Experts, fortuitously, are among our best friends when their knowledge steers us to safety. Tragically, the converse is also true: experts are among our worst enemies when their hubris leads us astray, or worse.
"The Next 100 Days," a policy summit hosted by The New Yorker earlier this month, sought to shed light on the near future of President Obama's administration. Assembled experts laid bare U.S. intellectual prowess in navigating a super-sized minefield of freakishly sensitive, potentially explosive issues -- from the economy and financial markets, to health, education, energy, and the environment, to defense and diplomacy. The best and the brightest included Esther Duflo, M.I.T. development economist; David Kilcullen, U.S. Army counterinsurgency adviser; Naomi Klein, syndicated columnist and author of The Shock Doctrine; Jeffrey Sachs, macroeconomist and author of The End of Poverty; and Nassim Taleb, derivatives trader and author of The Black Swan.
Bathing in the glow of leading intellectuals is curiously seductive. One is persuaded that amply funded experts could negate -- in masterstrokes devoid of unintended consequences -- financial sleight-of-hand, environmental degradation, unconscionable hunger and poverty, diplomatic fearfulness and mistrust, potentially irrevocable climatic instability, and ongoing nuclear proliferation.
Which appeared to be why Malcolm Gladwell, New Yorker staff writer and noted author, kicked off the proceedings with a sobering disquisition on how experts as historically diverse as James Cayne, disgraced former CEO of Bear Sterns, and the British planners of the Battle of Gallipoli, had succumbed to overconfidence, believing their predictive abilities and heralded strengths would allow them to control situations that proved so astoundingly complex as to be insoluble. It has been demonstrated, Gladwell emphasized, that many outsize failures result from neither incompetence nor flawed institutions. Rather, he concluded, instances abound where failure is "the [direct] consequence of experts acting like experts."
Segue to the experts. Taleb and Robert Schiller, a Yale economist, discussed and, at times, debated the U.S. economy's dire straights. Taleb predicted that, in the long run, the economy would get much worse. He insisted that most economists should be banished since common folk like taxi drivers weren't predisposed to flights of economic risk. (Shiller, for his part, expressed irritation with Taleb's certainty about uncertainty and unalloyed distaste for experts.) Klein said that Obama's economic plan favored private interests disproportionately. To wit, she reflected on her post-election "hopeover," which, she said, had been triggered by the Obama administration's "crony capitalist" economic measures that gave $11.5 trillion of taxpayer support primarily to financial institutions, while providing a Keynesian stimulus of only $800 billion for public benefit.
On world poverty and development economics, Sachs, whose reputation of inspiring hope precedes him, appeared to be in the throes of a hopeover himself. Voice frayed, he reported that over the past two decades, "We [the U.S.] abandoned all development aid, we abandoned the environment, we left everything to Wall Street." (Might Obama, I wonder, seen now as the ultimate exemplar of political hope, express such battle-weary realism years hence?)
On energy and the environment, Mary Anne Hitt, deputy director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, Dan Reicher, director of climate and energy initiatives at Google.org, and R. James Woolsey, Director of Central Intelligence under Clinton, formed a consensus opinion that carbon emissions would level off by the end of Obama's first term--cold comfort given the pressing need to forestall runaway climate change by stabilizing atmospheric CO2 concentrations at 350 ppm.
Most intriguing was the innovative Kilcullen, a former Australian Army officer, who, on behalf of the U.S. Army, has sat down with members of Pakistan's now-notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and famously helped to quell sectarian killings in Iraq. Interviewed by George Packer, New Yorker staff writer and author of The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq, Kilcullen said that Pakistani intelligence, confronted often by the U.S. about its illicit funding of the Taliban, is akin to a recalcitrant wife abuser. Mocking the Pakistanis' verbal shuffles, he quipped, "I can change, baby, I can change." His repartee provoked a spontaneous round of audience laughter (making it easier to imagine Kilcullen win over allies in Pakistan, Iraq, or virtually anyplace else).
I pondered my lingering unease with that crowd-pleasing interaction. Then, a day later, it pounced: the U.S. and its international allies, as Kilcullen readily admits, are without moral high ground. U.S. counterinsurgency tactics, responsible for torture, rendition, and Predator-drone sorties, continue to exact a high death toll among innocent civilians. Against this unfortunate reality, U.S. military leadership must seek to placate local populations and aggrieved interests that, quite predictably, retain a keen awareness of America's ability to inflict harm. Forcing essentially hamstrung U.S. diplomats and military officers in Iraqi and Afghan theaters to parrot the Pakistanis, to repeatedly maintain, "We can change, baby, we can change." This reality may establish practical limits on Kilcullen's anthropological approach to counterinsurgency, whose success depends on securing popular trust and cooperation.
Nevertheless, it seems our human nature leads us to insist on turning towards increasingly discrete, expert-dependent disciplines to save us from ourselves. Which is why this could be a good time, as Gladwell smartly hinted, to question our pretense of control. After all, every day, beneath our conscious awareness, the Earth spins around its axis and revolves around the Sun, while the biosphere in its every realm demonstrates that the whole is greater than the sum of its constituent parts. It may seem glib to say so, but given that we're simply a small part of that infinite complexity, it might serve us well to ask, hat in hand: What is it we believe we can control, exactly? And, equally, to what extent are experts -- and our own competence -- the frenemy in our midst?