African narrative

The past week (really, the past 4 1/2 years), America has had a public debate over the war in Iraq. These numbers have been thrown against those numbers, raising the question "how do you know what you know?" This is a question various professors have asked in my classes again and again.

When Kenneth Pollack (now my professor) and Michael O'Hanlon wrote their op-ed in the New York Times, titled A War We Just Might Win (they did not choose the title), they were criticized for basing their claims off of a week-long tour of US military personnel and installations in Iraq, contextualized by an expertise in mostly conventional military operations. Glenn Greenwald, who I'd guess I share many political views with, is 110% convinced in his own righteousness in criticizing O'Hanlon for cherry-picking numbers (O'Hanlon's rebuttal largely rehashes his original points, showing how Greenwald and O'Hanlon are talking past each other).

When the seven soldiers from the 82nd Airborne wrote their op-ed, coming to opposite conclusions from Pollack and O'Hanlon, they were criticized because their knowledge was so immediate that they couldn't possibly see the larger picture.

Choosing objective measurable metrics, like Eli is trying to do, is a possible fix to this problem. But as he acknowledges, just because you can measure something doesn't mean it's valuable. The corollary to this is that just because something is valuable doesn't mean it's measurable. A further problem is just because a number matters today does not mean it will matter tomorrow - as Eli argues, the strategy has to drive the metrics. Strategies change over time, meaning metrics change over time. This leads to the possibility that the situation might be measurable today but not tomorrow. We are then back to square one. I disagreed with a lot of what LtC Gian Gentile said at this Heritage Foundation event, but he was right when he said that the best way to communicate the military/political situation in an insurgency is through narrative.

Recently Dan at TDAXP has frustrated me with his claims that the continent of Africa has sunk into an abyss of genocide, economic disaster and decay. His argument is that a Western recolonization of Africa is Africa's only hope.

I violently want to disagree with him - I think his data is either sketchy or irrelevant (why would Africans be too unintelligent to turn failed states into functioning states without foreign domination, but other failed societies self-corrected independently?) but I don't have the necessary data to back up my own claims (I actually don't think the data exists to prove or disprove it yet). Essentially my argument is similar to Nassim Nicholas Taleb's argument in The Black Swan - You think you know a lot and I think I know very little, but since in reality we both know very little, I'm ahead of you.

What touched off this rant was watching a video of Chris Abani's talk at TED titled "Learning the Stories of Africa." It's about the importance of narrative, and everybody should take 18 minutes of their time to go watch it.

5 comments:

A.E. said...

Kenneth Pollack is your professor? I wonder if he even reads blogs...

Adrian said...

I duno if he reads blogs, but I'm sure he doesn't read mine. He seems like a cool guy (only 2 classes so far).

This is the class I'm taking with him.

Dan tdaxp said...

Adrian,

Sorry for letting my reaction to your post fall through the cracks.

(why would Africans be too unintelligent to turn failed states into functioning states without foreign domination, but other failed societies self-corrected independently?)

African general intelligence scores tend to be two standard deviations below developed standards. It goes without saying that a lot varies between Africa and the Core, but I've explored some possible causes on the blog.

That said, not every developed country got to be that on on its own. The entire western hemisphere, for instance, escaped the genocide trap only after complete Eurpean colonization.

but I don't have the necessary data to back up my own claims (I actually don't think the data exists to prove or disprove it yet). Essentially my argument is similar to Nassim Nicholas Taleb's argument in The Black Swan - You think you know a lot and I think I know very little, but since in reality we both know very little, I'm ahead of you.

What are your claims?

Adrian said...

My claims are:

low intelligence scores on tests are, rather than reflecting any lower intelligence, probably reflect lack of formalized schooling that teaches people how to do well on tests and is irrelevant for the governance of that country,

those African states that are weak, are weak to a large degree because of conditions imposed on them by the international community - silly borders, colonial economies, idealistic norms of conduct, etc.,

further international intervention to try to "fix" them, like the "shrink the gap" idea, is likely to further exacerbate the problems. Instead we should try to allow states to form identities around them, even if its a messy process (as it was in the Core). Similar to Edward Luttwak's article "Give War a Chance" in Foreign Policy - don't try to intervene in a big way, we will probably just make things worse.

Adrian said...

I suppose I should have made that clear in the original post... but it was more of a rant than a prepared essay anyway.