Disarmament Insight


Monday, 10 September 2007

Fooled by randomness?

One interesting and useful aspect of working in a think-tank like UNIDIR is that I often get the opportunity to talk with diplomats about their work and can sometimes observe them doing it. In return, diplomats can - and do - give feedback on the sorts of ideas and suggestions we can offer as researchers on the Disarmament as Humanitarian Action (DHA) project.

In multilateral diplomacy, like many other walks of life, there seems to be a bit of a generation gap or, perhaps more accurately, a "rank" gap. Younger, less-senior diplomats are fascinating to listen to in this regard, as their collective sense of the weaknesses of their institutional structures and ways of working, and problems with collective approaches is sometimes much more acute than the ambassadors. I imagine it may be because ambassadors are more sheltered from some of the less sexy drudgery of multilateral meetings and perhaps even feel they have more a stake in the traditions that characterize their "community of practice".

Whatever the reason, I had a productive time today talking with young officials on the United Nations Disarmament Fellows programme. (Well, young is relative - many are older than me.) These junior to mid-level diplomats come from a wide variety of countries from Pakistan to Switzerland to Fiji and bring with them a diverse range of outlooks.

Conscious that they've been lectured to a lot in recent weeks about the nuts-and-bolts of "disarmament machinery", I thought I'd take a different tack. Recently I began reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's remarkable book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, which I think should be required reading for every policy maker. (Taleb is also author of an earlier book, Fooled by Randomness.)

There's an old saying that what you don't know can't hurt you. It's quite a stupid expression really, since the things we don't know really can hurt us (think about the 1929 and 1987 stock-market crashes, which hurt plenty of people. Or the 2004 Asian tsunami).

Taleb argued in his book that the things that can hurt us most are the things we think we do know, but actually don't. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, if there are "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns", the problem is that some of the latter are unknown precisely because we think we know them but don't. Taleb noted that nobody, for instance, predicted the abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union's empire in 1989. Soviet-watchers were convinced the communist regime would remain in power for years longer, if not decades. The fall of the Berlin Wall surprised everyone.

Taleb's book was a useful entry point for exploring with these 20 or so younger diplomats two broad themes, drawing from a wide range of literature, the DHA project's research and this blog (type 'Thornton' into the search-box for some entries):

- Cognitive features hardwired into all human beings constrain the way in which we can perceive the world, and thus affect our decision making.

- A second problem is that the world isn't a smooth, linear narrative. That is, the world doesn't conform with our expectations, although we may fool ourselves into thinking so. That's because, as human beings, we have brains that are very good at re-shaping our expectations in hindsight without even realizing it, of confirming our beliefs without evidence, and intuitively leading us to the wrong answers when careful thought would serve us much better. We're not well-adapted to cope with complexity, which can be counter-intuitive.

It resulted in an interesting discussion and a good level of engagement. Perhaps the diplomats were just being polite, but I got the impression they regard these issues as real, and worthy of more attention in multilateral diplomacy than they currently get. They seem concerned that "business as usual" isn't working, and we need better ways of cooperating in the face of international uncertainty. I suspect Nassim Nicholas Taleb would agree.

John Borrie


Nassim Nicholas Taleb's web page is here.

Photo courtesy of Thomas Nash.