Halfwits in charge – not as bad as you think

Monday 15th January 2018



I was enjoying the luxury of a little holiday reading and turned to the local newspaper, the Cape Times. South Africa had been the cape of good hope for the so-called Dark Continent over ten years ago, but has now slipped into junk status under Jacob Zuma’s presidential governance of greed and ignorance.


Not that the thousands of happy tourists strolling through Cape Town’s beautiful Waterfront cared – they’d be back to their bleak European winters soon – which is just as well, since the Mother City they leave behind will have probably, incredibly, run out of water in a couple of months.

That particular drought of competence is a whole other story, but for the moment, the Cape Times’ musings were about presidential problems elsewhere – namely at Donald’s place.


The columnist was taking a New Year look at the rest of the world. His views on Trump contrasted with the usual – of course, he wrote, the man is an unpleasant bombastic bellower – but most politicians are loud, self promoting liars. Getting and controlling power is not a pleasant process.


And what about Trump’s foreign policy with the itchy and provocative finger on the nuclear button ? Well that , according to our Cape Times man, is more a fiction of Dr Strangelove than the real intricate diplomatic and technical process that has to be navigated before the big push.


So what ? Well I only registered the piece because it was such a change from the usual Facebook/Twitter Trump insult fest that we’re used to in Europe . The default anti-Trump mindset reminds me of the London ‘alternative’ comedy circuit in the eighties where the stand ups only had to say “Fatcher’ on stage to get a knee jerk laugh. And our resident pundits keep the theme going.


So let us take a look at punditry and opinion.


There have been a number of defectives in charge of the US in recent memory – Jimmy Carter, Lyndon B Johnson, but he who attracted the most opprobrium from the stripped pine,soi disant dining tables of North and West London was Ronald Reagan.


The former actor didn’t mince his lines. It was the Cold War. The US had more military in West Germany than the population of some of America’s larger states.. Reagan called the Soviets the ‘evil empire’ and political pundits and journalists were thrashing themselves and their audiences as to the wisdom of American foreign policy. The doves thought that the former actor was needlessly stirring up Soviet aggression. The hawks thought the opposite.


Who was right ? Well , in the course of a book I’m writing with the risk analyst Gerald Ashley, I was trawling “How we decide” by Jonah Lehrer .

It turns out that in 1984 an academic , one Philip Tetlock from the University of California, had parsed the punditry about Reagan and examined the opinions of the leading members of the commentariat.


They were all wrong. Mikhail Gorbachev eventually started a series of amazing internal reforms. The hawks still said that the evil empire was still evil – and that Gorbachev wasn’t a true reformer. Which he, then, of course was.


So, emboldened by this failure of fortelling , Prof Tetlock gave 284 similar opinion makers some more questions about the outcomes which fascinated people at that time in the late eighties – would George Bush be relected, would there be a peaceful end to apartheid in South Africa, would the dot com bubble burst ?


And to make matters more simple for the predictive classes, he gave a three tick box option for each question. He then interrogated the respondents about their ideas. That gave him 82,361 different predictions.


The eventual success rate of those deliberations showed that , according to the author , ‘ a dart throwing chimp would have beaten the vast majority of the professionals’.


I hold no torch for anyone – but I’d gently suggest that we should be wary of being prisoners of our own preconceptions.


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