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Wednesday, December 31

Encore Performance: Pundita plays White Rabbit to a reader's Alice in Washington-land

A reader recommended that while I'm trying to decide whether to leave the blogosphere I should republish earlier Pundita posts and suggested the following one, from April 3, 2005, to get the ball rolling.

After I fiddled with the essay for re-posting I discovered that there is a very good reason I shouldn't follow the recommendation: I can't resist polishing the original, which defeats the purpose of a sabbatical.

Nevertheless, and with a reminder that the position of DNI wasn't created until years after the CIA analyst told the joke I reference, here I encore my role as Washington-land's White Rabbit:

The hallmark of science is not its ability to explain but its ability to predict (I mean prediction BEFORE something actually happens rather than the more common claiming to have predicted something AFTER it happens). How do so many people (particularly in foreign relations) whose predictions have been so poor hold onto their jobs?
Dave Schuler
The Glittering Eye"

Dear Dave:
Your remarks are very broad. But if you're referring to people whose job is to make predictions for the US government, you are misinformed. Such people are invariably right in their predictions.

I know that news will come as a shock so allow me to play your guide for a trip through Washington-land. Before we scamper down the hole let us hop back in time, so that the lay of the land in Washington, DC is more readily seen:

Say your job is to be the high priest, a job passed down from your uncle. Your major duty is to ensure a good harvest each year, which you accomplish by hurling 10 virgins off a cliff. It worked for your uncle, it worked for his uncle, and for 20 years it worked for you until the 21st harvest came a cropper.

Naturally you are hauled before the king, who demands an explanation about why the crops failed because his subjects are massed outside the gates and demanding an explanation.

Now tell Pundita what you would say. "I have no idea" would be the wrong answer if you want to hang onto your position not to mention your life. You have to come up with an explanation for the presumed anomaly.

Put another way, you haven't the foggiest idea why hurling virgins off a cliff worked to bring a good harvest and why it stopped working. And if you're a very smart high priest, you might have a hunch that one event has nothing to do with the other. However, with your life on the line, it would be the wrong time to take up lab-bench science.

To spare you the brain sweat I will quote from page 632 of the 11,465 page How to Survive your Job as High Priest: Book of Answers which provides an array of explanations for earlier science's failure to accurately predict events.
The crop failed because:

Blame it on the assistant
a) The virgins were too young.
b) The virgins were too old.
c) They hadn't been properly tested to ascertain that they were actually virgins.

(Note: Any answer from this menu calls for the immediate execution of the assistant.)

Blame it on the harvest god
a) The god is now demanding a doubling in the number of sacrificed virgins.
b) The god is in a bad mood.
c) The god was busy fighting a war with other gods and forgot about the harvest.

Blame it on the king's subjects
a) The people have not been showing proper respect to the harvest god.
b) The people have been fighting with each other, which angered the god.
c) The people became lazy and deceitful and didn't share enough harvest with the king's bounty collectors.

(Note: float this one only if the king is in good standing with the military.)

Different combinations of the above explanations should be enough to get you through another few years, until whatever's wrong with the harvest rights itself. If all else fails:

Blame it on the king
a) The king has started thinking he's more powerful than the harvest god.

CAUTION: Try this one only after consultation with courtiers and generals assures you that the king is next off the cliff anyhow.
From the above you can begin to intuit that I was not pulling your leg. Predicting how foreign relations will go is not a science but hanging onto your job in Washington is. Those who labor in government, think tanks and academia to make predictions for Congress and the White House can predict with 100% accuracy what will happen to their jobs or funding if their predictions are outlandishly wrong. Thus, they build myriad escape hatches into their predictions.

A favorite escape hatch is conveyed in a joke that a CIA policy analyst told Pundita years ago:

After World War Three broke out, the DCI and the top policy analyst at the CIA were hauled before POTUS and his defense advisors. The President picked up a CIA paper titled, How to Avoid World War Three, tossed it to the DCI and said angrily, "We read every page of this 832-page report. We took into account every prediction and followed every recommendation. Now you tell us what we did wrong."

The DCI tossed the report to the analyst and snapped, "Find what they did wrong."

The analyst thumbed through the report then replied, "They missed the recommendation in the third footnote on page 471."

The funniest part of the joke is that nobody in Washington except policy analysts and 3.5 Members of Congress actually reads a policy paper. They read a two syllable one-page summary of the paper, which does not contain footnotes. The policy analysts who write the paper know this because they also write the dumbed-down summary.

Therefore, while many predictions in a summary could be read wrongly, you would be hard pressed to find a prediction stated in a policy paper that is not qualified or completely contradicted somewhere else in the same paper.

Therefore, I can assure you that nobody who gets paid to make predictions about U.S. foreign policy is ever wrong.

If you find my explanation too frightening for words, look on the bright side: Since time immemorial the way things work in seats of power tends to favor the fleet of mind. Therefore, be assured that no matter how many governments crash against the rocks of outlandishly wrong policy predictions, human nature always emerges unscathed and ready for another whirl at explaining everything about the invisible -- which is what the future course of human events always is.
This entry is crossposted at RBO.
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