Monday, October 02, 2006

My Hindsight Bias

Listen to this:

Antiwar liberals last week got to savor the four most satisfying words in the English language: "I told you so."

This was after a declassified National Intelligence Estimate asserted that the war in Iraq was creating more terrorists than it was eliminating. For millions of people who opposed President Bush's mission in Iraq from the start, this was proof positive that they had been right all along. Yes, they told themselves, we saw this disaster coming.

Only . . . that isn't quite true.

One of the most systematic errors in human perception is what psychologists call hindsight bias -- the feeling, after an event happens, that we knew all along it was going to happen. Across a wide spectrum of issues, from politics to the vagaries of the stock market, experiments show that once people know something, they readily believe they knew it all along.

This is not to say that no one predicted the war in Iraq would go badly, or that the insurgency would last so long. Many did. But where people might once have called such scenarios possible, or even likely, many will now be certain that they had known for sure that this was the only possible outcome.

"Liberals' assertion that they 'knew all along' that the war in Iraq would go badly are guilty of the hindsight bias," agreed Hal Arkes, a psychologist at Ohio State University, who has studied the hindsight bias and how to overcome it. "This is not to say that they didn't always think that the war was a bad idea."

Right-o. I guess. Except that I have an advantage over most people in this hindsight bidness. The blog archives. So I dug through them to see when I first wrote a post on Iraq and what I said in it. And here it is, on April 1, 2004:

On Iraq

I have not written much about the war and occupation of Iraq, and I'm not going to begin now, but I'd like to explain (if only to myself) why it's a topic I don't address very much.

The main reason for my silence is that there's very little that's funny about wars, and I want to write about funny things. Only twisted and sick humor thrives in the conditions of war, and I find that I can't laught while reading about dead people, people who are now legless and armless, people who are now homeless. War is about death, death of people and animals, of ideas and of places.

Sometimes there's no alternative for wars, or the alternatives are worse than the wars. But I never believed this to be the case in Iraq, and I found the U.S. administration unable to make a good case for this particular war at this particular time. This war was perhaps planned for a long time by the people now ruling the U.S., but if so, the planning appears to have been extremely poor. Iraq is not being 'pacified' or 'made safe for democracy'. It is a chaotic place where the most violent and desperate will win unless the U.S. troop strength is considerably increased, and even then any solution we impose is just that, an imposed solution which will not live once left to its own resources. Maybe the U.S. intentions were not all about oil or world dominance. I don't know. But democracy can't be imposed from above, and trying to do so while killing lots of people isn't exactly endearing the locals to Western ideals.

My second reason for relative silence is in the extreme sadness I feel whenever I try to think about the future for Iraq. The only realistic scenarios I can imagine are Iraq as an American colony and Iraq as a radical fundamentalist country. Neither scenario is one that I'd like to live under, and I doubt that the colony model would win out in the long run. Thus, by intervening in Iraq we have pretty much guaranteed another place like Afghanistan under Taliban, some time in the future, and I don't like such a society at all; if for no other reason than that I believe men and women are of equal worth and should have the same rights. I can't envisage a secular democracy in a country as religious as Iraq, especially given the number of people who are armed and the total historic lack of any real practise in democracy. Even countries with much less challenging problems than the ones Iraqis face have great difficulty with democracy. Just think of Russia. Or even the U.S...

Finally, my fear is that the net effect of the war and occupation in Iraq is to increase the forces of international terrorists, not to somehow make the world safer. Maybe the terrorists are right now concentrating on Iraq, but new ones are being created by the news from there, and the terror will inevitably spread out over time.

There you have it: my excuses for not commenting much on these historic events. I sincerely and desperately wish that my predictions and views are all wrong. I'd like nothing better than to be proved completely mistaken here, and to find, soon, a democratic and peaceful Iraq, with thriving institutions and civil society. But then I'd like the tooth-fairy to exist, too.

Heh. I'm all smug right now. Except that my writing skills may have gone downhill in the last two years.