Friday, July 24, 2015

The Danger in Listening Too Much to “Very Serious Persons”

Henry Farrell has an interesting post at Crooked Timber where he worries about the influence that “Very Serious People” or “VSP’s” can have on our public debate. He means people like Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, Charles Krauthammer, Benjamin Netanyahu: people whose opinions are widely circulated so that they are socially and politically influential, even when they are manifestly wrong.

Back in September 2002, Netanyahu, and Friedman, and Brooks, and Krauthammer, were VSPs making the case that the U.S. must bring about regime change in Iraq because Saddam Husain was on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons. Egged on by the media and our inflamed sense of justice we took their advice and went to war.

These VSP’s were manifestly wrong about Iraq, as were all the other VSP’s who were clamoring for war in 2002-2003. Today, many of these same people are urging Congress to reject the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action reached by the P5+1 with Iran. Can a second calamity be avoided?  

We all have biases, says Farrell. Without some ideological biases we might not be able to see the world at all. What’s more, our ability to reason appears to be geared more for making arguments than for truth seeking. Thus, when Netanyahu, and Boehner, and McConnell, and Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi marshal their reasons for this deal—pro and con—just like we, they are mostly looking for reasons to back up their ideological (and political) biases. They (and we) are all subject to confirmation bias. They (and we) are all prone to make up facts to fit the argument. They (and we) are all prone to be blind to inconvenient truths that undercut the argument.

What leaves room for hope, is that as a collective jury we have the ability to evaluate facts and the quality of arguments, as Farrell says: “to come around to recognizing the advantages of a better perspective, however grudgingly.”  But there’s a catch. In order for this collective truth seeking process to succeed, it is essential that we not systematically entrench particular biases.

“The problem with VSPs is not that they are biased (we all are) – it’s that the systems around them magnify that bias, reinforce it, and reflect it, creating the risk of vicious feedback loops of self-satisfied yet consequential ignorance (as in the Iraq war).”

This strikes me as important. The danger in inviting Netanyahu to speak to joint sessions of Congress while ignoring normal protocol, and the danger in having AIPAC spend $30 million to lobby Congress to torpedo this Iran deal, is that we drown out better arguments and create an echo chamber where people only hear arguments that support what they already believe. The risk is that we short circuit the deliberative evaluation of competing arguments; that we’ll end up with distorted beliefs; that we’ll end up acting on crazy premises. 

For an example of crazy, see Senator and Presidential candidate Ted Cruz, who “on Tuesday told a group of reporters that ‘millions of Americans will be murdered by radical, theocratic zealots (and that) … the deal could eventually mean Iran launches a nuclear weapon from a ship in the Atlantic Ocean.”

The good news is that, despite wing nut arguments from Ted Cruz on the Presidential trail, and from many others in Congress, competing arguments are also being heard in favor of the Joint Comprehensive Plan for Action from VSP’s and ordinary mortals alike. This is not 2003. It’s not an echo chamber.

Let’s see what difference this makes.


  1. The Iran deal had to get done. China and Russia were going to break the sanctions anyway. The Saudis have threatened to build a nuke if the Iranians weren't stopped. The tragedy is that Israel and the Saudis are not signatories to the deal. Those countries are most at risk from Iran or their surrogates.
    It is interesting that the Saudis are reaching out to Hamas according the NY Times.

    1. Thanks, Don. I agree with you. Also, it seems like, for good or ill, we are on the verge of change. I don't have a warm and fuzzy feeling that the new Saudi leadership knows what it's doing.