Desire Under the Skepticism

This is an interesting opinion piece from the New York Times yesterday. There are a great many like it out there – the point it makes is of such obvious relevance at the moment.

Our current dispute over the intelligence that led to the invasion of Iraq seems to be yet another illustration of this eternal principle: presidents and other decision makers usually get the intelligence they want. This doesn’t mean that intelligence reports should be ignored, but that they must be viewed with skepticism. And in my years in government service, I had the misfortune to see desire win out over skepticism too many times.

The intelligence they want, you see. The verb is important. It indicates a priority, and a distortion which follows from the priority. They want a particular intelligence, so that is what they get. It would be better if they could refrain from wanting any particular intelligence, so that they might have a better chance of getting intelligence that was not shaped by that want. So that desire would not win out over skepticism.

Those now trying to figure out what went wrong before the war in Iraq should bear in mind a simple truth: we are more likely to “know” what we want to know than what we don’t want to know. That human flaw is built into the very process of making intelligence estimates.

Yes. And into almost every other human thought process one can think of. It’s so very difficult to avoid. It’s so very pervasive, and natural, and knitted into the fabric of our mental operations, that most of the time we don’t even know we’re doing it. It just feels like the only possible way to think. I’m looking for X, so naturally, I’ll see and notice and remember the evidence for X, and since I’m not looking for Y, I’m not going to bother seeing and noticing and remembering the evidence for Y, am I. Why would I? That’s not what I’m doing right now.

And when we’re looking for our keys so don’t bother to notice all the other things we see in the process of looking, that’s not a big problem. But when we’re looking for WMD, or justice or equality or improved agriculture or a murderer, or a deity, things are not so simple. The first step is to be aware of the problem and how huge and pervasive it is; otherwise there is no hope of correcting it.

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