Fleeting lessons

On the train (Paris, FR) © Natalia Martinez

The article that I am about to paraphrase and commet on is called “Where Do Bad Ideas Come From? And Why Don’t They Go Away?” by Stephen Walt in “Foreign Policy.” It’s more political than most of the things I ever post here, but I found it to be an incredibly interesting metaphor for looking at human thought. Although it expands to look at the behavior of governments and states, the learning impairments Walt discusses are versions of our own individual cognitive errors, and I found the overlaps between these tiers fascinating .

As a general rule, the italicized portions are direct citations from the article, and the purple segments are my commentary on them:

We would all like to think that humankind is getting smarter and wiser and that our past blunders won’t be repeated. But no. Those who think that humanity is making steady if fitful progress might point to the gradual spread of more representative forms of government, the largely successful campaign to eradicate slavery, the dramatic improvements in public health over the past two centuries, the broad consensus that market systems outperform centrally planned economies, or the growing recognition that action must be taken to address humanity’s impact on the environment. An optimist might also point to the gradual decline in global violence since the Cold War. In each case, one can plausibly argue that human welfare improved as new knowledge challenged and eventually overthrew popular dogmas, including cherished but wrongheaded ideas, from aristocracy to mercantilism, that had been around for centuries.

Yet this sadly turns out to be no universal law: There is no inexorable evolutionary march that replaces our bad, old ideas with smart, new ones. If anything, the story of the last few decades of international relations can just as easily be read as the maddening persistence of dubious thinking. Like crab grass and kudzu, misguided notions are frustratingly resilient, hard to stamp out no matter how much trouble they have caused in the past and no matter how many scholarly studies have undermined their basic claims.

We are not learning from our lessons, neither as individuals nor as states. Memories seem to be short-lived and oddly rejected. Although I am the first to realize that what I call the institutionalization of memory can be limiting and at times backwards no pun intended in future decision making and risk assessment, it is also what provides context for our experiences as individuals and nations. If  accurately remembered that the domino theory was wrong in fearing/predicting the spread of Communism after the US withdrawal from Vietnam,  would we be more hesitant to apply it now again when talking about the zone of influence of Islamic extremism? The article sums this up as followsWhy is it so hard for states to learn from history and, especially, from their own mistakes? And when they do learn, why are some of those lessons so easily forgotten? Moreover, why do discredited ideas come back into fashion when there is no good reason to resurrect them? Clearly, learning the right lessons — and remembering them over time — is a lot harder than it seems. But why?”

Apparently: (1) it’s hard to learn the ‘right’ lessons when problems are so complex and a variety of explanations for success and failure can always be found, (2) consensus is elusive, (3) new advances in technology or policy make it possible for old, unsuccessful models and strategies to be resurrected with optimism (only to fail again, usually more tragically than the firs time), (4)  failed practices or misguided ideas are often bound up in culture or ideology, and (5) we suffer from experiential amnesia – lessons are not passed on from one generation to the next and time distorts our perception of the past. Ironically, past success hinders the ability to adapt in that it makes powerful institutions/states/etc less afraid of mistakes; when you’ve already succeeded, it is less likely than a misadaptation or mistake will be fatal, so there is less incentive to learn and prevent it. In Walt’s words, “strong and wealthy states can keep misguided policies in place and still manage to limp along for many years.” In addition, closed, authoritarian, or centralized systems censor dissenting views, this stifling theaccountability and feedback mechanisms that give rulers a strong incentive to identify and correct mistakes in a timely manner.” These fallacies exist in democratic institutions as well, however. Bottom line: people seem to have a tendency to think they are right until proven wrong, and often dangerously after that.

The article agues that part of the solution is to not just make decisions out of habit or inertia. To not give ‘free passes’ to those in positions of authority simply because of their knowledge or experience. Ideas and strategies should be questioned, history should be analyzed and learned from, memories should be allowed to play the role of vocal backseat driver every once in a while, and dissent should not become charged with a lack of loyalty, or patriotism, or belief. In the end, there needs to be both accepted discourse about differences and accountability for decisions made. When a country’s foreign-policy elite is insulated from failure and hardly anyone is held accountable, it will be especially difficult to learn from the past and formulate wiser policies in the future.”


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