Experts

I’m going to take issue with what seems to be the preponderance of Middle-East experts.  Not just at the moment; this is more a meta-post (it’s something I do a lot; in fact, this parenthesis is by way of a meta-meta-comment).

I take issue with MEEs frequently, and it bothers me.  What, after all, are the chances that their knowledge of the subject doesn’t encompass mine completely, with a great deal left over?  How can the points that seem so obvious to me have so thoroughly escaped their attention?  Don’t they have direct access to decision-makers and others who make up the reality in question?  Aren’t they generally people of proven superior intelligence and ability?

These questions don’t apply to the Mideast alone, but to all the topics in which I’ve taken enough interest to form an opinion.  Literature, Evolution, Global Warming, Education, Theodicy, Management and more.  It’s not so much a matter of how I can be arrogant enough to oppose myself to recognized authorities in their respective fields; it’s a matter of my chances of being correct.  Either I’m just wrong, or Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, Dan Kurtzer, Thomas Friedman and others are clueless (or part of some sort of conspiracy).  Frankly, I don’t like those odds.

And although many in my community share many of my opinions, that gives me no comfort, what with their being in the same situation as I am.  Plus, I’ve got one friend with some personal experience of Mideast experts with awesome knowledge and mental acuity, and who can sometimes offer reasonable explanations for what seem like unreasonable positions; another who points out that even academic hacks tend to at least have enough raw knowledge of their subject as to make mine seem inconsequential… The list of smart, knowledgeable people with good reasons why I’m wrong is not a short one.  I wouldn’t have it any other way, mind you.

And yet.  (Come on, you knew we were going to arrive here.)

The Talmud says that a judge can rely only by what his eyes see.  That may be taken as purely a statement of procedure for court cases, but another matter of procedure tells us that the opinions of the most learned judges must be given last, to keep the others honest – meaning it would be wrong for them to censor their own opinions of a case in favor of those assumed to know better.  I think it’s fair to infer that this not an argument against humility, but rather for taking responsibility for one’s own thinking. 

That’s a moral reason for using one’s own head.  Some practical reasons are:

·         One can generally find brainy and knowledgeable people who share one’s opinion.  Even if they’re less numerous, less prestigious and/or less popular than those who disagree, they should certainly provide intellectual cover

·         People, and that emphatically includes academics, politicians think-tankers and all manner of talking heads, have a strong tendency to think what those around them think.  True, to say that this undercuts the force of their positions is to argue ad hominem.  But the whole subject here is ad hominem – I’m concerned specifically with the situation where I have not been convinced of an expert’s opinion on the merits of his argument (if he’s even bothered to offer one) because of who he is and who I am.

·         In a discussion of anything human, such as what motivates a group of people and how they will respond to various stimuli, it’s possible that any difference in knowledge or ability among those making guesses is insignificant compared to the complexity of the task.  In A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market, John Allen Paulos not-only questions the theoretical possibility of predicting the market’s behavior, he recounts how he himself, with all the knowledge and ability needed to know better, continually made irrational decisions

(I had at least one other good reason, but by the time I got writing this down I forgot it.  It is thus lost to History.)

So in the end I’m going to continue to hold opinions that are often at odds with the common wisdom.  I encourage people to argue, but appeals to authority (argumentum ad verecundiam) are not likely to sway me.  (I threw in the Latin because, well, I like the sound of Latin, and because it lends an air of… authority, I guess.  Hah!)
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