This author has in previous articles looked at the way lurid fake news stories appear and how incidents are investigated, and this article will look at how key decisions are taken, specifically in terms of the role played by experts. It is commonly assumed that governments are omniscient, and that either the head of state or their advisers consider all the possible consequences before making a decision, and that if anything goes wrong, then the normal reaction is “well that is probably what THEY intended all along.”
But this is a myth. Although a country’s leader is always theoretically responsible for taking decisions, in practice the responsibility is divided among a wider group of persons. The head of state is not necessarily omniscient, and their ability is limited, if only because there are only 24 hours in the day and a leader’s day is so full that there is little time for study. As a result leaders are necessarily dependent, to a greater or lesser extent, on their advisers, and the quality of these advisers may vary.
- An expert may be biased, and when advising the leader will just put forward their own personal idea of how a problem should be tackled. In doing this they may lie, or tell half-truths.
- And the expert is also dependent on the information to which they have access. Faulty data will often result in faulty conclusions, however logical the reasoning process.
- When trying to predict the consequences of an action people may make mistakes or be overconfident – or overly cautious – when interpreting their findings.
- An expert may be influenced by the general tone of public discourse. If the expert is working in a political system which automatically lays the blame for any problems or unwelcome developments on the machinations of the US Department of State or the intrigues of the Kremlin, then the expert will be able to explain, with apparently unassailable logic, why a given development serves the interests of the “enemy of the human race” and how exactly such enemy caused the development in question.
- Like anyone else, an expert has a certain level of competence, and when pressed to make an assessment, will often find themselves out of their depth and simply hazard a guess.
- And all too often the “expert” will owe their status not to their professional expertise, but to certain other qualities. He may be a good talker, able to discourse fluently on any subject and an adept player of the age-old game of guessing what the boss wants to hear.
And then the phenomenon of a “competence crisis” – a general decline in standards affecting the quality of both experts and decision makers. During the Cold War the threat posed by the Eastern Bloc meant that the West had to have a highly skilled, highly responsible cadre of civil servants, intelligence agents and experts at its disposal. But once the West was no longer faced with a worthy adversary it started to rest on its laurels, which in turn triggered a number of undesirable processes, including a growth in bureaucracy (with work expanding to fill the time available, in accordance with Parkinson’s law) and a general fall in quality standards.
The “core skills” of a civil servant have changed – now career growth is rated more highly than professionalism. In general, the successful experts are not so much those who are able to solve problems, as those who can write an impressive report showing that the problem has been solved (or that the solution is in sight, but that more funding is needed, or that it has not been solved, but that is someone else’s fault). As a result a culture of irresponsibility will take root, with clearly unskilled persons being promoted to higher levels because they know how to work the system rather than because they are true professionals.
This transformation of an organization’s culture will be accompanied by a similar transformation in its experts. As many recent scandals, not least the WikiLeaks materials, have shown, serious specialists have largely been replaced by amateurs and all too often an ‘expert’ conducting research will just browse through stories in the tabloid press and abstracts of student papers (in fact, whatever materials he or she may find in a cursory 10 minute search before the deadline).
What is more, in certain fields the government may find that it has no experts available at all. This problem contributed to the partition of Korea in 1945, and it has reared its head more recently – for example the last US administration had very limited access to expert analysis, as most intellectuals despised Donald Trump and refused to have anything to do with him.
A simple example – reminiscent of the old saying that too many cooks spoil the broth – will serve to illustrate the effect that expert analysis can have on a problem. Imagine that, as you are reading this text, at a time when tensions between the US and North Korea are high and there is talk of a “missile crisis,” a hypothetical US President brings together a panel of experts to decide whether or not a preemptive disarming strike should be launched against North Korea. The President understands that this is a huge responsibility and that the stakes are high, and as a reasonable person he tries to bring together the most respected specialists with experience in the relevant field so that they can decide what the consequences of taking such a decision would be for the US.
But things get off to a bad start, because not everyone has turned up to the meeting. It turns out that one of the most senior specialists is out of the country, on vacation, and uncontactable, even by telephone, while another has declined the invitation because he does not agree with the President’s politics.
The meeting is opened by an expert who has worked closely with the President for years. He could almost be called a “court adviser.” He knows the President well, his success in his career has largely been due to his ability to read his boss’s mood. In fact, he is more of a psychologist than an expert in his field, and he is well aware that these kinds of discussions are normally most successful when the decision maker hears an opinion that supports his own viewpoint. His analysis of the situation therefore coincides almost entirely with the President’s.
The second expert is a representative of an organization engaged in strategic research, which has a clearly-defined political stance. The organization’s staff already have an opinion on how to deal with almost any issue that is put to them. This expert is not just a Conservative and a Protestant, he is also a senior member of his organization – which will be referred to here as the “Union of the Sword and Ploughshare for a Free North Korea.” For him the Kim dynasty and their regime are the embodiment of Evil – note the capital E here – and, presented with the opportunity to share his views, he sets out his organization’s position on the problem in a heartfelt and persuasive manner. In some respects his views are even more radical than those of the President. Naturally, he fails to mention certain inconvenient facts.
The third expert is a high-level specialist, but Korea is not her field. She therefore bases her conclusions on what she knows or has read – perhaps she has read mostly polemics critical of North Korea, written by South Korean Protestants or defectors from the North, or maybe she has read official North Korean propaganda packed with anachronistic and highly partisan rhetoric. And her reading has quite naturally led her to the conclusion that the North Korean regime is so oppressive that it must be overthrown at any cost.
The fourth expert is a high profile media pundit who can speak impressively on almost any subject, and has the typical qualities of a celebrity expert. Unfortunately these qualities do not include professionalism – in fact his standout talents are skill in speaking and an ability to communicate his message to his audience and impress them with its urgency. Naturally, he does not want to look a fool in front of the President, and in an attempt to impress him he takes the path of least resistance and offers three possible scenarios: things will turn out for the best, things will turn out badly, and things will stay much the same as they are. Then he hazards a guess about the relative likelihood of each of these scenarios, and it turns out that the chances of each outcome are pretty much the same. Since these three scenarios cover all the possible options, he has effectively safeguarded his reputation – whatever happens he will be remembered as the person who accurately predicted it. And then he is careful to point out that his conclusion is just his personal opinion. That way he is able to cover his back.
The fifth expert is the best informed and most objective person present, and his view is that, given the likely consequences, a military solution would not be a success. But he is also aware that the problem needs to be dealt with as soon as possible (after all, as time passes, North Korea’s military potential will continue to grow), and anyway, he cannot see any better solution. However, he does not want to be the one to come out with this pessimistic prediction, nor does he want to be responsible for the President’s decision. In an attempt to sweeten the bitter pill, he also presents three scenarios, but as he discusses them he makes it clear that in his view the most pessimistic one is the most likely.
The sixth expert does not agree with the President’s plan, and if he had been the first or second to speak he would have said so quite openly. But in view of what has already been said, he does not want to be the odd one out, nor does he want to lose the President’s ear in future. And since part of what he wanted to say has already been said, he simply agrees with the experts who have already spoken.
The seventh expert is also well aware of the potentially disastrous consequences of the President’s decision, but before opening his mouth he asks himself – am I exaggerating the risks, and will I look like an alarmist for no good reason, especially if I am the only one here to speak out? He therefore assents to the general opinion, adding that yes, there is a risk things may go badly, but on balance the probability is not that high, and the likelihood is that everything will be ok.
The eighth expert is a high-level specialist, but in a slightly different field. Yes, it’s a related field, but not quite the same, and he was invited to join this expert group as a replacement for someone else who could not make it. When asked for his opinion, he admits that it’s not really his area. But since he has to give a view on the issue at hand, and he does not want to admit he is not really qualified, he says that he agrees with speakers three and four, whose views he did, in fact, find the most persuasive.
And the ninth expert, who can see the way the wind is blowing, and who is more of a PR person than a specialist in this area, says: “As you can see, things could go a number of different ways, and no-one’s said outright that they think things will go badly. So I’d like to focus, not on the decision, but on who’s going to take it. Our nation admires bold and decisive leaders who do not shy away when duty calls. So naturally, it’s now up to our President to make this decision.”
The tenth expert is an opposition figure who accepted the invitation to join the group as it would give him the chance to tell the President what he thinks of him face to face. He is highly critical of the President’s decision, although in doing it is likely that he omits just as many facts as the first and second experts did. After the meeting he writes in his blog that he was criticized by the others for his stance, and that his voice – the only voice of reason in the meeting – was drowned out in the general chorus of approval for the President’s decision. But since his personal hostility to the President was obvious to everyone in the room, and he was the only one who opposed the decision openly, then most of those present felt that his opposition was actually a reason for supporting the decision.
So, the vast majority of the experts either supported a war, or at least did not oppose it. Let’s bomb North Korea!?
Note that each of the experts in the meeting was honest – none of them deliberately gave bad advice to trap a political rival into committing himself to a disastrous course of action so that he or she could then criticize them without fear of censure.
Of course, the whole of the above scenario is entirely fictional, but the decision-making processes it depicts occur much more often than we might think. The present author has deliberately exaggerated things and made the situation as dramatic as possible, but it illustrates an important reality: simply bringing together a group of experts is no guarantee of due care and impartiality when making a decision. And that reality is worth bearing in mind when trying to understand administrative processes in the modern world.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.